Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection)Levies Bill 2024, Agriculture (BiosecurityProtection) Charges Bill 2024,Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection)Levies and Charges Collection Bill 2024

I rise to speak on the Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Levies Bill 2024. For the benefit of those opposite, I’m actually a proud dairy farmer myself, so I take this issue very seriously. Let’s be really frank here: this is just another Labor government tax. It’s either another direct tax on farmers or it’s a tax on fresh food, as the member has just spoken about. It’s cost-shifting by the government.

If we look at it, farmers are already paying $500 million a year in various levies—they already pay that amount of money. For those who have no experience in farming: my husband and I bought our first dairy farm property on the day we got married. In those days we bought a rundown old property—it was all we could afford and we had a massive debt. Our interest and payments were $1,300 a month and in those days you struggled to make $2,000. We had to do all that work ourselves, to build up the property and even to stay in farming. That’s how tough it was. So we actually do need governments which support us. Young people who want to get into this industry need the support of a good government which says: ‘We value and respect those of you who produce some of the best food and fibre in the world. No question’

But this fresh food tax is where farmers will have no choice but to pass on that additional $50 million every year that they’re going to cop on this one. It’s a recurring cost either to farmers or consumers, because this tax adds to the cost of production. That’s how it is on your farm. I don’t know what those opposite think life on a farm is like, but it’s really hard work. I got a message very early this morning from my son, who was on his way to get the cows. It’s hard work; we milk 365 days of the year. We can look at the increased costs that farmers have had to absorb into their businesses recently—much of that because of the decisions of this government. Put electricity on the table to start with: you might have to cool thousands of litres of milk and then the government adds another tax on top of that. It’s as if every cent doesn’t matter; in our business, every cent matters. So if we don’t pay it as farmers, the consumer is going to pay it at the checkout—and those costs will be passed on at the time of a cost-of-living crisis. It’s a very smart move!

Alternatively, the $50 million annual and recurring additional tax will have to be borne by individual farmers when either the supermarket or the buyer of their product doesn’t actually pass that cost back to the farmer themselves. This also probably shows the lack of understanding of the agricultural supply and value chains demonstrated by the Office of Impact Analysis. It said that the tax would not impact on producers because the cost would be passed through to consumers.

So it’s either a fresh food tax on consumers or the farmers have to pay. But, as far as the Office of Impact Analysis, when was the last time any of them tried to negotiate an increase in price from Coles, Woolies or other buyers for a perishable product, like milk, that has to be produced, processed, sold and consumed pretty well immediately? You are in a very vulnerable position as a producer of that product. And what happens when the processor has signed a multiyear contract with one of these and the new government, the Labor government, is simply adding yet another tax and cost to that production and processing cost? Will the supermarket pass the costs on to consumers or refuse to negotiate with the processors or those with direct contracts in relation to these additional costs?

We know that milk production across Australia has actually fallen, and it is a critical product. The Standing Committee on Agriculture in November 2023 actually recommended that the Australian government, as part of the National Food Plan, develop a specific strategy for reinvigorating the Australian dairy industry, one which lifts profitability and production while addressing the economic and environmental sustainability of the industry and identifies the resources and pathways required to achieve this. What we don’t need is more taxes. A funny thing—the report didn’t refer to the increased taxes on farmers now being proposed by the government. Often they have very finite margins.

However, the government will definitely contribute to further decreasing milk production through its 450 gigs of buybacks from the farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin. Milk manufacturers came to see me last year and said, ‘We are really concerned about the lack of throughput and whether we can remain viable.’ But clearly the government has no understanding of any of these realities or the impact on the farmers themselves. I can tell you what I see here. This is just Labor’s latest attack on our farmers and another example of what I see as just the absolute contempt that they have for us as farmers, the men and women who are producing some of the best food and fibre in the world. What I see in this is just sheer contempt. Why otherwise would any Australian government tax their own farmers to pay for the biosecurity risk created by international competitors just to bring their products into this country? They are saying, ‘You farmers pay.’ That is just utter contempt. There’s no other word for that.

Effectively what the government is saying means that we farmers, working our hearts out on the farm, are subsidising our competitors to compete against us in our Australian markets. Well, that’s a great government initiative! What a contemptuous thing to come up with. Can you imagine? I thought, ‘What would that discussion have been like around the cabinet table?’ I wonder how many farmers were around that table. Minister Watt would have maybe said: ‘I’ve got a great idea. Let’s increase taxes on our Australian farmers to pay for the biosecurity risks created by their overseas competitors.’ Obviously those around the table said: ‘That’s a genius idea. Let’s make our farmers less competitive.’ This is just saying, ‘Let’s tax our farmers to subsidise overseas farmers.’ What a great idea!

Our farmers already operate in a high-cost-of-production environment made even worse by Labor’s increased costs of energy, increased shortage of workers and overwhelming red and green tape. The list is endless. But I suspect this is just the next step the Labor government will actually use to get rid of more farmers by default after shutting down the live sheep exports and putting sheep producers and associated small businesses out of business. I was at Wagin Woolorama last week. You want to walk a mile in those communities where those farmers and those business people are already in great distress. Some of them I could see already have mental health problems.

Perhaps the government see this as a way of reducing emissions by default and freeing up more productive agriculture and food-producing land for wind, solar and transmission lines. After all, the government is supporting the NHMRC’s attack on the consumption of red meat, and here I actually thought the National Health and Medical Research Council’s purpose was to develop and support high-quality guidelines for clinical practice and public health, not to attack farmers and food production in Australia. Perhaps the NHMRC and others think there’s a better impact on the environment from shipping beef and meat into Australia from overseas rather than consuming local, high-quality—the best—meat produced here in Australia.

Perhaps the NHMRC doesn’t support the health benefits of a typical 150-gram serving of great Australian beef that actually contains 12 essential nutrients recommended for good health and is a great source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B. That’s not a bad outcome, but that’s just another example of a government that does not respect and value our Australian farmers but literally shows contempt for them. To every farmer out there today who is working their heart out: thank you for the food you produce; it’s some of the best and highest quality food in the world. I don’t want to see you face even more costs because of this government.

There is a lot missing from the bill before the House. Who is going to pay? How much will each one pay? Who are those certain producers mentioned in the legislation? The government is clearly ignoring the levies already being paid—that $500 million already being paid by farmers annually towards biosecurity, research, innovation and development. We are carrying our own weight. How’s the government going to collect the tax from industries that currently do not even contribute to the existing industry imposed ag levy system? Good luck with that one! How much of the $50 million raised every year will actually go to the new levy or tax collection agencies and bodies you will need to do this?

Even more importantly, Labor clearly sees this tax as a revenue raiser; it’s just going into consolidated revenue. We hear about a new body, but who knows exactly where and how the Labor government will actually spend this. It may not necessarily go into managing biosecurity at all. But I’ve got a good suggestion. Perhaps the Labor government could use it to better protect our northern borders, where, recently, boatloads of asylum seekers came ashore. They came from Indonesia, where two major threats to the Australian livestock industry exist: foot-and-mouth disease and lumpy skin disease. Yet these people are walking into the Top End of Australia, putting at risk at least $31 billion in production value—what about that very live biosecurity risk?

Australian farmers feed up to 75 million people, here and overseas, with really great quality food. We’re constantly under pressure with layer upon layer of red tape. The pressure is on us in business, just to survive. One of my local dairy farmers said to me: ‘We lived through the enormous pressure of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, and now we’re facing the Nature Positive Plan. We don’t know what’s in that for us, as farmers, either, but it is going to add more pressure to our businesses and ourselves.’ This farmer said to me that he produces milk that feeds 60,000 people a year. He said, ‘Nola, wouldn’t it be great if someone just said thank you and let me get on with it?’ That’s what I’d say to this government: don’t add further cost to the very good people who get up at all hours of the morning and work their hearts out to provide Australians, and people overseas, with some of the best quality food and fibre in the world. Do not treat these people with contempt. Show some respect and value what they do, because if there are shortages of nutritious food then there will be a massive challenge for the government of the day.

In Western Australia, we only have just over 100 dairy farmers left to produce great quality fresh milk. What we don’t need is the next tax—and what I see as a lack of respect for what we do in applying this tax in the first place. How many other countries that we export to charge their local farmers for biosecurity measures from the products that we export into those countries? How many other governments actually do that to their farmers? But that is what we’ve got here: a government that says, ‘We’re going to tax you farmers to pay for the risk created by those people who are going to put those other products’—I’ll use dairy again; there’s a lot product that come from overseas—’on our shelves.’ They compete with our products every day.

What this government is doing is saying: ‘Too bad, so sad. You not only have to compete with them on the shelf; you also have to pay for the biosecurity risk that they pose to this country.’ This takes some real beating, doesn’t it? It just confounds you to think that a government would show this level of disrespect and contempt for its farmers.

As a very proud dairy farmer, but one who had to start out on a very steep learning curve, I would say this to every member of parliament and everyone who hasn’t been on a farm or lived our life or worked their heart out and looked after the environment, as we do, and produced some of the best quality food and fibre, in a country where we haven’t lived through the ravages that some of the Europeans did during World War II, when they were desperately hungry. In this country we make sure that Australians, as much as they can afford, have access to great food, and we do it day in and day out. All we ask for is a little bit of respect for the job that we do, and we don’t need a government doing what we’ve seen today.