Australian Year of the Farmer – time to support our industry which underpins the economy

February 27, 2012

Agriculture in Australia is a $155 billion a year industry that underpins over 12 per cent of our nation’s GDP, with the majority of that being exported. Of this about $640 million worth is produced in my electorate of Forrest. The industry directly employs 318,000 and also underpins the jobs of millions of Australians in food delivery and service. There are 136,000 farms throughout Australia that produce 93 per cent of the food we eat.

I take this opportunity to thank the farmers for their hard work in keeping our plates full of quality food whilst helping our economy. We know that it was the ag exports that kept Australia out of recession. It is important for this parliament to recognise the value of Australian farmers and food producers-something that the Labor government has repeatedly failed to do. Australian farmers have not been supported; in fact, they have been assaulted. I ask this government and this parliament: do we want to keep agriculture, food production and manufacturing strong in Australia or will we continue to allow it to be undermined and undersupported?

I understand the need to provide Australian families with high-quality, safe food and I understand the economic pressures on family budgets that mean families need that high-quality, safe food to be as affordable as possible. Australian farmers have a worldwide reputation for producing safe and high-quality food products. In the report on food safety entitled Food safety performance world ranking 2008, Australia was one of the top-five-performing OECD countries for food safety standards, all of which were rated as superior. Australian farmers are also amongst the most efficient in the world, quick to embrace new technology and improved farming practices.

As a farmer, I understand that Australian farmers can only continue in their business if they can achieve commercial returns that allow them to maintain their own families and businesses. Australian farmers have been subjected to a cycle of diminishing returns. According to the Western Australian department of agriculture, the broadacre region of WA averaged a rate of return to capital of around two per cent over the period 1989 to 2002-03. In comparison, the non-ag business world usually works on a minimum acceptable rate of return or hurdle rate of 12 per cent.

The number of Australian farming families on the equivalent of welfare incomes, despite working long and hard hours, is of significant and pressing concern for this parliament. And the number of Australian farming families with a negative income is a national disgrace. The reasons range from vertical integration, market concentration and market power to issues to do with the supply and value chains, all leading to poor returns on investment driving the current generation of farmers out of considering food production and keeping the next generation away.

We constantly get the government and the ACCC seeming to suggest that farmers have no right to make a profit. Farmers are the cannon fodder who become collateral damage in the supermarket war for profits and market share, with no support from either the ACCC or the government in this place. On top of this, Australian farmers have had to deal with the Labor Party’s dreadful mismanagement of the live export trade. The bungling of this government on the question of live exports to Indonesia has done great damage to our international reputation and great damage to the farm sector, particularly in Western Australia.

I commend the member for Maranoa for his motion and I really do want to congratulate and thank Australian farmers for the job they do. There are some people in this place who understand how hard you work, how well you do your job and what a great job you do in feeding our nation. I simply hope that in the Year of the Farmer this government might actually stop being a part of the problem faced by farmers and start acting to assist them.

In that time is left to me I want to mention that I am seriously concerned about the Public Health Association of Australia’s report suggesting it might be environmentally less wasteful of energy and water for some products such as dairy to be imported from New Zealand rather than produced locally. I am glad that Jock Laurie said that showed a lack of understanding and that Australian farmers are much more environmentally responsible, with a focus on water use, reduced carbon footprints and long-term sustainability. The PHAA fail to recognise this and, in my view, clearly have no respect at all for the job that our farmers do. I would say: shame on them.