Marino calls on government for a detailed agriculture research and development plan

Ms MARINO (Forrest—Opposition Whip) (21:19): Before I speak in depth about the International Fund for Agricultural Development Amendment Bill, I say that I was interested to hear the member for Fraser talking about Australia’s farmers.

I think it was the Labor government that shut down Land and Water Australia. Deputy Speaker Scott, you could probably help me with that. It was interesting to hear the member speak about Australian farmers; however, the government has repeatedly, in successive budgets, removed funding from the agriculture budget. Given that Australian farmers are leaders, they need to stay at the cutting edge. The government has not shown them respect through its budget decisions.

In speaking on this bill I acknowledge the contributions by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Curtin, and by the member for Berowra. I will not seek to repeat all that was said by those members, but I acknowledge their historic experience in this area, particularly in the previous government, and the very reasoned approach that the member for Berowra took on this issue.

As both of those members have said before me, we will not be supporting this bill. The deputy leader outlined in very great detail that we are committed not only to enhanced food security in developing nations but also to the very great need for prudence and due diligence in committing Australia’s foreign aid budget.

What we are discussing here is not whether we engage in supporting international food security efforts; it is how that support is delivered most effectively and with the greatest amount of accountability and how we deliver Australia’s aid. What is the appropriate use of Australian taxpayers’ foreign aid funds, and will it actually make a difference on the ground?

This is a question that IFAD needs to answer about the use of these Australian funds: is it actually making a difference on the ground? That is the sort of assurance, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, that you and I are seeking in the allocation of Australia’s foreign aid budget, particularly on food security.

We understand very well how important food security is. IFAD has failed to address the reasons for Australia’s withdrawing from the fund in 2004, so more work is certainly needed there.

We have heard that the decision to withdraw from the fund was supported, I think quite tellingly, by the then Deputy Director General of AusAID. He supported it; we know that the review of Australia’s engagement with IFAD in 2011 was backed by the Deputy General’s assessment.

As recently as October 2012, AusAID officials could not assure committee members that IFAD had addressed all of the issues identified in 2004. We were in no better position to evaluate its expenditure, which included human resources and financial management.

These are extremely critical issues when you are allocating $126 million of Australian taxpayers’ funds. You would have thought that financial management and the effectiveness of the program would have been two critical areas to consider. You would have thought, too, that the government itself would have been concerned by the 2011 desktop analysis of IFAD.

It found that IFAD was benchmarked worse than its peers for some aspects of financial management and administration. They are the same issues of financial management and administration as before. I think Australian taxpayers would, rightly, be very concerned about both of these issues.

Issues about IFAD’s high administration costs and the need to improve its project efficiency were also raised in a UK review.

Why is the Australian government, which is responsible for directing these funds to IFAD, not concerned that, since Australia’s withdrawal from IFAD, the number of allegations of fraud and corruption received by IFAD’s Office of Audit and Oversight has increased from five in 2004 to 41 in 2011? I do not think it is an issue that we should be taking lightly.

The Australian government should be treating this far more seriously than it is. We are not talking about a small amount of money; it is not a small amount of foreign aid. We are talking about $126.4 million of taxpayers’ funds over four years. We heard the member for Curtin speaking about the fact that this is more than the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany are committing to this program.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade reviewed this issue, and the coalition members of this committee, in their dissenting report, noted AusAID’s lack of awareness of the fraud and the corruption relating to IFAD. AusAID’s lack of awareness should concern government and taxpayers in general.

What bothers me is that the government, in presenting the bill, does not appear to be concerned about the fraud and corruption either. This raises some very serious questions for members on this side of the House.

The coalition certainly understands the need for a well-managed international response to food security in developing countries. That is not the issue. As I said earlier, the issue is how we deliver Australia’s aid, what the appropriate use of taxpayers’ funds is and whether those funds will actually make a difference on the ground, where they are to be expended.

All of us in this place know that, when we were young, we were taught that the basics of life were essentially food, clothing and shelter.

This probably seems a bit simplistic in today’s world. I think if you spoke to a number of young people of the current generation they would probably consider their mobile phone and perhaps internet access and a range of other appliances to be their priorities. But much of the world, as we know, continues to be short of the very basics of life.

The funding mechanism for IFAD was a commitment of US$6 billion from the establishment of the fund in 1977 to this year. Nations from around the world have contributed payments in eight tranches, and $5.7 billion will be delivered in August this year. The next call, the ninth tranche of payments—referred to as the ninth replenishment—is an additional US$1billion.

I assume that the Australian contribution being requested through this bill will be part of that ninth replenishment. Mr Deputy Speaker, Australia, as you know, was a founding member of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in 1977 and it remained in the scheme until 2004, when very serious questions and issues were raised about the scheme’s effectiveness.

The coalition believes that hard-edged evaluation and accountability are still missing in the scheme but are definitely very essential. We do have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that the parliament makes the best use of Australia’s foreign aid dollars.

We know that there are various reasons for food security challenges around the world. In some countries, it can be a result of corruption; it can be a result of a lack of governance.

In some cases, it is not an agricultural problem, but in other cases it is. In some instances, it is about drought and long-term issues with the local climate. However, often they are issues that are put in the too-hard basket. The primary requirement for food security in some countries is not necessarily oil or water but competent and open government; in others, it is a lack of sufficient natural resources to produce adequate food for their local population.

As I said at the outset, we are not arguing, certainly, about the need for enhanced foreign aid to deal with international food security issues in developing nations.

What we are talking about is how this aid is delivered and whether, in effect, we are making the most appropriate use of taxpayers’ funds in our foreign aid budget.

Debate interrupted.

Ms MARINO (Forrest—Opposition Whip) (09:30): I want to continue my remarks on the International Fund for Agricultural Development and to refer to the comments of Labor members who spoke previously in this debate.

They made some significant comments about Australian farmers in particular and the contribution that they make and will continue to make to international food security. I find this really quite contradictory.

When you look at the Labor government’s record with agriculture, there was no agricultural policy at the last election. You would have thought that, for Australian farmers to be able to continue to provide expertise and knowledge to the international community, at least the Labor government would have had a comprehensive agricultural policy at the last election.

But the Labor government, in its lack of wisdom, has cut funding to agriculture to the tune of at least $1.7 billion, from $3.8 billion, since 2007.

One of the things I referred to when I first started speaking on this bill was the fact that Labor abolished Land and Water Australia, one of the key agencies that was in place to manage and research issues in relation to the simple aspects of land and water management.

Of course, that is where part of the research comes from, and where the work comes from, to pass on to international communities in relation to food security. Yet $63 million was cut out of this CSIRO research, as well as $12 million from rural research and development corporations.

So it is simply contradictory to hear Labor speakers talking about the wonderful contribution that Australian farmers can and will make to international food security efforts. Where is the government on this issue?

These are contradictory statements. In fact, the 2011-12 budget cut $32.8 million from the department’s already strained resources, with a further $33.4 million cut from cooperative research centres, or CRCs. That simply means that fewer agricultural CRCs are funded each year.

Where is the research for the future going to come from that the previous speakers have said is so important to the international community, to entities like IFAD and others, to assist with managing the challenge of global food security issues?

I challenge the members who have already spoken on this, and the members to come, on the Labor side to actually detail the ongoing support for research and development in Australian agriculture and the farmers’ efforts.

They are among the best in the world; there is no question. Our farmers are widely respected, but, again, this requires continuing research and development funding that is matched by industry, particularly, to enable this to happen. But we have seen nothing but cuts.

So I was really confounded when I read and listened to the comments made by members on the opposite side. When we look at biosecurity, another key area, we see that millions of dollars have been cut from biosecurity.

I am a member of the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts, which has been conducting an inquiry into biodiversity.

I say to the government that, frequently, those who submitted to the inquiry said, ‘What a massive loss that Land and Water Australia has been.’

In any efforts to assist Australian farmers in managing the challenges that this country presents—and our farmers are still some of the most efficient and most productive in the world—and in our efforts through this bill, our contribution is our expertise to agencies and other countries in dealing with global food security, a problem that will get worse. We are expecting our farmers to produce more efficiently from less water, less land and less fertiliser.

These are the sorts of demands that are made, and yet the Labor government is cutting the budget for these particular research efforts. So the comments that have been made by others to this debate are contradictory.

I say in relation to this bill: it certainly does not provide the assurance that the Australian public demands for the expenditure of $126 million.