Local, Independant and Effective

Agriculture key to growing Indi's future

Posted February 24, 2016


CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (10:14): I would also like to congratulate and acknowledge that lovely speech by the member for Forrest—well said! In speaking to this Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016 I would like to take the opportunity to talk about the great success that is the dairy industry in my electorate of north-east Victoria, and I would also like to take the opportunity to report on some of the actions that I have been able to do in the 2½ years I have been the member for Indi.

There has never been a better time to live in north-east Victoria and to be involved in agriculture. Our future is bright, with new trade opportunities, excellent water and rain supply readily available, access to skills and training through La Trobe and CSU universities, excellent TAFE services and great high schools in Tallangatta, Rutherglen, FCJ College in Benalla and Mansfield, all offering wonderful courses to young people. Agriculture in Indi is ready for the next really big transition. Our farmers and businesses are already leading the way.

In my electorate of Indi, ag is worth over $600 million per year. It is the fifth-largest employer, with over 5,000 businesses across eight local government areas, and food based manufacturing that value-adds to our produce employs over 2,200 people.

I have been very proud to represent the diversity of the agricultural businesses in my electorate for the last 2½ years. In this time I have been an active member of the agricultural standing committee. We have undertaken and are still doing an inquiry into what we need to do in the future to make agriculture more innovative and to help us keep that cutting edge. I had great pleasure in taking the committee to Wodonga in north-east Victoria earlier this month and also on tours up to the dairy industry in the Kiewa and Mitta valleys.

I have had the privilege of representing the chestnut industry in its efforts to get a levy for the industry and to work with Horticulture Innovation Australia. I am really pleased at the success there. And there are other, smaller industries that I have been able to work with as Horticulture Innovation Australia does its organisational transfer work.

I have been absolutely delighted to represent many constituents, particularly those concerned about animal welfare issues—from animal welfare, to live exports to halal—to take their issues to Canberra and to be a strong voice for them. I have been a participant in, and have encouraged many of my communities to be involved in, the Senate inquiries that have taken place. And I was very pleased to be part of the process of making sure that the voices of Indi came right to Canberra. I have arranged deputations for farmers and farming businesses to come to Canberra, to meet the relevant departmental staff and ministers.

I have supported legislation in this House right across the spectrum, but I have been particularly pleased to support the private member's legislation calling for the legalisation of industrial hemp for human consumption. This legislation is still on the table. It is a really important issue and I hope that it gets addressed before we go to the election.

I have lobbied fiercely for regional provision of higher education, particularly for agriculture, and to make sure that we have centres of excellence in the country—not just the big eight in the city. I have supported continual funding for CSIRO's research—particularly for one of my all-time favourites, which is the dung beetle project. Across summer, as we were having our barbecues, many of us noticed that there have been no flies this season. One of the reasons for why there have been no flies and that we have been able to eat outside is because of the fantastic work of the dung beetle. Sadly, that research has been curtailed, but it is one of those really important issues where the community comes to their local member and they can then bring it to Canberra.

I have been really pleased to make representations to and get support from the Minister for Health for continued funding for the National Centre for Farmer Health. I am delighted that centre is now up and running again. I have been a great supporter of the Murrindindi Shire, and was delighted that they were able to get funding to revamp the Yea Saleyards. I have represented farmer concerns, particularly concerning the constraints management strategy—part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—and the impact this is going to have on farmers in the upper Goulburn. I have brought farmers to Canberra, getting their voices heard, and lobbied the government. I think we have done some really good work on that one.

I have been able to support local food manufacturers, particularly in their lobbying around cross-border issues related to training. I have met with many delegations and have been happy to bring them to Canberra. One of the ones that I have been most proud to support was by hosting a deputation of members of Australian Women in Agriculture as they came on their regular lobbying trip to Canberra. It has been great to see them here. That process has been going on now for well on 15 or closer to 20 years. Women from Australian Women in Agriculture come from right across Australia with their issues, and they bring the voice of agriculture—particularly women's voices—to this parliament.

In the electorate it has also been a very busy time. We have established a water advisory group; we have had forums on food manufacturing; we have supported agricultural education, particularly encouraging young people to go to university or to TAFE to get the skills they need; and we have hosted the Australian Farming Forum at Wodonga, together with TAFE and major industries—a terrific turn out. I was delighted to welcome my parliamentary colleagues, Bob Katter and Senator John Madigan to that event. And we have had CSIRO come to talk to local farmers about their research and opportunities for much closer collaboration between those on the ground and CSIRO.

But perhaps the biggest achievement of my time in this parliament has been getting the 40 NBN wireless towers and the 30 mobile phone towers, because all of us know that if we do not have really good, strong, effective, reliable and affordable communication the business of agriculture just cannot proceed. So I am really pleased that we are actually now at the cutting edge of where we need to be for the future of my area.

In that case, I would now particularly like to address my remarks to the importance of the dairy industry. It has played a major role and is doing some absolutely fundamental work to take all of agriculture to the next century, particularly in the Kiewa and Mitta valleys. In this House at other times I have spoken about the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project, but today I would particularly like to talk about the work they are doing on succession planning and acknowledge the work of Patten Bridge and the pathways team in this regard.

In 2011, ABS census data showed that over 60 per cent of dairy farmers, owners and managers were aged over 50 years, making it the oldest farming cohort in Australia. So we have families who have been in the community for a long time, getting older and thinking, 'What am I going to do with my dairy farm?' As part of this Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project, the community undertook a study to see what was actually happening and what we needed to do to unlock the barriers that farmers were facing, because as farming families got older they would move out of dairying—perhaps they would move into beef—and the amount of milk coming out of our valleys was decreasing. This has an impact on our production facilities—particularly at Tangambalanga—and, eventually, if we do not have the milk coming then we do not have the industry.

So this research project was really important. It looked at farm succession planning, what was currently happening, what the barriers were and what we needed to do.

Clearly, it is a very complex process of passing the farm from one generation to another to bring new, young players into the industry.

One of the issues that the survey shows is that it is a really hard topic to get people to talk about. It is emotional, it involves money, it involves land, it involves relationships and it involves intergenerational communication, so it is really hard to get the topic even talked about as well as being a hard topic to address. They found that there was not much documentation. Some of the farming businesses had in their head the plans for what they were intending to do but did not necessarily put it on paper, talk to their accountant, talk to the farm adviser or, really importantly, talk to their children. They found that, while professional help is available—we have good lawyers, solicitors, accountants and mediators—it is often not used. There is a huge opportunity to introduce these professional accountants to the farming community and explain how the process works.

And of course timing is critical. If you leave your farm succession planning too late, it just might be too late. Do it while you are well, healthy and have a next generation interested and able to do it. It takes time. You cannot just do it overnight. Often it takes years to get all your ducks lined up so you can do what you need to do.

The Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project set about talking to people and working out what was currently happening. They designed and trialled a practical intervention and they now have plans to engage professionals. The conclusions they reached were that we really need to understand much better the impact that failing to do succession planning is having on agriculture—not only on the dairy industry but all of agriculture—with the blockage it is causing in our ability to move on and absolutely be more innovative.

We need to improve the agricultural education system and particularly interaction with new technology: using our mobile phones and our internet to bring that enormous capacity to our farms so that we can really get the cost savings and the benefit we can through that new technology. But we need the education to do it. We need direct intervention with farming families and teams of people to go work with families and help them through this process. The study showed that fewer than 25 per cent of farming businesses had a clear direction for the future but over 73 per cent were really interested.

I am committed to continuing to work with the dairy industry and the other agriculturals in Indi to bring about the potential we have got for major increases in productivity, production and, importantly, profitability. To the beef, the prime lambs, the wool, the horticulture, the wheat and grains, the oilseed, the nurseries, the flower farmers, the fishing, the turf, the wine growers, the honey, the hops, the grass seeds, the berries, the mustards, the alpacas, the horse breeders and all the other agriculture industries in Indi: know that you have got a champion with me. I know the industries, I know the circumstances and I know what we need to do to absolutely make Indi one of the most productive, profitable and wonderful places to do agriculture in the whole of Australia.

I will make a couple of comments about the legislation before the House. This proposed bill is a really interesting one for me because in my prior life I was actively involved in the dairy industry and this whole conversation about levies and how they work. I have a little note of warning to my colleagues in the dairy industry: be careful what you wish for. The proposal to remove the requirement to have a dairy poll, which is what this legislation does, will actually take away the requirement. In its place, rather than having to do it every five years—and let me say wool does it every year, so five years is not a big ask—the industry has suggested that we set up a consultative committee. I have not got the details of how that consultative committee is going to be set up but I do hope it has good gender balance as well as age balance on it. This advisory committee is actually going to provide advice on the levy. So let's just check how that is set up and how you get elected to that—or do you get nominated?

Then there is a fallback position where, if 15 per cent of the group-A levy payers decide they do not like it, they can actually call on a levy poll. The major advantage—and I think we have to be really careful with this—we see is that we are going to reduce red tape and make it easier and quicker, but the whole reason for having this poll every five years was to have a direct connection between the people who pay the levy and the people who spend our money. This legislation is removing that direct connection. We are putting a third party in place. If I know anything about agriculture, I know that, when you have got a direct connection and the people who spend my money have to tell me how they are spending it, they have to come to my community, they have to justify it, they have to have the meeting and they have to argue the case, then they are much more considerate about how they spend my hard earned dollars.

I say to the dairy industry: in getting rid of the levy or changing the arrangements, pay particular attention. We in the wool industry, the beef industry, horticulture and the other industries that pay prize our ability to have regular polls and to set how much our levy would be.

In closing, I am going to support the legislation because it has come from the industry and I am a great believer in representing the industry and doing what it needs to do, but I say to my constituents: keep an eye on it. If you think the industry is not doing what it needs to do, I am very happy to pay some attention to it.

I say to my dairy industry colleagues and to my friends in the agriculture industries: I remain committed to working for you. I am absolutely dedicated to being the voice of agriculture, agribusiness and manufacturing in north-east Victoria. To the families, to the businesses, to the students, to the educators, to the service industries, to the stock and station agents, to the truckers, to the saleyard attendants: it has indeed been an absolute privilege to be your representative in parliament, and I look forward to seeking your support at the coming election.

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