Local, Independant and Effective

Dairy industry needs policy to transition from crisis to growth

Posted March 24, 2017


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (12:31): I appreciate the opportunity to speak the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2017, and I acknowledge the comments of the member for Murray and the member for Hunter. I say to the minister: thank you for what you have done, but it is not nearly enough. I pick up the point that the member for Murray made about Senator McKenzie's visit. It is true; it is absolutely true that the senator came to Indi, to Murray, to Gippsland and to Corangamite. She did listen, that is true; however, where we have a massive failure is with the action taken from the listening. It is really fantastic the government comes and listens, but if it fails to take action on what our farmers are saying it is for nought. I have Senator McKenzie's report here, which I acknowledge. There are nine recommendations and areas for action; however, in this particular piece of legislation—which is great to see—before the House only two get addressed. So there is a long, long way to go. I have to say to the minister: consultation is important, but if you fail to act you lose the trust of the people you have been consulting with.

Let us leave that aside, because part of the discussion I want to have today is about the fact the crisis has not gone away and there is still a lot to be done. I am really pleased that the member for Murray acknowledges that the government sees there is a crisis. That is good. The second thing I would like to talk about in my speech today is what is happening in northeast Victoria with a fantastic, innovative, local grassroots model of how communities are getting together to actually take action on their behalf.

But first I need to talk about some of the indicators that the crisis has not gone away, that we are not debating in isolation here. In my own area, the charitable donations and money in terms of food vouchers—$45,000—is almost gone. There is nothing left in the local kitty to give out to farmers. There are a number of reasons for this. Farmers are either not getting farm household allowance, which the member for Hunter talked about, or, if they do get the allowance, for many of them it is very, very low. Businesses in the area are also struggling: they are not getting paid because the dairy farmers cannot pay their bills. There is a lot of financial pain and there are mental health issues, and increasingly people are not in a fit state to make good business decisions. There is underlying anger; people are in shock and they are struggling. There is a whole lot of evidence that it has not gone away. There are real problems that were identified in Senator McKenzie's good report and the government needs to take action urgently on it. That report is before the House; it does not need any more words from me.

I would now like to particularly focus my comments on some of the fantastic work that is happening in northeast Victoria. At this point I would like to acknowledge some of the members in the public gallery today. It is great to have you here. Thanks for making the effort to come to Canberra. What I want to talk about is northeast Victoria and the Alpine Valleys. The Alpine Valleys are the Kiewa Valley, the Mitta Valley and the Murray Valley, and a bit of the Ovens and King valleys. This community have got together and they have formed a grassroots community group called the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project. They have done some really strategic thinking about global impacts on dairying and how they can work locally. I am very proud to be their representative and to bring to the House a model of how we can manage and work with the crisis we are facing, and I call on the government to see, in partnership with this community group, if we can replicate it in other areas of the dairy industry and agricultural industries. This model has got huge potential to get grassroots communities, local government authorities, state governments and industry to all work together. I am a really big advocate for that and I would like to bring it to the attention of the minister at the table, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, and say: can we think about how this model can be duplicated in other communities?

In acknowledging the work of this committee, and I am going to talk about it in some detail, I would like to put in Hansard the tremendous leadership role of the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project in their community and to say thank you to Stuart. And in talking about Stuart, I also acknowledge the role of Sarah and all of the partners. We all know these things do not happen—there is no such thing as 'a farmer'; there are farming families and farming businesses. So I acknowledge you—Lauren, Scott, Pat, Patten and Lachie—and all of your families. I also acknowledge the members of the steering committee: the North East CMA; the local processor Murray Goulburn; the North East Local Learning and Employment Network; Murray Dairy, which is the Commonwealth government and local research and development team; Rural Financial Counselling Service; the local governments of Indigo, Wangaratta, Towong, and Alpine, who form the steering committee; and the education services and providers who are also there. The steering committee is wide-reaching and it covers off most of the service providers and the farmers in the Alpine Valleys.

The AVDPP was established in 2011 and it is a unique model. It began as a grassroots movement driven by farmers, and is now actively supported by all of those people on the steering committee. The project's aim is to provide strong, consistent and cohesive messages about how we can work together to grow and develop dairying in northeast Victoria. It decided to take a leadership role. It set clear goals. It has a comprehensive strategic plan to actually grow milk production 80 per cent by 2025, and that would actually mean growing the local industry by 400 million litres in the Alpine Valleys by 2025. Recent Dairy Australia figures indicate milk production in the region has already increased by 30 per cent in the last 10 years, despite the drought, so there is so huge potential to grow it more.

The Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project model has proven a powerful tool in creating change and has delivered several high-quality projects to date which focus on education, farm succession planning and transition, and planning for growth. It has grown to be a well respected voice for the dairy industry in north-east Victoria. We are seeing great change happen across all levels of government because of this community leadership.

I would like to read into the Hansard and bring to the attention of the government some of the priority areas that the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project members are working in and are considering for the future. They are looking for a medium- to long-term planning approach so, as we move through this discussion of farm household support, we have actually got to think about the medium and long term. We have got to talk about water security. We need to talk about supporting farm succession and transition. We need to talk about agriculture in schools. We need to talk about place based ownership and solutions. The logic of one size fitting everybody just does not work in rural and regional Australia. As we heard in the discussion about child care, we have got to be able to have place based solutions that respond to local needs.

We really need to keep up with technology and innovation. There has been a resounding call from me, as the member for Indi, that we have got to do better with NBN. We have got to do better with mobile phones because these dairy businesses are hugely technologically connected. Moving your electric fences and doing all the work that comes with it relies on technology that relies on mobile phone connectivity. I will talk in another time and place about how disappointed I am that the mobile phone project ended, that there is no money for round 4.

Mr Chester: You got the lot.

Ms McGOWAN: Yes, we did well in Indi, didn't we? But there is no round 4. I have to say to the minister, there are still 150 identified black spots in Indi. We need more in the budget.

Mr Chester: We will get you more in the budget.

Ms McGOWAN: Thank you for that. I look for to working with you on that. Mobile phone technology is really important.

Another issue is positive messaging about the industry. We hear about the crisis and the demise but in fact the industry has got a fantastic future. And we need to talk more about the business skills. As we move, develop and grow, how do we actually get the business skills to our farming families? That includes working with farmers as employers. They are some of the issues that the Alpine Valleys farmers are working on.

I want to move on to an amazing thing that this community did in addressing the crisis that we are facing in the dairy industry. Last Wednesday, a community meeting was called and 100 farming people turned up to that meeting including service providers and local government representatives. I was delighted to welcome the member for Mayo, representing the Nick Xenophon Team, who came and spoke about the Nick Xenophon Team's agricultural policy. I have to say how well she was received. Thank you, member for Mayo, for coming, and we really look forward to working with you as you develop your agricultural policies. There is a lot in what you have got to offer us.

As a result of that meeting, I was asked to bring a number of issues to Canberra. The representatives wanted a clear vision of how community groups like the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project can actually work with government. They said, 'But, Cathy, where do we fit? Where is government going to work with us? What is the connectivity here between a community group that has got all the industry together in a region and the Commonwealth government?' They were so right because there is no connectivity. What do they do? How can they have input into the industry when there is no place for them? They need a clear vision for links between government, industry and community groups.

The representatives also asked for a strategic approach for all levels of education. They see that educating not only farmers but the workforce is going to be key for the future. The Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project, I have to commend them. They have done a fantastic job working with Tallangatta high school not only in getting educational programs out onto the farms but also in building with the careers teacher an understanding of all the other fantastic jobs that go with agriculture—the science, the marketing, the manufacturing, the distribution, the education, the international trade—that we can offer in rural and regional Australia if and when we have a growing agricultural sector.

Education is really important as is investment in the next generation. There is no shortage of young people who want to come to agriculture and be involved in the industry but the how is a real challenge. So one of the projects that the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathway Project is working on is farm succession and transition. How can you provide security for the older farmers who want to stay a little bit in agriculture through maybe share farming, helping with the financing, so we get the new generation coming in and get the transfer of skill and knowledge and all that wonderful culture of our community passed on to a new generation. The Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathway Project is actively working there.

I want to put some data on the table about how important the dairy industry is already in my electorate and what enormous potential it has to grow. In Indi, just in the north-east, 80 per cent of the arable land is used by the dairy industry. It is 30 per cent of the farm gate income, which is huge. We have got over 750 effective full-time local jobs working on farm, in manufacturing and in the service industry. That is not inconsiderable, 750 jobs. We estimate that is over $380 million into the supply chain so this is a really significant industry.

While we are going through change, there is opportunity. It does not have to be the end. I really support this debate today to say, okay, the farm household allowance is a stopgap measure to provide a safety net but where is the plan? Where do we want the dairy industry to grow to? That is the main thing I want to talk about today. The Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project have got a plan to lift performance of all farmers up to the top 25 per cent. They are really focusing on people, engagement, knowledge transfer and new skills. They are implementing their workforce strategy, bringing kids out of school and talking about where the jobs are. They are actually working on farm succession and transition and have a target of 50 per cent of farm family businesses having a strategy in place. What an innovation that is: actually working with your farmers—and that is all your farmers, your young farmers and your oldies—to have a transition scheme in place now so that you can bring people with you; you can have the change; and you can grow your industry.

And they are really actively working on the schools engagement process. I am a great fan, clearly, of education and how important it is. It needs to happen at schools. It needs to happen in vocational education and training. And we need then to work with our universities to make sure that we have the degree courses and the pathways through. I am delighted to say that we do have that in Indi. We have great work happening with La Trobe University and CSU. It is good to have you there.

But finally my comments are these. We have an opportunity with the dairy industry. Sure, it is going through a crisis, but we will move through that. With the right partnership and the right vision from government about how we can work together, we can really grow this industry.

In closing: representatives from this community meeting will be in parliament in the week of 20 March. I look forward to bringing them to Canberra, introducing them to the relevant ministers and their staff and talking about how we can take this fantastic model and grow it in my electorate but also take it to those other electorates throughout Australia that need a bit of a road map about how they can move from crisis to growth. The Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project is doing the work. It is growing businesses, and it is growing leaders.

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