Local, Independant and Effective

Cathy McGowan - Prime Minister and Treasurer must fund mobile phone infrastructure

Posted May 05, 2016


CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (10:44): It gives me enormous pleasure to speak to the report Smart Farming: Inquiry Into Agricultural Innovation presented by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry. Our terms of reference were to conduct an inquiry having regard to, in particular, improvements in the efficiency of agricultural practices due to new technology, and the scope for further improvements; emerging technology relevant to the agricultural sector, in areas including but not limited to telecommunications; and barriers to the adoption of emerging technology.

This has been an excellent committee to be part of and I am very proud that we have bipartisan recommendations that fundamentally set in place the foundations for the future of policy in agriculture and innovation for the 21st century and, I hope, for the 22nd century. We have looked in particular at innovation and productivity being the key to growth in Australian agriculture. In Indi, productivity and growth are key to our ability to increase agricultural production, agricultural manufacturing, agricultural profitability and, in the long term, sustainability for the many people who live and work in our communities and our valleys.

I am very proud to be part of this committee and, in particular, this inquiry as it brings together my interest—indeed, my passion—for agricultural research, extension and adoption and the ability to increase the economic viability of our farming communities and, as a consequence, the economic viability and sustainability of our nation. As a farmer since 1980, I know how important research is. I have always been an active learner and participator in many of the extension groups. I have enjoyed our Wiradjuri women and sheep group, learning about DSEs, introduction to soil tests and analysis as well as being able to be part of a group learning activity in a community where we actually saw productivity increase.

I love extension. I love the impact it has to improve people's lives, to improve their farming ability and to bring the community together. As a business woman, I have worked with most of the rural development corporations over 20 years. I have had extensive insight into how our research gets funded and how it is transferred to farmers. I have enormous respect for the scientists, the researchers, the extension officers and the people who work on those RDCs.

In my community work, I have worked as a volunteer with Australian Women in Agriculture, eventually rising to become president of the organisation and being awarded the great honour of 'life member'. So I have participated in the organisational structure of the NGO right through to being a representative on many government boards in that position. As a woman in agriculture and as a farmer, I am totally conscious of the importance of language and how it defines our paradigms. I take enormous exception when people refer to 'the farmer' or 'he'. Very few of our Australian farmers are actually 'the farmer' or 'he'. Most of our farms are run by family businesses and they contain men and women and young people. I am particularly conscious of how this language defines our research and development. Over the period of time, my research has shown that we have a bias towards working with male farmers as opposed to the women farmers and young people who are active partners of our farming business. So I have spent 20 years working with the agricultural research and development corporation to, in particular, bring women into the mainstream of accessing knowledge and innovation so that they can be part of taking up those innovations on their farms. So I would give that little bit of attention to the language. It is important that we talk about farming businesses and not just name individuals on the farm. It is important that we be inclusive of men and women and young people and older people when we try and take our innovations onto farms.

The second large area where my voluntary work has given me great insight is as a regional councillor for the Victorian Farmers' Federation over a number of years and, through that, participating in the NFF and seeing how national NGOs can have such an impact on our ability to deliver really sustainable growth on our farms. We are partners together.

And the final bit of background that really adds to my love for being on this committee was as an active member of the group of people who brought together the national strategic plan for rural R&D in Australia. We looked at the grand picture of Australian rural research and development and came up with a national investment plan for what we needed to do to step up to the next stage of development.

With that background, it fitted logically for me to be on this committee and to be an active participant in the committee.

Today I am really pleased to talk about some of the 17 recommendations that were made. In particular, I would like to concentrate on three areas where we made recommendations. I would like to talk about the recommendation regarding women and the recommendation about funding of CRCs and the Rural Research and Development Corporations and I would like to finish by addressing my remarks to the mobile phone blackspot program.

There is a wonderful recommendation in this report that I am really proud to acknowledge and work towards, and that is recommendation 6:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government ensure that rural women’s groups are included in future government-led policy-building activities and inquiries.

In 1996, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, RIRDC, undertook a major project looking at the contribution Australian women in agriculture make to agriculture. The report, Missed Opportunities, had the figure of $14 billion—and that was 20 years ago—as the contribution of women to agriculture. So it is vitally important that, if we are to have the innovations we need and make the step-ups that we need to really take Australian agriculture to the next level, we need to involve our women and we need to involve our young people. I rest my case there. It is obvious; it just needs to be done.

The second recommendation I would like to pay some attention to is recommendation 9:

The Committee recommends that the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, in conjunction with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, investigate establishing appropriate incentives for the greater allocation of resources from rural Research and Development Corporations to relevant Cooperative Research Centres.

We had a major discussion in our committee about the role of RDCs and the role of CRCs, cooperative research centres, and how the CRCs can really take us into the next stage of our development. There was one particular that I would like to bring to the attention of the parliament. It was the need for working together for cooperation around our soils. Our soils underpin all of our agriculture. They are probably the most important resource we have. Yet we have no RDC that looks at soils as a whole and we certainly have no CRC that looks at soil. We heard that the problem is that soil is so all-encompassing it is really hard to get everybody to work together.

So my huge call to the people involved in rural research and development is: can we please pay attention to our soils? Can we bring wool, meat, dairy, horticulture, grains, sugar and the rest together and provide a cooperative looking at how we take our soils and our knowledge of soils to the future? This is not just for carbon and the micro-life that exists there; if we could grow our soils we could really grow our agricultural productivity. So I put out a call for a CRC on soils and I really hope that, in the next period of parliament, we can work together on that.

Finally, I would like to talk about recommendation 2:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government commit to the continuation of the Mobile Black Spot Programme beyond the second round, and that the Department of Communications and the Arts consider changes or additions to the selection criteria to capture the telecommunications requirements of agricultural activity.

Here I am scathing of the government and I am scathing of the budget that came down on Tuesday night. The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, got up and said that he has a plan for Australia. Well, he might have a plan for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and South Australia and he might have a plan for defence, but he certainly did not bring down a plan for regional Australia. The absolute effrontery of not having money in that budget for the continuation of delivering mobile phone coverage to rural and regional Australia is something to absolutely ashamed of.

So, Scott Morrison, I call on you to do something about this. Prime Minister, you were in charge of communications and you understand how important mobile phone coverage is. It is not an add-on; it is not an additional extra. We need mobile phone coverage in rural Australia and we need it for agriculture. So I call on my government colleagues here—I call on all of you people who live in rural Australia: pay attention to what needs to be done. We need rounds 3, 4, 5 and 6, until wherever you are in rural Australia you can use your mobile phone to do the business of this country. That is so absolutely urgently needed. 

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