Local, Independant and Effective

Plan needed for agriculture research and development

Posted May 09, 2018


Cathy has told the Parliament it is not the time to tamper with the model for funding agricultural research. However it is time to develop a plan for future research and development in the sector.


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (16:26): Colleagues, I welcome the Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill 2017 as an opportunity to talk about my electorate and some very important topics, particularly agriculture, focusing on agricultural research and our national model for funding agricultural research. I would like to stress the importance of the integrity that underpins the way that we, as a nation, fund our agricultural research and say that this is not the time to tamper with it. This particular legislation does that. It changes the way our corporate R&Ds are able to spend funding. While it does have the support of the relevant R&Ds, it expands the definition of marketing activities, and I think that's a negative.

Today, I really want to call on the government to pay some attention to research and development and to say to the minister at the table and my colleagues on the other side, particularly the National Party, how extraordinarily disappointing it is to read the budget papers and to look for agricultural research and development and find there's nothing there. There's no plan for the future. Sure, there's some money for marketing to employ some people in overseas countries to open up our markets, but this whole idea of how we grow the productivity of Australian agriculture has just been left for dead. It shouldn't be that way. In my electorate of Indi, we've got a huge amount of agricultural production. We've got a very strong agricultural stakeholders' group that lobbies me constantly. Today, I want to talk about agriculture in my electorate. But, before I go there, I want to talk about the history of research and development and my involvement in it.

Colleagues, before I was a member of parliament, I worked as a consultant in agricultural research and development. My job was to extend the knowledge of R&D out to the community and pay particular attention to women, who are mostly the business managers on farms, and to young people. As a result of 20 years work in R&D and extending that knowledge that came out of our research, I was approached in 2011 to be part of a rural research and development council. The point of the council was to come up with a national strategic investment plan for research and development. Colleagues, I really would like to draw this to the attention of the House, because it was excellent work. It was supported by everybody. But, as happens, the idea of a national investment plan in R&D and a coordinated approach to research and development in Australian agriculture got left by the wayside, and, sadly, still hasn't been picked up. We see the lack of that investment and that planning, I think constantly, in many of the problems we are facing in agricultural research. That was a really important document. I bring it to the attention of the House and make a recommendation that the minister and his staff pay some attention to the recommendations in that report. That was in 2011.

In 2015, we had the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, with an investment of $4 million but no national plan. It was, in my opinion, an ad hoc, 'Let's do this, let's do that, lots of programs' approach. It was a piecemeal approach to how the nation should develop its agricultural resources. In 2016, I was a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry. We did an inquiry into agricultural innovation. It was a fantastic group of people to work with. We had cooperation right across the House. We did extensive work. We met with people involved in research, development and innovation right across the nation. We presented a report to the then agriculture minister, and it just sat there. It sat there and sat there. None of the recommendations of that House of Representatives committee have been looked to in any way, shape or form. So we don't have a plan for agricultural research, we don't have a strategy for it, and I think the nation is less because of it.

I bring to the attention of the House that other nations, including many of our trading partners, have taken this step. For example, in 2015 the European Union developed a report titled Towards a long-term strategy for European agricultural research and innovation by 2020 and beyond. It's so obvious that it seems mind-boggling to me that we in Australia haven't actually taken that step. There are models we can follow. The call has been put out, but there's just been a failure of this House to take up that call. For me, it's not only a policy paper that we need; we need the opportunity. My call-out to our new minister is to begin work on this in a productive way so that, by the time we get to 2020, we actually do have a strategic plan for agriculture—research, development, innovation and extension.

When I saw this legislation come before the House today and the changes in it, I thought that, while they're small, they actually talk about marketing. One of the things that has really frustrated me with agricultural research and development and the way that we spend our money is the organisational power of our marketers to grab the bucket of money for R&D and say: 'Yes, but we've got to market. We've got to sell what we do. We've got to get overseas and market our produce.' For sure, marketing is important, and I would never say that it doesn't need some investment. But, for me, the real gold of agricultural research and development is the research. It's taking our ability in Australia to produce fantastic food, grow fibre and do things with agriculture, innovate and value-add so that we create the jobs in the regions and in the cities that are going to be the future of this nation. I think we're letting ourselves down. I think we're letting industry down. I definitely think we're letting our farmers down. It's a really sad thing for me when I go to the farmers in my electorate, from the small-scale farmers to the large-scale farmers through to the exporters, and say, 'But we don't have a national plan.' Rarely do I come to this House and hear my colleagues talk on legislation that's relevant to R&D. It's just a thing that doesn't seem to grab the interest of the House. That's such a pity because, for many of us who live in the regions, agriculture does still underpin our livelihoods.

In my electorate, my way of tackling this lack of interest in Canberra in the need for regional R&D and local R&D is by running what we call North East Victoria agricultural dinners. These dinners bring together leaders in education, marketing and logistics, stock and station agents, researchers, academics, farmers and allied agricultural professionals. We've had three of these dinners and they've been a terrific success. They provide an opportunity for people to share ideas, to think about vertical integration and the role of North East Victoria. Over 50 per cent of the water that falls in the Murray-Darling Basin falls in my electorate, but it's very underdeveloped. We've got so much potential. So we get together and talk about what we might do. We share knowledge and expertise. We look at the documents that the Victorian government has done on regional development and opportunities for regional growth and discuss how we can, as communities, value-add to that.

There are so many opportunities and it's reflected right across Australia. In my electorate alone, Tourism North East provides 27 per cent of the regional employment and is based largely on agriculture—on our food, our wine and the experience of coming to North-East Victoria. Something like $692 million is put into the economy. I could give you the figures on agricultural production, but it's about what we do with it, how we innovate and how we bring people to the country to enjoy the wonderful experiences we have to offer.

In my electorate, we've been told we need more collaboration, we need a lot more confidence, we need a hugely more skilled workforce and we need infrastructure. There are very specific recommendations that I constantly bring to this House. How are we going to collaborate in agriculture on research and development? How can we get the confidence of the university sector, the agricultural sector and the industry sector to take the risks that innovation needs? Having a skilled workforce is one of the huge issues that we face. How do we get the people we need with the knowledge we need in the area? Part of the significant failing has been the lack of a strategic approach to higher education in rural and regional Australia. It's an issue I take up with the Minister for Education and Training, in the Senate. I ask, 'Where's your strategic approach to growing the workforce that we need in the country?'

I was so disappointed in the way that much was made in the budget last night about how we're going to train doctors—that we have a network of university hubs to train doctors. That's well and good, and doctors are certainly useful when people are sick, but where's our strategic approach to training agricultural scientists? We don't have one. We've got such a shortage. A couple of years ago in Australia—the figures have changed a little bit since then—there were something like 600 agricultural scientist graduates a year and we had jobs for 5,000 of them. There's no workforce plan for this and there's no strategic approach for it. No-one even talks about it, and yet agriculture is just so important for the whole economy. I'm putting the call out to the minister to pay some attention to this. To members of the opposition: as we get ready for the next election, give some thought to what your agricultural research and development policy would be.

I want to take this opportunity to talk about two agricultural producers in my electorate who have done such amazing work. They're leading examples of agricultural research, innovation and creativity. They do such good work in employing local people, innovating with produce and then marketing it so well. I'd particularly like to note Gooramadda Olives. Gooramadda is near Rutherglen on the Murray River. Huge congratulations to Rob and Melanie Whyte for the wonderful work they do. They've just been awarded an international prize at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. They should be so proud, not only for getting the international award—beating the Italians and everybody else in the world—but for being a family based business and competing on the international scene. They're locally based near Rutherglen, they're a tourist destination and they're the most fantastic contributors to our community. We know we can do so much more. I give a shout-out to them.

Another example I'd like to briefly mention to the House tonight is a different sort of business: the Australian Pumpkin Seed Company, which is near Myrtleford in the Ovens Valley. I give a shout-out to Sharan West-Rivett and her husband for the fantastic work they do in growing pumpkins for pumpkin seed. Out of the pumpkin seed, they make pumpkin oil and then they do magnificent work, not only with oil but with cooking. They value-add to all the other products, like hazelnuts. There are all sorts of other oils that you can now buy in the shop. They tell me that they have people growing pumpkins at Goondiwindi and right across Victoria. There's a huge opportunity to expand. If they grow, we won't have to import pumpkin seeds from overseas. It's just a small business, but it does such good work in employing people, acting as a tourist destination in the Ovens Valley and value-adding to our produce. It was a delight to go there and see the oil press actually operating, with the oil coming out of the pumpkin seeds. The paste left over is used in so many different ways. Nothing is wasted. This is a shout-out to Australian Pumpkin Seed Company on the terrific work, innovation, research and development they do and what leaders they are in agriculture. How proud I am to be your representative in parliament.

In bringing my comments to a close, what I really would like to say to Jay and Sharan, who do the work at Pumpkin Seed, to all the farmers in Indi and to all the people who work in agriculture: I'm certainly your advocate here. I take my role seriously to work with my colleagues on the other side, to work with the Labor Party, to work with the Greens and to have parliament understand that agriculture is the foundation for so much of our nation's wealth. But if we take our eye off the ball—if we let R&D go, if we don't have strategic long-term investment in innovation, workforce planning and value-adding, or if we get sucked down the road of marketing only—we will get to a dead end. If we haven't got the innovation or the creativity about our products, no amount of marketing is going to work for us on the world scale.

In closing, I say to my colleagues, to the advisers in the boxes tonight, to the minister—he is here—and to all of my colleagues around Australia who I know care so much about R&D: join me with this push. Can we encourage this minister to have a conference to call together R&D and actually look at a long-term strategic approach to how R&D in agriculture research can enable us to take our place as a leading industry in this nation.

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