Local, Independant and Effective

Second reading - Rural and Research Development Legislation Amendment Bill

Posted October 28, 2014

 

CATHY MCGOWAN (13:22) I acknowledge my colleagues who have already spoken in this debate and I give them my total support for decentralisation. I look forward to policies that support Albury-Wodonga in particular. It gives me great pleasure to speak to the Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill. I would like to cover off three points. The first is the recommendations made by the National Farmers Federation, the second is the importance of consultation, and the third is my congratulations to the Minister for Agriculture on his green paper.

I will discuss some of the topics he has raised in that, in particular the importance of education. In summary, the principal of government setting a major precedent of change for the RDC model without consulting with industry is very concerning, particularly given that the RDC model rests on cooperation and partnership with industry. Why change a major system like this that has operated so well for so long just for $7 million, and why provoke the wrath of an industry by not consulting properly? I hope that when we move through to discussion and debate about the white paper we can take seriously the comments that industry has made.

The National Farmers Federation made a number of recommendations in their submission to the inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs and Transport. They made two recommendations on the bill that I would like to bring to the attention of the House. One was about the pain [paying] of international subscriptions on behalf of some of the RDCs. The NFF recommends that the committee consider whether the funding of membership to international intergovernment commodity organisations requires legislative change. It is their belief that it does not.

The NFF also recommends that the committee consider whether the government is making long-term structural changes to the RDC model without adequate consideration of the consequences or adequate industry consultation. They are two very valid points that I hope the government representative on the front bench, the member for Gippsland [Riverina], will answer when he replies to the debate.

The second recommendation that the NFF makes—I think it has an enormous amount of value—is that even if we agree with these changes and we put them in place, they do not have to be there forever. The NFF recommends that the bill be amended with a sunset clause of five years, when the obligation of funding of international intergovernment commodity organisations shifts back to the Australian government. Again I think there is a lot of merit in that and I ask the parliamentary secretary to comment on it. They are two things that the NFF are saying need to be done and I will be keen to hear support from my colleagues opposite on that.

The next issue I would like to address is consultation with industry, and how important it is to me, as a member representing a rural electorate, that the government have deep and extensive consultation with industry—and not only consults but also takes on board what industry has to say. I congratulate the minister for the agricultural competitiveness green paper and the opportunity to consult with industry over the next couple of months on some of the major themes in the paper. The minister has done a fantastic job—giving it time, giving it resources and putting in place skilled public servants who can pull such a really good paper together. That is exactly the way we should be consulting with industry. It builds trust but, much more importantly, it gets us really good results in the long-term.

There are a couple of topics in this paper that I bring to the attention of the House. One is education and training. We have heard right across the country that we can do all we like at one level with R&D, but if we do not have a solid base of education and training the whole system will shift in ways that we do not want to see. Education and training is fundamentally important to the long-term sustainability of a rural research and development cooperation program. University education is particularly important. As members of this House know, the Minister for Education has plans to change the way education is funded in Australia. While that might work for our city cousins, I have great doubts that it is going to work for our agricultural sector.

Jim Pratley, from Charles Sturt University, has done studies which show that we already have market failure in rural and regional Australia, particularly in regard to training agricultural economists and all the specialist people that we need with a university education. In 2012, he indicated there was a need for 4,000 professionally qualified agricultural research people in Australia, and we were able to produce only 800. So, we absolutely need to change the situation. But we need to change it so we can meet the real need in rural and regional Australia for qualified scientists and other research people, and we have to hold them in rural and regional Australia so they can contribute to the whole process of building a competitive agricultural sector. We need those qualified, skilled, tertiary educated people to do the work that has to be done.

I am a great supporter of what I read in this paper about building pathways between schools, TAFEs and universities so that we have a system in which people can move up to do their PhDs and then hopefully live and work in rural Australia when they have finished their PhD. I bring to the attention of the House how important that consultation is and I emphasise the words that our community have been saying and urge that we hold onto these thoughts at the next stage of this paper when it becomes a white paper—we need to put funds, personnel and resources into particularly tertiary education, particularly in rural and regional Australia, and particularly into agriculture. It is probably the most important thing we can do.

Another part of this paper that has great merit concerns the need to establish a new body, or task existing research bodies, to coordinate cross-sector research. One of the important things that need to happen in rural and regional Australia is that we need to talk to each other across RDCs. A worrying part of this legislation before the House is that the RDCs do not have to report to parliament and they do not have to meet on an annual basis.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta):  Order! It being 1.30 pm the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43.

CATHY MCGOWAN (15:21) In continuing my speech there are just two more points I would like to make before I finish up. They are the importance of coordinating cross-sector research and the impact that this legislation will have on the ability of RDCs to work together.

It seems to be a minor point, but it is one that has really come up through the agricultural competitiveness green paper. That is that the community, and particularly the agricultural industry sector, is very keen that there be more cooperation between the RDCs. At page 91, there is the call for establishing a new body, or particularly tasking existing research bodies to coordinate cross-sector research. They talk of a new or existing body that could be tasked with promoting agricultural research; ensuring research was focused on RD&E priorities; encouraging R&D activities across disciplines; and identifying the next big potential transformational research areas to encourage investment, collaboration and uptake. I note that in the legislation mechanisms to bring people together are being done away with. I think this is such a pity because it is a time when we actually need to come together more often and share the intellectual capital we have if we are actually going to make the transformations we need in agriculture.

A few years ago I was on a committee tasked with establishing a national strategic investment plan for rural research and development in Australia. One of the really important things that came out of that national rural investment plan was the need for high-level collaborative brains coming together to look at how we could actually bring our scarce resources and deliver for the country on what we knew needed to be done. I have to say that there was one important part of the election campaign—the allocation of $100 million to agricultural research and development—that did bring the RDCs together, but a whole lot more needs to be done. It is such an opportunity where we can bring people together.

If I could just give you one example of how it happens in a very practical way. As you might know, I am a farmer and I grow sheep. In my learning days, I benefited from the ability of Australian Wool Innovation and MLA—Meat & Livestock Australia—to come together. On the ground they had community based learning activities, otherwise known as extension, for farmers to learn how to work together.

In my community that particular program was called BESTWOOL/BESTLAMB and it brought sheep producers, pasture growers and meat producers together. We were able to actively collaborate in our communities about the best way of taking research, implementing it on our farms and then producing the result, which was much higher returns on our investment. This came about because Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation worked together. Previous to that, they worked with the other very important research group called Land and Water Australia that brought everybody together.

What I am saying in terms of this legislation is that there is an opportunity in the years ahead of us, particularly if we can pick up the recommendations in this report, to bring the RDCs together and to actually look for efficiencies where our research, our development and our extension can deliver much better results for farmers. Because the reality is most of us farmers actually work at that cooperative level. I think the legislation is taking us away from that opportunity to work together.

If I could just bring my comments to a close, what I would like to do in summarising is say that it is great that we have ways and we have people working on how we can save money; $7 million is $7 million, and it is really important to save $7 million when we can see it. But not at the cost of losing the trust of the industry; not at the cost of losing the trust of the National Farmers' Federation. How often is it that the NFF comes into this House and says to my colleagues opposite, 'This is not good legislation; this needs changes'?

So I am really happy to be able to stand in this parliament as a friend of the NFF and speak on their behalf and encourage them to work with my colleagues in the Senate to get the amendments that we need to make this ability to collaborate stronger, to make the ability for us to work internationally stronger, but most importantly to not put things in concrete forever—to put a sunset clause into this legislation so after five years, when, hopefully, the economy is a much better position, we can revert to how things used to be.