02 March 2017

Speech in parliament: Standing up for Corangamite dairy farmers

Please see my speech in Parliament this week on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2017 and my ongoing concerns about the conduct of dairy processors over the clawback payments, particularly Murray Goulburn.

See a video of my speech here. The transcript is below.

It is my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2017. What a disappointing contribution from the member for Braddon. Her slur on the minister for agriculture is absolutely disgraceful when you contrast the very important record that the coalition has in standing up for farmers. Look at what we have seen from those opposite. The dairy industry will never forget the carbon tax that imposed a penalty of, on average, $7,000 a year. Do Labor members understand how much hardship that caused the farmers? I have to say, being the member for Corangamite and having a very proud dairy industry right across Victoria, there has been no greater advocate for farmers than the coalition. We continue that proud record.

This bill is all about getting out into the community and listening. The bill amends the Farm Household Support Act 2014 and the farm household allowance by removing the ordinary waiting period and also the liquid assets waiting period so that there is better treatment of some assets of farmers. It seeks to streamline access to the farm household allowance for farmers and their partners experiencing financial hardship. This is before the parliament today because, in contrast to those opposite who have shown no regard for the absolute hardship that their policies have imposed on farmers, we went out into the community and we listened. These measures are an important part of the government’s commitment to continuously improve delivery of the farm household allowance to better meet the needs of farmers who can benefit from this form of assistance.

It continues the incredibly important work that we have done for farmers across the country. Let me remind members that, when we came to office in 2013, the coalition inherited an empty cupboard on drought policy. Labor abolished the longstanding exceptional circumstances drought support policy. Labor cut the agriculture department’s budget in half. Labor abolished Land and Water Australia and threatened the longstanding policy to match farmers’ R&D levies. Farmers will well recall former agriculture minister Tony Burke asking the Productivity Commission to review the rural R&D system. In contrast, the coalition has confirmed that the farmers’ R&D funds should be prioritised by the levy payers towards projects with the intention of boosting farm gate returns. We have strengthened the rural R&D system with a $190 million rural R&D for-profit initiative. We have established a $2.5 billion Farm Business Concessional Loans program over 10 years. This is providing concessional loans at a 2.47 per cent variable interest rate for 10 years, with interest-only terms for the first five years. One thousand, one hundred and sixty-nine farm businesses have successfully been approved for $622 million in concessional loans, and over 7,000 farmers and their partners have been granted the farm household allowance since 1 July 2014. Currently, there are some 4,800 farmers and their partners receiving FHA payments. We are incredibly proud of the way we are standing up for farmers.

I want to reflect on the work in terms of the dairy rescue package that was announced last year: a $555 million Dairy Recovery Concessional Loans package. We announced $2 million to establish a commodity milk price index; $900,000 for an additional nine rural financial counsellors in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales; $900,000 for Dairy Australia’s Tactics for Tight Times program; the fast-tracking of the farm household allowance; and, of course, the very important work on the ground provided by the Department of Human Services.

I do have to say that, as part of the listening in dairy communities throughout Australia and particularly, of course, in Victoria, being a very important dairy region, we, as members of the government, have been very active in getting out, listening and calling for action. I have not just been a long-term advocate for the dairy industry but have also spoken out very strongly on the conduct of both Murray-Goulburn and Fonterra in imposing clawback payments on farmers last year. It was an absolute disgrace. In May, I called for an ACCC inquiry into the dairy industry. I held a large meeting of dairy farmers in Alvie. I also called on Murray-Goulburn and Fonterra to explain to the Prime Minister when they met him why they imposed those clawback payments. In my view, it amounted to corporate thuggery. There is no doubt that these processes misled dairy farmers and the market about profit projections. I am very pleased that the ACCC is not just conducting a review of the industry but also investigating the conduct of Murray-Goulburn.

The minister for agriculture, the member for New England, has been a wonderful advocate for farmers. I have to reflect on this again: the contribution of the member for Braddon was really disappointing. There is no greater fighter for farmers on our side than the member for New England. The member for New England has been a very, very strong voice. In contrast to the member for Hunter—who barely ever gets up in question time and asks the member for New England a question about farming, which is pretty disappointing—we have, in our minister for agriculture, an incredibly strong voice.

Let us just reflect on some of the other ways in which we have stood up for farmers. There were the three free trade agreements—landmark free trade agreements—which opened up new markets in South Korea, Japan and China. These agreements are not just important for all businesses but are particularly important for the likes of Bulla dairy in my electorate, which has opened up new markets, with new confidence, in places like China. Over the last few days, we have just improved our trade deal with Indonesia during President Widodo’s visit, and there was a commitment to increase our trade connections, and now there have been important announcements made to support farmers in the way in which we trade with this very important partner, Indonesia.

I have mentioned the issue of the carbon tax, and it seems that Labor has not learnt its lesson. It imposed, on average, a carbon tax on dairy farmers which caused an enormous burden on their business—electricity, of course, being a very significant input into the business of dairy farmers. But Labor has not learnt its lesson. We now see this 50 per cent renewable energy target which, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, would cost $48 billion—the equivalent of $2,000 for every Australian. Just imagine what that is going to do to our farmers, particularly to our dairy farmers. We are already seeing a very significant increase in electricity prices, including because of Hazelwood’s closure, and, unlike members opposite, we are absolutely determined to do everything we can for energy security and for the security of our farmers.

But it does not stop there. One of the hallmark coalition policies is our commitment to mobile communications. This is incredibly important for all businesses, all families and all young people living in rural and regional Australia, but particularly for our farmers. Again, what a shame on Labor that not one cent was invested in mobile phone communications, in fixing those black spots. Mobile communications are so critical for our farmers.

In Corangamite, we have announced funding for 18 new base stations. Carlisle River will be the very first tower to be turned on, and hopefully more towers will be turned on very, very soon. In the middle of the Otways, a beautiful, magnificent dairy farming area, the people of Carlisle River now have a new base station. For the first time, by way of mobile, they are connected to the outside world. So we are really, really proud of our commitment to better mobile communications.

Another very significant investment in rural and regional Australia is the rollout of the NBN. The NBN is being rolled out in spades across my electorate and across the country. It was an utter failure when Labor ran the NBN. We now have the Sky Muster connected. Over 3½ thousand premises are eligible for service in Corangamite, and there are fixed wireless facilities across many parts of my electorate that previously did not have a voice under the Labor Party. Places like Barongarook, Beeac, Beech Forest, Cape Clear, Cororooke, Cressy East, Dereel, Forrest and Gellibrand—all of these communities across Corangamite and communities right across Australia are being connected to the NBN because we care about people living in the country, we care about their businesses and we care about farmers.

There is no doubt that our dairy farmers have had it very, very tough. There is no doubt that many have faced very, very difficult times. And there is no doubt that some of these factors are, of course, beyond the control of any particular person or organisation. But there are many, many other areas, in terms of the financial hardship placed on farmers, where dramatic action was required, and we did act, and we are very, very proud of the dairy crisis package that we put into place. I say again, and I say very loudly in this parliament: we will not tolerate the likes of Murray Goulburn and Fonterra doing what they did to our farmers. The retrospective clawbacks—

Mr Katter:  What are you going to do about it?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Craig Kelly):  Order! The member for Kennedy, I see, is on the speakers list; he will have his turn.

Ms HENDERSON:  I will take the member for Kennedy’s interjection. He asks: what are we going to do about it? Well, I say that we actually already have very strong laws under Australian competition law, to prevent and prohibit misleading or deceptive conduct. I am very pleased to learn that the ACCC is investigating what I say are misleading claims that were made by Murray Goulburn. They misled farmers. They misled the market. And I am extremely pleased to learn that, not only is there an inquiry into the dairy industry across the board, looking at a whole range of issues, but also the ACCC is specifically investigating the conduct of Murray Goulburn and the way in which it clawed back that money from farmers, because it was an absolute disgrace. So I am very hopeful that this actually is a contravention of our law. We have very strong laws in this country to prohibit companies from misleading and deceiving; we have very strong laws to prevent that, whether it is farmers or consumers or small businesses being ripped off because of the deceptive conduct of others. And I am very hopeful that the ACCC will find that Murray Goulburn, at the very least, engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct, and my view is that there should be penalties applied to Murray Goulburn whereby Murray Goulburn is required to pay back the money that they improperly took from our farmers. I am very proud to stand up for our farmers. I commend this bill to the House. And we will keep on fighting for our wonderful farmers.

2 March 2017