APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 1) 2010-2011
Consideration in Detail
AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY PORTFOLIO
Proposed expenditure, $655,547,000
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.38 am) — I want to raise the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s attention to the issue of Landcare funding and the decision to not proceed with the forecast expenditure, which involves an amount in excess of $10 million. The minister does continue to claim that because funding has gone up by $1 million Landcare funding has not actually been cut. I think we are splitting hairs in that regard, minister, because the feeling on the ground throughout regional Australia is that Landcare has suffered a blow in this budget. Your own budget papers indicate that Landcare is not getting the money that your government intended to give Landcare 12 months ago.
For the sake of clarity, Minister, is it true that funding for Landcare has not been increased at the level that was originally planned by your government? What is the government’s justification for making that decision in relation to Landcare and what impact do you expect that decision will have on the reduction in practical environmental work undertaken by an estimated 100,000 volunteers across Australia and by more than 4,000 Landcare groups? Does the decision to not proceed with that forecast level of spending reflect some change in the government’s position regarding Landcare? Are you focusing on a different form of community based environmental action? I would appreciate some clarity on those points from the minister on behalf of the Landcare volunteers right throughout Australia, who I believe are the great champions of our environment through their practical work.
I will just reflect for a moment, Minister. I am sure you are aware—you have been out in regional areas that these people are bitterly disappointed. They are seeing this as some sort of diminishing of the government’s respect for the fact that they are prepared to give up their time, normally on a weekend, to get out there and get their hands dirty. These are the practical environmentalists of our nation. They are not the people writing reports; they are actually out there digging holes on a weekend, planting trees, undertaking pest animal and pest weed controls. They are the people who we really need engaged in the process. The reaction they have taken to this budget has been very negative. They believe there is some sort of diminished view of Landcare as a result of the government’s decision to not proceed with the original forecast level of expenditure.
Mr WINDSOR (New England) (11.40 am) — I support the comments made by the member for Gippsland in relation to Landcare. Minister, I think there needs to be some greater clarity on where government policy is actually taking Landcare. We are all, to some degree, concerned about the environment generally and in our case as country members the environment in country areas. Obviously, under your ministry, you cover those areas. There are concerns out there that in the main can be alleviated, but there needs to be greater clarity on just where the real foot soldiers of Landcare and environmentalism at a local level are going and how they will seek direction into the future. I note that in some areas there are differences of view between the catchment management authorities and Landcare groups. Those sorts of issues will always be out there. But there is no doubt—just to reinforce what the member for Gippsland said—that these are the people who we really need on the ground to carry out a lot of these things. Advertisements on TV of what could be happening within their catchment are all very well, but these people, who are volunteers, who are ready to do a whole range of things, should probably be given a greater degree of recognition than they are currently given.
Another question, Minister, is in relation to Liverpool Plains and the interface of that particular area with the prime agricultural land, the groundwater and surface water resources and the potential for massive mining development in those areas. I wonder where you stand, Minister, in relation to the potential offsite impacts on the water systems in the Murray-Darling river system. I am aware there are issues in Queensland in part of the Murray- Darling catchment. The Commonwealth is playing a greater role there and, in my view, it should. But I think there needs to be some real jurisdictional interpretations undertaken as to the state based planning processes for allowing mining activities to proceed. Now the Commonwealth is involved in water resources, it is obviously involved in the production of food in some of these very fertile areas.
Just briefly, the minister may be able to report on another area. I note that there is money in the budget for the science of soil carbon. He may be able to report briefly on progress regarding those management practices that are encouraging the sequestration of carbon and on how government policy will encourage farmers to move in that direction?
Mr SCHULTZ (Hume) (11.43 am) — Minister, before I ask the question I am going to ask I will give you a little bit of background information so that you will understand why I have serious concerns about this particular issue. As the first elected conservative in the state seat of Burrinjuck in the New South Wales parliament, in the late 1980s, I raised the very serious issue of the importation of apples and pears from New Zealand and the inherent risk that that would place on Australia’s disease-free status, particularly in relation to fire blight. I raised the issue again in this place, in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2004, and those issues are all on the record in Hansard.
Given the recent press release by Biosecurity about their recommendations to introduce apples from Japan into this country and the inherent risks associated with that particular cause, can the minister give the apple and pear industry in this country some assurance that he is not going to be influenced by the recommendations of Biosecurity, who have as a matter of record in the past demonstrated their lack of scientific investigation into the actual problems associated with the introduction of apples and pears into this country, in particular from New Zealand? Can the minister also give a guarantee to this parliament, the Australian people and in particular the apple and pear industry that he will not take too lightly the serious ramifications of any recommendation by Biosecurity Australia to compromise the very safe biosecurity regimes that have operated in this country and have prevented disease from apples and pears from other countries coming into this country? I say this in the interests of the very real concerns from apple and pear growers across the country who are, once again, being placed in a situation where, with their limited resources, they have to fight a federal department whose track record has demonstrated time and time again that they are is not interested in the safety of Australia’s disease-free status but are more focused on the easy option of agreeing to pressure from organisations outside of this country in the interests of so called free trade.
Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (11.46 am) — I think you would agree with this line of questioning as well. I also rise to speak on the very important issue of apples and pears to my electorate of Mayo. The Adelaide Hills probably produce the finest apples in Australia. My apple and pear producers are extremely worried. I wrote to the minister yesterday on the Chinese import risk assessment that the shadow minister so eloquently put in his question to the minister. I am interested in that answer. In particular, is the department looking at possibly reopening that risk assessment given this new bug? I will not try and pronounce the name of the bug—you may be able to assist, Minister, in that respect. I am interested in the New Zealand aspect and the more pressing issue of the risk assessment of the Chinese situation.
The second issue which was raised by the member for New England relates to prime agricultural land. In my area in the Adelaide Hills, the state government is opening up large parcels of land for housing development. Is an assessment being conducted by the federal agricultural department about the impact on our ability to produce food from inappropriate development on prime agricultural land? Certainly around Mount Barker this is a very contentious issue. This is a very important issue: where we choose to put houses and the use of areas that have fertile soil and good water—which are not always available in South Australia. Is an assessment being done on the risk here? I do not think the state Labor government in South Australia is doing enough in that respect.
Mr BURKE (Watson — Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Population) (11.49 am) — Can I deal with the issues raised by the shadow minister first. I suspect I am going to want a few goes at my five minutes to work through the different issues that have been raised. I will deal first with the non-apple issues raised by the shadow minister, then deal with apples and then deal with the different issues that have been raised.
First of all, the shadow minister raised the issue of the Productivity Commission review into the research and development corporations. I believe I can actually give him all the assurances he seeks by simply referring to the National Press Club speech I gave when the Productivity Commission inquiry was launched. There is no desire by government to use this as a mechanism to reduce funding. What we are trying to do is find ways for the money that is made available for research and development through the RDCs to be used far more effectively and efficiently than it has been.
The research and development corporations by and large do a very good job. I do not want to mince words on that; generally they do. For each of them I do believe there are examples where they could use their money more efficiently than they do, which would result in more money being made available for research and development, not less. The key examples that I think you can focus on fairly easily are: first of all, there were a handful of them where executive salaries became completely out of control. I believe that whoever is the CEO of a research body is doing an incredibly important job. When their salaries got beyond the salary of the Prime Minister of Australia, and they were doing that off the back of farmers’ and taxpayers’ money, I think it was not a reasonable call. I spoke to them for a long time, asking them to do something about it. One of them moved a tiny bit but very few of them moved at all, and I do believe it is an appropriate issue for the Productivity Commission to have a look at.
Secondly, there is the issue of co-location. We have more than half-a-dozen of the research and development corporations based here in Canberra, but they all have their own building, they all have their own conference room, they have their own payroll systems under different enterprise agreements and they have their own receptionist. I do not believe for a minute that there are not opportunities to co-locate, streamline and outsource some functions, even if the RDCs all want to keep their separate identities and not amalgamate. I really believe that at the moment there is money that could go to research and development—that farmers believe they are paying for the purpose of research and development and that taxpayers are pretty happy to contribute to in the matched funds—that, though it is not being thrown up against a wall, by any means, is not being used as efficiently as it could be. The intention of the Productivity Commission review is to find a way for the money that is provided to be used more effectively and efficiently than it has been.
There are some people, including some in the electorate of New England, for example, who oppose the levies outright. It is a common view as well among beef producers in that part of the member for New England’s electorate. It is also a common view among a number of grain growers in Western Australia. It is not a view I hold. I am not opposed to the levy system. I actually think it works and works well for these reasons: firstly, if you believe that there should be an Australian government contribution to research and development—and I do—then the people who get the financial benefit from the research and development should pay a higher contribution than the general taxpayer does, and the levy system does exactly that; secondly, research and development is only of any use at all if it makes it from the lab to the farm and if farmers have been involved on the boards. If the farming organisations have had a direct stake in what is being chosen for the purposes of research, I believe that is the best way you can have of ensuring the extension part works—that the research actually makes it from the lab to the farm.
My commitment to the current system is one where the more I have looked at it, the more I think it works. I think it is a smart structure. There are individual issues. Some of them have got more tied up in agri-political activity than I think is warranted for a research body. There are different areas where the money can be used more efficiently than it has been. But as a general rule the model itself is one I support and I have said so publicly previously.
The next issue raised by the shadow minister concerns whether I am receiving information, advice and complaints from other departments on the work of the research and development corporations. The advice that comes to me on the RDCs comes from two sources: it comes from my department and it comes from farmers. That is it; that is the only advice that comes to me. The extent to which other departments have chosen to engage in the Productivity Commission process, for example, I do not know the answer to, but I suspect the Productivity Commission would be able to provide very quickly which departments have made submissions to it. The advice that comes to me comes is from my department and from farmers, and I am not sure that advice on research and development corporations from any other department would be as useful to me as those two sources of information.
We then go to the issues surrounding apples. I will deal with the issue of China and the issue of New Zealand separately because they are very different issues in terms of biosecurity. I first of all thank all members who participated in that discussion on apples for the fact that, without exception, everybody was arguing from a biosecurity perspective. No-one was arguing—in the questions that I heard and the way they were framed—from a protectionist perspective. I think that is a very important message not just for us to relay to each other but for the rest of the world to hear Australian politicians argue.
Australia’s approach to biosecurity and quarantine has always been within the context of us being largely a free-trading nation. But we are also an island nation. There are pests and diseases which do not exist here, and Australia has every right to protect itself from those pests and diseases using the formula of the appropriate level of protection which has been used by both sides of politics for a very long time, which is that the level of protection should be for very low but not zero risk. If we sought zero risk, we know that that would mean that you would take no imports of anything, you would allow no tourists in or out of the nation and you would shoot all migratory birds as they approached the border. The approach of zero risk is one that no-one can deliver in any sensible public policy approach, but to minimise the risk is good and appropriate public policy, and that has had bipartisan support within Australian politics for a long time. I think the discussion we just had, the questions and the way they were framed affirmed that very strongly.
I now go to the biosecurity issues which we are dealing with. With respect to New Zealand, we are talking principally but not solely about fire blight, in terms of the issues which have been raised. Drosophila suzukii—I always have to check that name—is the pest that we are talking about with China.
Honourable member interjecting —
Mr BURKE — I can spell it if you need that. I will deal with New Zealand first because the biosecurity arguments there are the strongest ones in the sense that they have been around as arguments between the two nations for 70 years. When I was shadow minister for immigration, I took a quick trip to New Zealand as a guest of the then New Zealand government. I was shadow minister for immigration, and every discussion I had with every member of parliament or government agency began with a discussion about the migration of New Zealand apples to Australia. It is a massive issue for New Zealand, but fire blight is a massive issue for Australia, and we have every right to defend ourselves in every international court.
There are protocols around WTO decisions, protocols which—from leaks that have appeared in the international press—it would be arguable that not everybody has followed. But there is a protocol that there is a gap between when the parties receive a ruling or a draft ruling from the WTO and when they are allowed to make it public. We observe those protocols to the letter. The final report is expected to be made public later in the year, possibly in July, but that will have to follow very strictly the WTO rules about when it is allowed to be made public, and the release of it would come not from me but from the Minister for Trade, as he has principal carriage of the issue. (Extension of time granted) The issue of an appeal obviously always depends on legal advice and is a call made by the Minister for Trade in the final instance, not by me, although it is an issue on which we do work closely together.
Without in any way compromising the formalities of the process we are in, I will just say there is no difference between the vigorous way in which this government will defend Australia’s biosecurity in every international court and the way in which every previous Australian government has defended our biosecurity in every international court. I do not know that I can go any further than that without reflecting on information which at this point is still confidential.
With respect to New Zealand, that applies to the fire blight issues surrounding both apples and pears. China is different. Since 1999, pears from China have been allowed into Australia. That means that a large number of biosecurity issues and the science on apples had in fact already been resolved to Australia’s satisfaction since 1999. The issue of the pest whose name I have pronounced once—and I will leave it at that; we will refer to them as the suzukii pest—has been raised by industry recently. I know the shadow minister has met with the peak industry body. The peak industry body were offered a meeting with my office, but it was not at a time they could do, in fairness to them, and we are still finalising another meeting. There is certainly no reticence from me or from them about sitting down and working through this issue.
Any decision on the pest that has been referred to will be made on the basis of the science and will be made at arm’s length from the minister, as previous ministers have done. But a decision will be made on the basis of the science, and if the science says there is a biosecurity problem which has only recently come to light then I have no doubt that the Director of Biosecurity will act according to the responsibilities he holds in that job by making surethat the level of risk that is dealt with for Australia is kept at the appropriate level of very low but not zero. I cannot answer further than that, as the shadow minister would respect, without there being a ministerial direction of that nature to the Director of Biosecurity, and I think we would both agree that to go that distance would be inappropriate.
In terms of particular references that have been made by others, any recommendations obviously will not be taken lightly but extremely seriously. I go to issues first raised by the member for Gippsland and echoed by the member for New England with respect to Landcare, and then there were a couple of other issues that were raised by the member for New England. On Landcare, I believe that part of the way in which the member for Gippsland described the issue is accurate. Some of it is, I think, rhetoric which does not quite match the truth, but some of it is accurate. Is there less money for Landcare? In the forward estimates of this budget, when compared to the forward estimates of the previous budget, the answer to that is yes. Is there more money for Landcare next year than there was last year? Yes. Is there more money again for Landcare the year after that? Yes. So what does that mean? First of all, in dollar terms, in 2009-10 there is $35.1 million for the National Landcare Program; in 2010- 11, $36.2 million; and in 2011-12, $39.1 million. Would we all—everybody here—liked to have had a situation where the budgetary constraints were different and we had a whole lot more money for Landcare? Of course we would. But I do not believe it is reasonable to put it in the terms that the member for Gippsland did. He said that this would result in a reduction in practical environmental work. You cannot increase the funds and reduce the practical environmental work.
Mr Chester interjecting —
Mr BURKE — If there is a view that an increase from $35.1 million to $39.1 million in two years is in some way less than other expenditure and a reduction against CPI, there are rates of CPI being projected by the coalition which, I think, do not reflect what their shadow minister for finance or their shadow Treasurer would be saying is the case. But, Member for Gippsland, if you believe that the CPI is going to be running at those sorts of proportions over the next two years, by all means run that argument. But I do not think your economic spokespeople are matching that argument at all.
In terms of Landcare, the member for New England went a little bit further and just asked: where is government policy taking Landcare? I dealt with a lot of these issues in a speech I gave to the National Landcare Conference in Adelaide. I believe Landcare in the future has to work on three pillars: food, environment and climate. I think those three pillars provide the basic framework for the work of Landcare, where work that has now been going for 20 years for the challenges of the past—whether they be soil degradation, salinity or soil moisture problems through drought—will also deal with a whole lot of climate challenges that we will be facing in the future.
There have been areas where government policy in the first two years of government fell short and which we have acted to fix. Initially, when we got rid of the local facilitators, a number of members of parliament— including the member for New England and, I acknowledge, the member for Corangamite argued vigorously with me that that was an error. We responded to that and we reinstated the facilitators on a local basis.
Secondly, there are the community action grants. We had no small grants program. The only way to be able to access grants was to largely work in with a big project through the catchment management authorities or whatever the NRM bodies are called in the various states—certainly for the member for New England it is the CMAs. There were many small groups that felt they were shut out and could do good, practical work with smaller amounts of money than were being made readily available, so the community action grants were introduced.
On the issues surrounding the Liverpool Plains, a large number of those in terms of final policy carriage, to the extent that there is a federal involvement, go to issues within the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, through the water portfolio, because the issue of quality of downstream water is something that, to the extent it rests with the federal government, rests with that portfolio. But certainly, within the arms of government, my department does feed in information on those issues.
In respect of this, though, there is an issue which was raised by the member for Mayo—which I have skipped; I am sorry. He refers to fertile soil, which is a similar argument to those about the changes in land use. This is something which does not rest at a federal level, and it is being dealt with very differently by different states. Tasmania, for example, has zoned agricultural land in particular ways to be able to make a zoning decision about preservation of fertile soil. One of the particular features of Australia since white settlement has been that people move where the soil is at its most fertile and then put cities over the top of our best soil. It has been an ongoing practice. Some states are now starting to deal with that in new and creative ways, but I do not want to pretend that land zoning is a federal power; it is not.
Finally, on the science of soil carbon, the work that we are doing on soil carbon is less than we had hoped to do. There was an extra $50 million on the table as part of the package surrounding the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme for research and development in agriculture, a good part of which was to go to soil carbon, coupled with a system of incentives whereby farmers would get cash for good work in soils. Some of that is now off the table because we were not able to secure passage of that legislation. Certainly, with the funding that we have available, there is more work being done in soil carbon than there ever has been before. It goes in two ways. One is in terms of measurement—not simply measuring the improvement in the soil but measuring how much carbon still finds its way out. The second is working out ways of integrating that with farm practices. There has been one simple rule that I have put over the programs there under Australia’s Farming Future: when research and development are being done into carbon sequestration, I want there to be an alignment between improved carbon levels in the soil and improved productivity. Regardless of where any other policy gets, if you get a productivity dividend, that is the best way of making sure you get uptake by farmers.