Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (10:28): I look forward to participating in the debate regarding the Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016 and associate myself with the comments particularly of the member for Forrest, who is an outstanding advocate for the dairy industry. I also welcome the comments from the member for Indi, my neighbour. There is only a mountain range between us. I congratulate the member for Indi on her advocacy on behalf of agricultural industries. I also note while I have the opportunity that she has a very strong candidate running against her from the National Party at the next election: a fellow by the name of Marty Corboy, who is an equally strong advocate for regional Australia and agricultural sectors. I assume it is going to be a strong and fair fight and I am confident the best man or woman will win when the time comes.
I associate myself with the comments of my colleagues who have spoken so strongly on behalf of the dairy industry, because the dairy industry is such a vital industry to Australia. It is important to reflect on the number of dairy farms in Australia—there are more than 6,000 dairy farms—and, as the member for Forrest, correctly remarked in her contribution: getting up every day, early, milking cows twice a day, providing food for not only Australians but also throughout the world makes the national dairy herd of 1.7 million cows an incredibly important asset to the Australian agriculture sector.
In Gippsland alone, the agricultural total product in terms of dairy product from the farming sector, manufacturing and export industries is in the order of $3 billion per year. There are about 6½ thousand people directly or indirectly engaged in farming and processing in Gippsland associated with the dairy industry; and over 1400 dairy farms across the broader Gippsland region, which includes the electorate of Gippsland but also the electorate of Macmillan so strongly supported by my colleague, the member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent.
It is a very important industry for the future of Gippsland, and there are huge opportunities for the future, which I will reflect on in a moment’s time. In particular, the opportunity for us in the dairy industry in the Gippsland electorate relates to the Macalister Irrigation District, which is the heart of dairying in my electorate. It is a powerhouse for the dairy sector not just in Gippsland but also for Australia. The Macalister Irrigation District also has a significant vegetable production industry, creating more than $500 million for the Victorian economy each year and underpinning the growth and security of Gippsland’s rural communities.
What I am working on at the moment, as the member for Gippsland, is the effort by the community, Southern Rural Water, the dairy industry and the horticultural industry to further modernise the Macalister Irrigation District—a project which will deliver benefits in the order of $45 million to $50 million per year, and cost in the order of $60 million to modernise. The food related activities depend on the Macalister Irrigation District are calling Australian governments at both state and federal level to modernise and carry out the next stage of the irrigation infrastructure upgrade.
I have been very fortunate in my time as the member for Gippsland to have had visits from Labor members of parliament who were interested in the agriculture sector and the former Labor parl sec Sid Sidebottom but also, in more recent times, the former Deputy Prime Minister, my great friend the member for Wide Bay, Warren Truss; and the current Deputy Prime Minister and minister for agriculture, Barnaby Joyce. They visited Gippsland, because they appreciate the value of the agriculture sector to our community but, in more recent times, it is about giving them the opportunity to see what we could do with a little more government investment.
We are working as a community to secure funding for the major upgrades of the Southern-Tinamba project and the irrigation infrastructure supply system, which will help us meet future growth in global dairy demand. It will help us create a healthier environment for the Gippsland Lakes, which I am particularly passionate about. It will promote high-value land use and increased farm productivity.
On the issue of the Gippsland Lakes, it is worth noting in today’s debate that our farmers have been very active in reducing the amount of nutrients that flow into the creeks and rivers which feed the Gippsland Lakes system. This helps reduce the likelihood of algal blooms, which have been so devastating in the past for the tourism industry. It has worked, because governments have been prepared to provide some seed funding for the farmers to do whole-of-management plans and nutrient reduction work. The farmers, having secured that seed funding, have then capitalised and put their own money into reducing the amount of nutrients leaving their farms. They are not only benefiting from increased productivity on their own farms but also the environment clearly benefits with the reduction in nutrients going into the Gippsland Lakes system.
What we are keen to see in Gippsland and the Macalister Irrigation District is the investment between state government, federal government and the farmers themselves in a joint effort to improve the supply system. It will provide in the order of 9,700 megalitres in savings from the current system. These water savings can obviously be used to further support growth and expansion in the dairy and horticultural sector in Gippsland.
We have had some level of interest from the state government, which has been good to see. Unfortunately, the state government has tied its funding commitment to the Port of Melbourne sale process, so it remains to be seen whether that goes ahead. However, I still think the Victorian agriculture minister and water resources minister should be making the commitment untied to any asset sales just on the basis of the economic value it will provide to the Victorian and Gippsland economy.
As I mentioned, I have had the Deputy Prime Minister and agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, visit the region. He appreciates the importance of this project, and it has been recognised as one of those projects that may be available to seek funding under the government’s water infrastructure plans—and more detail will be forthcoming in the weeks and months ahead.
Regarding the bill specifically, it is important to note that the dairy industry supports the legislation that the government is bringing to the House. It has the support of dairy farmers across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, and United Dairyfarmers Victoria are on board. So it is important that the industry is supportive of the measures being put to the House today.
The bill implements a request from the Australian dairy industry to introduce some flexibility into the dairy levy process. The dairy levy raises in the order of $34½ million, and the Commonwealth funds to support Dairy Australia for R&D are in the order of $22 million. So it is a significant sum of money we are talking about.
The dairy industry has expressed concern about the regulatory and financial burden associated with holding a dairy levy poll every five years as required under the Dairy Produce Act. This bill will remove that requirement, so it is a measure that reduces red tape. It reduces a cost that has been imposed on the dairy industry. It is in the order of a million dollars to hold that levy poll every five years, and the industry is keen to have that flexibility in the arrangements into the future. So the money that is being used to run an election as such will then be available for the R&D work and other activities that are associated with the use of the farmers’ dairy levy.
The dairy farmers—and I take the point raised by the member for Indi—do not lose their democratic right by any stretch. In circumstances where the majority of dairy farmers support the current rate of levy and where there is no widespread demand for a change to the levy, it makes sense to allow the dairy industry to avoid holding a poll, enabling those funds to be put to productive use. So this bill will require there to be a dairy levy poll only when a change in the rate of the dairy levy is proposed, and this will provide the industry with the flexibility around the timing of levy polls. So the bill entrenches the democratic power of dairy farmers themselves to control and determine any changes in the rate of the dairy service levy.
I note the concerns raised by the member for Indi but can offer her reassurance that the democratic power of dairy farmers across Australia has not been eroded in any way, shape or form under the bill put before the House. They still retain control in the way that the dairy service levy is utilised and, in the case of it going to be increased, if they want to have a vote on it, they certainly may, as the time comes.
In closing, I wish to acknowledge the important work being carried out by the Minister for Agriculture in support of the dairy industry in Gippsland. I will continue to lobby him, as you would expect, to secure funding for the Macalister Irrigation District upgrades. He would expect me to do that at every opportunity.
Since I have taken over the role of Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, I have found I have a lot more friends in this place that I realised. I have many friends from both sides of this House who have taken the time to have a chat with me about their own infrastructure projects in their electorates, as you would expect they would. I certainly will be amenable and open to those discussions, just as I will, as the member for Gippsland, continue to extol the virtues of the Macalister Irrigation District to the Minister for Agriculture and encourage him to come good with some funding at the appropriate time. That is what we do as members of the House of Representatives. We come here to argue our case as fiercely and parochially as we can to try to ensure that our communities receive a fair share of government funding whenever it is available to us.
I congratulate those opposite for supporting the changes as proposed by the Minister for Agriculture and I commend the dairy industry for the work it is doing in supporting jobs growth and prosperity, not just in Gippsland but throughout Australia. I commend the bill to the House
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Irons ): I thank the minister for his contribution and note that I have been his friend for some time.