Speech: Agriculture and water resources committee - report

Speech: Agriculture and water resources committee - report Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (17:13): I too would like to thank all the committee members on this inquiry. It's been a very interesting journey. I'd like to thank the secretariat for all your work. I think with COVID we have seen every type of hearing: phone hearings, in-person hearings and travel and, as Mr Gosling said, some interruptions with COVID. But nevertheless we got there.

I'm always delighted to have the opportunity to talk about farmers in my electorate and growing Australian agriculture. I come from a dairy farming family. Agriculture is very close to my heart. It's very close to who I am. The desire to fight for a fair go for our farmers, in particular our local dairy farmers, is one of the things that drove me into politics here in the first place.

It's absolutely clear we need to support our farmers to grow our agriculture industry. We need a national plan. Our farmers have been doing it tough for far too long, and, frankly, they deserve better. This government has failed our agriculture industry over and over again. It has no plan to address the real crises our farmers are dealing with every day. This report is, sadly, more proof of that—another opportunity lost.

Before I get to that, I want to acknowledge and thank all our local farmers for their incredible strength and resilience over the last several years, particularly in the face of the challenges the last 12 months or so have brought. Farmers on the South Coast have been suffering under a relentless drought for years. Then came the bushfires, then the floods, then finally a pandemic, which has made every day on farms even more challenging. Farmers don't like to ask for help; it isn't in their nature. But there is only so much anyone can take.

In the immediate aftermath of the bushfires, I heard so many harrowing stories from farmers about how they survived—farmers like Rob and Vince, who stayed on their farms and tried to protect their stock. Farmer Rob lost 150 of his dairy cows in devastating circumstances. Farmer Vince lost hundreds of bees, and even more were at risk in the days and weeks that followed with no food and no help. Farmer Greg, from Sassafras, who had been drought impacted for so long, was denied help because he hadn't been earning enough from his agriculture business in the lead-up to the fires. Why? Because of the drought.

I have rallied against this cruel decision to deny Greg financial support because his on-farm income was deemed too low under the government's arbitrary criteria. We thought we had a win, and Greg thought he was finally catching a break: in July the government announced they had changed the off-farm requirements, in recognition of the drought. But, once again, the sting in the tail was to come. The New South Wales Government continued to deny Greg's application for the Special Disaster Grant for Primary Producers. So I wrote to Minister Littleproud to ask him to again reconsider. I want to quote from the Minister's response now: 'The Rural Assistance Authority have advised that the grant application was refused, as Greg could not demonstrate that he earns or would earn at least 50 per cent income from primary production. The RAA also confirmed the eligibility changes announced in July were taken into account when considering Greg's application.'

This response is complete dumbfounding. It was more than devastating for Greg, who has told me that he feels abandoned and traumatised not only by the bushfires but now by the government. Greg can't meet the 50 per cent threshold, because the drought has meant he has had to find more off-farm income. The drought meant it wasn't possible to earn enough on the farm. He was told to reduce his stock, and he followed that advice. Now he is being punished, again, for doing what he had to do. I know I have repeated this already, and have said it many times in this chamber before, but it still beggars belief to me.

This is the drought that, over and over again, the Morrison government denied farmers in my electorate were experiencing. Clearly, they still think that—another case of announcement not matching delivery. Farmers like Daniel tried and tried again to access drought loans only to be told no, because they were not in drought according to the government. Farmer Daniel and other farmers like him told a very different story. Perhaps if the minister spent any time visiting with local farmers, he might actually see what that reality is on the ground.

The government loves to make flashy announcements, but all too often they are shown to be just that. Take, for example, the crisis that is unfolding across the country because there are not enough farm workers. It is no secret that our harvest is heavily reliant on backpackers, and we knew very early on that COVID-19 meant that backpackers were few and far between. But what did the Morrison government do? They waited until the industry was at breaking point. In mid-December the National Farmers Federation launched the National Lost Crop Register. By 8 January, 55 farmers from five different states and territories had anonymously registered losses of more than $38 million.

The federation said this was just the tip of the iceberg. The government's attempts to address this have been weak and piecemeal. It's our farmers who are suffering. We urgently need a national quarantine plan that will help to address some of these issues, but once again they have no plan.

Yet another critical issue in our farming sector is an ageing workforce. We are simply not doing enough to encourage young people to stay on family farms or to consider a career in farming. Dairy Connect is one organisation trying to do its bit to rectify this. The Young Dairy Network helps young people working on dairy farms to meet, connect and learn from each other. They participate in workshops, on-farm field days, professional and personal development opportunities, study tours, leadership programs and more.

It is fantastic to see, but more needs to be done. There is a real risk that we will end up losing sections of our agriculture industry simply because we are not doing enough to encourage the next generation of agriculture workers. As Labor noted in our dissenting report, we need to look at the possibility of a HECS system for agriculture. We need workforce development officers. We need a national plan. I feel a theme emerging here. Labor has made some further recommendations about that in our dissenting report.

I could talk about our agriculture industry all day. I am passionate about helping our farmers, and I'm dismayed if not disgusted with what I have seen from this government when it comes to support of farmers. They try so hard to pitch themselves as the friend of the farmer, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that farmers in my electorate want real action on climate change. Many people think this doesn't fit with agriculture, but that's not the case. Farmers have seen firsthand the climate changing.

Once again the government is all talk and no action in this space. Take for example the chair's foreword in this report. It has no mention of climate change. As Labor noted in our dissenting report, this simply fails to recognise the gravity of the threat that climate change poses to Australian agriculture.

Several witnesses, including the National Farmers' Federation, spoke about climate change representing one of the most significant threats to Australian agriculture reaching the goal of $100 billion by 2030. There is also no recommendation in the government's report about how we will deal with this threat. This speaks volumes about the Morrison government's real agenda.

Farmers are doing what they can instead. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that an exciting new project in Nowra is getting off the ground. A large-scale renewable energy biogas power generation plant is in the works. The unit will receive manure from dairy farms in Terara, Numbaa, Pyree and Brundee from an underground pipe and will extract the methane gas to produce clean, green energy. This will then be shared by 18 local dairy farmers who are supporting this great initiative. While the project might be being assisted by a Commonwealth grant, it is being driven by the private sector and by local farmers. Because the government does not have a broader climate change policy, they are still mincing their words about how they will reach net zero by maybe, hopefully, possibly 2050. That isn't enough. Once again, we need a national plan.

One other issue which I simply don't have time to explore here, but which is so important to note, is that the government has no national disaster plan. My electorate has seen the consequences of this. We need to ensure that that is taken into consideration.