PLANT BIOSECURITY AMENDMENT BILL 2013

I rise to make a contribution on behalf of the opposition in relation to the Plant Biosecurity Amendment Bill 2013. I indicate from the outset that Labor does not oppose the bill but that I will seek to raise a number of matters and that Labor will be moving a reasoned amendment to the second-reading motion.

The context for this is that when it was in government, Labor was very supportive of the farming sector, particularly in helping it to meet the large-scale biosecurity threats that are an inevitable part of agricultural life, including locusts — as we know, there was a very significant locust threat — animal diseases and imported pests. This was done through the coordinated statewide biosecurity strategy.

As the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, who is at the table today, would know very well, the Plant Biosecurity Act 2010 is the key legislative framework which underpins what I say is very much a bipartisan position across this Parliament in relation to protecting the crucial resources and the competitive edge Victoria enjoys in agricultural production through the management of pests and diseases and the facilitation of the timely movement of local produce to local, interstate and international markets.

Labor placed a very strong emphasis on this aspect. In some contexts it was billed as an important part of the food bowl, and the initiatives of our government in relation to the management of waterways and irrigation and so forth are generally regarded — putting aside the north-south pipeline, which we will not go to — —

I will not bother responding to the member for Benalla’s interjection, but generally we have tried to work in a cooperative fashion with the agricultural sector to ensure not only the long-term viability of that sector but also that it maintains its competitive advantage, which is about not only biosecurity threats but also the threats from other markets in terms of the dumping of product into our market.

I will later turn separately to the question of SPC Ardmona and the particular challenges the growers in the communities of Shepparton, Mooroopna and the surrounding districts have had to confront. As we know, the act provides for the Department of Environment and Primary Industries to direct a landowner to take action to address a plant, pest or disease risk that poses a threat to neighbouring crops. If a landowner does not comply with the direction within an adequate and specified time, the department can carry out the direction, and the cost of actions undertaken by the department may be charged back to the non-compliant land-holder at the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security’s discretion.

The bill provides an additional option for the department to recover costs by way of a charge on the land if the non-compliant landowner cannot pay the debt incurred by the department. That is quite a reasonable proposition, and that is why we are not opposing this bill in a general sense. There is no doubt that many land-holders find themselves in a very impecunious position. As I indicated, I will come back to the Shepparton experience in a couple of moments.

Obviously this charge is an additional option for cost recovery in the event of the transfer of the land in question. The department can then in effect garnish the ongoing indebtedness relating to the intervention. It also prevents the occasional legal proceedings taken against farmers for, frankly, no end result.

We think this is a sensible measure. The vehicle that would be used by the department would be the charge, which would be ahead of first mortgagees such as financial institutions but not ahead of other statutory charges, such as land tax or unpaid local government rates. It is often the case that people find themselves in a situation where ultimately there is a foreclosure on their land; a whole range of debtors line up seeking to have their debts discharged. In that context we recognise that this is a sensible amendment. However, I move:

That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted with the view of inserting in their place the words ‘this house refuses to read this bill a second time until the government commits funding for plant industries in the Goulburn Valley that have been issued with infested land notices’.

I do that in the context of meetings we had at Shepparton. I was joined at Shepparton by the shadow Minister for Regional and Rural Development and the Premier. We were Shepparton for the entire day, where we Indeed the future Premier. We met with a broad range of groups — local governments and so forth.

One of the most compelling conversations we had was a meeting, facilitated by the City of Greater Shepparton, with fruit growers who had been very dramatically affected by, in effect, the scaling back of SPC’s contracts with fruit growers in the region. There were two reasons it was a compelling conversation. When you talk to those fruit growers you perceive a real sense of desperation. Here were people who had been not exclusively but very reliant for their ongoing income on contracts and often on very strong relationships that had existed between what I will call these farming or agricultural communities and SPC Ardmona.

Their concern was obviously that with the contraction in the market and with the dumping of products from other countries into our stores, the capacity for SPC, as it was explained to us, to be competitive in some of these environments was being severely constrained.

One of the really compelling stories that was told to us by the SPC representatives, as I recall, was about the dumping of fruit that had come from South Africa. That fruit was being put on the shelf for sale in Shepparton stores at a price slightly less than the cost of SPC getting its product to its door — not having the cans transported out of the door of SPC’s manufacturing base but just having them labelled and brought to its door. How can you compete with that sort of strategy of massive dumping of product from overseas?

There are other complexities in the way SPC is trying to restructure itself to maintain a competitive environment. That was a very compelling example given to us of what that very fine industry is up against in the national and international marketplace and, translated to the local level, what that means for those farmers — those agriculturalists and orchardists — in the region.

The crucial issue they wanted to talk to us about was the need of some of those farmers, where there is no income coming in, to in effect grow out — I think that is the correct term we use — those non-productive trees. That is done, again, because there is no income coming in and to ensure that no biosecurity risk emerges from those trees as they move into budding.

The government was asked to support this crucial industry with an investment of $3 million to support the farmers in that area. You would be hard pressed, I think, if you had sat around and listened to those farmers to see why this would not be done. Both from the point of view of supporting this crucial industry in the region and from the point of view of its potential biosecurity threat, why would you as a government not respond in a positive fashion to this frankly pretty modest request?

At one level the minister may well seek to respond to this by referring to tight budgets and so forth, but there is a facility available to government. Where you have what I would argue is a security risk — in this context, a biosecurity risk — government can call upon a Treasurer’s advance. The facility of the Treasurer’s advance is very well known. It is well established across governments that where you have an issue that is critical to a particular region or a response required by a government in exceptional circumstances, the minister of the day can call upon and make application to the Treasurer for a Treasurer’s advance.

 My colleague the member for Ivanhoe points out where other investments have occurred in relation  to various projects.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better example of where an investment would make a real difference for a farming community and more broadly the capacity to mitigate the risk of an outbreak affecting biosecurity.

I hope that in summing up the minister addresses these questions. We are obviously continuing to follow up with the community up there, and why the government has not responded positively to this request to address this is a mystery to the community. Given that we are in budding season and that there are blossoms and so forth, there may still be time for an intervention by the government. This issue brings together not only many of the key organisations whose raison d’ tre is to support farming communities more generally, particularly the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), but also other groups that have been very vocal in saying to the government that this is a simple and easy ask.

This is $3 million which would address a crucial need in the community and a matter that has implications that apply, as the minister knows very well, much more broadly than in the Goulburn Valley region. This has very significant implications, and to date the government has remained silent.

The government was asked for $3 million to support the community in the Shepparton-Goulburn Valley region, which is supported by the VFF, by the local council, by SPC Ardmona and obviously by the growers themselves, but the government has remained silent.

Of course the counterpoint is obvious, and the member for Ivanhoe has already flagged where I might be going. We can allocate enormous resources — $8 billion — to a tunnel, but we cannot find $3 million to support this most crucial intervention. It is not as if the minister has to take it out of his own budget.

He knows very well he could either take this to cabinet or make a submission directly to the Treasurer. I have forgotten the exact figure in the Treasurer’s advance, but it is in the area of $100 million or so. It is something around that figure and maybe a bit more. The minister could say, ‘Please, I need a little bit. I need $3 million to support this crucial industry going forward’; to date the minister has remained silent in that space.

However, it is interesting to note the positions of a number of his colleagues, and indeed the federal member for Murray, Dr Sharman Stone, has taken up the cudgels here on behalf of her region. I will read a small portion of a letter Dr Sharman Stone has penned, which states:

It should be like the state response to an anthrax outbreak —

this is her support for the need for some intervention and some funds to be provided —

or the fire blight scare many years ago. Instead, the Victorian agriculture minister, Peter Walsh, persists in repeatedly saying no to the pleadings of the industry, the VFF and anyone else who is dumbfounded by the refusal to assist. This is such a false economy. It is not a personal boon to individual growers; it is an investment in the reputation and future earnings of a multibillion-dollar industry.

I could not have said it any more eloquently or any more succinctly than that statement by the local federal member, Dr Sharman Stone. I note that the minister was on Ballarat radio seeking to defend his position on 29 July, trying to defend himself against allegations that he was walking away from the industry and arguing that he wants to work with the industry.

Of course he wants to work with the industry. We all want to work with the industry, because we all want to make sure that the unique competitive advantages that that region has, not just in a local context but in national and international contexts, are protected. I would have thought one of the absolutely fundamental aspects of that is that we maintain our biosecurity record and that richly earnt reputation that this fantastic part of the world which I know so well enjoys, because it is crucial to the economy of this state.

I think the challenge before the minister is simply to explain not just to the Parliament but to the fruit growers in Shepparton, to Greater Shepparton City Council and to his former colleagues at the VFF why he has sat on his hands and why he has not gone to his colleague the Treasurer and said, ‘For goodness sake, in the Treasurer’s advance of $100 million-plus that’s available, if this is not an appropriate use of the Treasurer’s advance for the purpose of supporting a potential security issue in this region — in this context a biosecurity threat that may emerge — then what else is a better use of the Treasurer’s advance?’. It would be a very appropriate use of the Treasurer’s advance, and to date, as far as we can work out, the minister either has not gone or has been knocked back, but the bottom line is that he has failed that community.

The member for Benalla says, ‘We’re standing behind our man’, which is the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, and good on you, but you are not standing behind the community of Shepparton. You are not standing behind the community of the Goulburn Valley and you have done nothing to support those — —

The Nationals members who are cheering on the minister here ought to think very carefully about this, because whilst we can have a little bit of to and fro here in the Parliament, this is actually about people’s lives. This is about the lives and incomes of really decent folk — people who are working the land, people who come to a meeting and look you in the eye and say, ‘We are up against it. We are really up against it here, through no fault of our own’. Through their hard work, their sweat and their labour they have lived off the land, and they are now in a circumstance, through no fault of theirs, where for a whole range of reasons the economic conditions of SPC Ardmona, the major source of income for them, are causing that income to dry up.

I would have thought that members of The Nationals would reach a hand out to their community and say, ‘We stand shoulder to shoulder with you.

We, the chattering backbenchers, are going to go to the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security and say, –No, we have to find a way to support this community. We have to find $3 million to support this community to address a crucial biosecurity threat in its region–‘.

It is not just a biosecurity threat; it is a threat to the reputation of the region. We have seen the situation where unfortunately powdered milk coming out of New Zealand, thought to be clean and green, was allegedly contaminated going into the Chinese market. That industry was almost destroyed in one fell blow. Do we want to be in a circumstance where the magnificent Goulburn Valley and all its extraordinary produce is placed under threat because of the failure of this government to make this small, simple and easy investment that is going to make a difference to the lives of the community? I would suggest not.

That is why we have moved this reasoned amendment, which says, ‘Do not continue to debate this bill. Reach out to communities, farmers, agriculturalists, the city of Shepparton and the Victorian Farmers Federation and say, –We stand unequivocally with you–‘. The opposition stands with them. We called upon the government after our visit to the region, and we call upon the government here in the people’s Parliament today to stand up. The Nationals members should stand up.

The member for Benalla may think this is a joke, but we do not. This is about people’s lives. It is about the livelihood of all people in agriculture, but more than that it is about the threat to that regional economy which pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the Victorian economy. I advise the member for Benalla that it is not a laughing matter.

It is a very serious matter and one for which there is a potential remedy available to those opposite today. The minister could write a cheque today to that community and say, ‘Here is the $3 million that is going to make a fundamental difference in the lives of growers and ensure the long-term integrity of that quite crucial agricultural economy’.

Those opposite have two options. They can continue with all the other commitments they have made — $8 billion for the tunnel and millions of dollars for the frolic down at Flinders Street station — or they can stand with the community that they say they represent. Here is their opportunity. We will have a division at 4 o’clock today, and we will be watching very closely how members of The Nationals vote going forward.

They should have the guts to stand with the community members doing it hard up there in Shepparton and in the Goulburn Valley more generally and demonstrate, perhaps for the first time, that they have the integrity and the guts to stand up to this government and say, ‘We stand with that community. We need that $3 million because it is absolutely crucial to the people we represent’. The opportunity will be there for those opposite at 4 o’clock today, and we will be watching.