Mr HOGAN (Page) (12:22): I rise to speak on and support the Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 and the cognate bills, the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment Bill 2013 and Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Amendment Bill 2013.
I welcome the government’s recognition of the importance of rural R&D, particularly in agriculture, fisheries and forestry, three very important industries in my electorate of Page.
These three sectors provide more than five per cent of the jobs in the Northern Rivers, more than double the state average. In the township of Kyogle they account for 22 per cent of jobs, while in the Richmond Valley, where the Casino meatworks is a major employer, manufacturing makes up 20 per cent, of which 75 per cent is directly attributed to food manufacturing. However, in the five years to 2011, employment in agriculture has shrunk by more than three per cent. We have also seen major job losses and mill closures in the forestry sector over the same period. This may simply sound like dry statistics to some, but for my community it is about jobs and putting food on the family table, and this is why I am supporting this bill.
I was a farmer and, before, during and after the election I spoke to many other farmers about issues they confront on a daily basis. One thing that has come through loud and clear is that they are an innovative bunch and understand the importance of R&D in keeping their industries competitive, both domestically and internationally. They know they simply cannot sand still and that they must evolve and use best practice.
The same is true of our rural research and development corporations, which provide the mechanism for our primary sectors to invest collectively in services that will benefit their industries, such as R&D and sometimes marketing ones. These RDCs have an enviable record and the nation’s R&D model has served it extremely well. As another speaker has previously noted, over recent decades Australia’s rural productivity has increased at twice the rate of those of other Australian industries and has been driven by our rural R&D. For this reason alone it is time to give all the RDCs the necessary arsenal to see Australia through the 21st century and beyond—that is, the ability to provide marketing services if the industry wants it and is prepared to strike a levy to pay for it.
It is well known in regional Australia that the benefits of R&D far outweigh the costs, and I must say there is nothing better than good old Aussie ingenuity. Need somewhere to hang your clothes? An Aussie invents the ubiquitous Hills hoist. Want to mow your lawn? An Aussie invents the Victa. And, of course, when the world wanted the perfect eating apple, an Aussie came up with the Pink Lady. I could go on and on but I am sure you get the idea. Australians are good at thinking outside the box and at seeing things anew and finding innovative solutions. That is what our rural industries need, not bailouts but assistance in doing what we do best: doing things better than our competitors. This bill will encourage more private sector investment in RDCs by allowing the government to match funding for voluntary R&D contributions.
As I have said, agriculture, fisheries and forestry are the central planks of the economy that support the livelihood of the people of my electorate. Those industries face many challenges in the years and decades ahead—the ongoing effect of the high Australian dollar, a changing climate and intense global competition—yet I am proud to say the people of Page are optimists. Instead of wallowing in despair and self-fulfilling defeat, they rise to any challenge and search for the opportunities—and there are many. As the Northern Rivers looks to become one of Australia’s major food bowls, our fresh and processed produce is in increasing demand. The local food industry group, Northern Rivers Food, has also positioned some of our produce in the premium boutique end of the market thanks to a very successful marketing campaign. As Australia’s and Asia’s populations expand export opportunities abound but we must not be complacent. We must actively grab the future to make sure it happens.
Our R&D model must be updated to help Australian producers make the most of the opportunities when they present themselves. This has the added benefit of providing food security and keeping the sector profitable and sustainable. Let me give you a concrete example of how this bill will help the people of Page. During my maiden speech I made mention of the seaside communities of Ballina, Iluka and Yamba that are dotted along Page’s 100 kilometres of coastline. As I am sure many members of this House will know, Ballina is the home of the Big Prawn. Indeed that recognition of the importance of the prawning industry is held so dear in our collective hearts that when it was proposed to knock it down a community campaign was waged and not only rated its own segment on the David Letterman show in the US but also led Bunnings to rebuild an even bigger prawn. Yet while we love our Big Prawn, the industry itself is under threat from international competition. Presently only 22 per cent of prawns in New South Wales are caught locally. The rest, sadly, are imported.
This brings me back to the bill. In anticipation of the amendment to allow statutory RDCs to undertake marketing, the Australian agricultural and wildcatch prawn industry have jointly explored the idea for a national prawn marketing campaign. Both groups have already made voluntary contributions to the Love Australian Prawns campaign being rolled out in retail and wholesale seafood stores, and here I must nod to Woolworths, which has put all of their merchandising in their supermarkets free of charge. So successful has this ‘Australian-made’ campaign been so far that the Ballina fishermen’s co-op manager, Phil Hilliard, said they could not keep up with demand at last month’s Ballina Prawn Festival and quickly sold out. Mr Hilliard and the rest of the prawn industry are keen to see this amendment passed as it will allow the industry to establish a statutory levy which in turn will allow the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation to undertake more marketing campaigns and help our prawn fishers increase their market share.
Allow me to turn my attention to another industry that I hold dear to my heart, and that is macadamias. The Northern Rivers are the home of the macadamia, Australia’s only native nut. I cannot overstress the importance of this industry to the livelihoods of the people of Page. The combination of the macadamia’s unique flavour, texture and heritage is a source of great pride among those in the industry and the wider community.
Hidden behind the windbreak trees on most of our country roads are vast orchards of macca trees, some with more than half a million trees. In 2012, 8,300 tonnes of macadamia kernels were sold, 5,300 tonnes of which were sent offshore, putting Australia’s macadamias second to almonds on the list of the country’s top tree nut exports, with a value of more than $120 million. The industry provides approximately $376 million of economic value to its local communities, represented by direct and indirect employment—sales of goods and services to the industry and the industry’s direct sales.
The industry has a strong track record of innovation and adoption underpinned by arguably the best macadamia research and development program in the world. The macadamia has one of the highest investments in research and development relative to its GDP of any Australian horticultural industry, at more than $4 million annually. Export of Australia’s native nut is on the rise, with production rapidly expanding backed by firm global demand. This is led by Asia, making home-grown macadamias one of the nation’s top horticultural exports and unrivalled leaders in the world trade. Yet, there are competitors in the wings wanting to grab some of our market share. The industry must stay on the cutting edge to keep Australia at the forefront.
I also note a report on my local radio station, 2LM, this morning about two innovative field trials being undertaken by the tea-tree industry around Casino, which have been jointly funded by the industry, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry. DPI researcher Gary Baker said that by using plant cuttings they can yield the same oil concentration as from three- to four-year-old seedlings. He said that in the first year the cuttings should produce 40 per cent more yield than seedlings, which covers the extra costs associated with producing cuttings. After that increase, yield in years 2 and 3 is pure profit. The implications of this research could transform the industry.
Ballina Fishermens Co-op manager, Phil Hilliard, also spoke of the need to reduce red tape in the industry which, again, this bill addresses by removing the product-specific maximum levy rates. Put simply, this means that when an industry requests a change in the levy rate it can be done quickly and easily without changing the primary legislation. This will reduce the cost and delay when a sector decides to increase its investment in R&D and/or marketing. Nor will an RDC be required to seek ministerial approval for its annual operating plans, a time-consuming piece of red tape on both the government and the RDC.
I have said that Page has suffered the loss of hundreds of forestry jobs in recent years. I can only ponder what the local industry would have looked like today and how many people it would employ had these changes been brought in earlier. I say that because the forestry industry has long been reluctant to raise its general levy, as is its right. However, there has been much interest from businesses that want to invest in specific R&D projects. Under the changes, the government will be able to match voluntary contributions from businesses and thereby encourage more R&D, which could help turn the industry around.
Of course, when spending taxpayer money—even for a high return—we must always insist upon the highest level of transparency and accountability. This bill strikes the right balance by embedding these essential qualities while ensuring that RDCs are nimble enough to respond to changing industry and market conditions, ensuring their ongoing profitability and sustainability.
The transparency and accountability of the RDCs will be driven by such funding arrangements, which must be tabled in parliament and detail the RDCs’ corporate governance and performance. The formulation of the arrangements will also allow the government to provide guidance on research priorities and the needs of the broader Australian rural sector. For the people of Page, the passage of this legislation cannot come fast enough.