Second reading

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (15:25): I am pleased to rise to say a few words on the Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, which is an omnibus bill that covers a wide range of things. But I want to start by seeing if I can get a rise by saying I am pleased to rise as the member for Gippsland South, the greatest agricultural electorate in the state, particularly the greatest dairy electorate in the state.

Mr Eren: Calm down. We’re not bad in the west.

Mr D O’BRIEN: I am surprised, member for Lara, that the member for Polwarth did not beat you to it.

Mr Riordan interjected.

Mr D O’BRIEN: The member for Polwarth does indeed represent a very good dairy electorate, but Gippsland South has got it all. We do, I would say, probably with the member for Polwarth, the member for Murray Plains and perhaps the member for South-West Coast, represent the main dairy electorates across the state. It is indeed a massive industry for Victoria, as it is for my electorate—likewise, beef in particular. Really dairy and beef underpin a huge proportion of the employment and industry in my electorate, and aren’t they loving it at the moment? In particular in the beef sector we have had a couple of very good seasons on the back of good prices. Indeed whilst input costs are going up constantly—whether is electricity, fertiliser, urea and the like, or diesel in particular at the moment of course too—at the same time our dairy farmers are enjoying good prices thanks to strong global demand.

Likewise, in my electorate we are actually seeing an increase in the output per hectare, if you like, in terms of the value of production, as a number of horticultural producers have come into my electorate. We have already got some fantastic salad growers—Covino Farms at Longford is one of the biggest in the state. Indeed I think Gippsland has eight of the top 10 salad producers in the country, including Schreurs down in Middle Tarwin, who have moved in with predominately celery production. I think there is great opportunity for it to grow further in Gippsland South, both in South Gippsland, where we have naturally excellent rainfall and soils, but also in Central Gippsland, where the Macalister irrigation district is a powerhouse of production—historically in dairy, but it is growing more so in horticulture.

I have been pushing the government for some time now for further expansion of irrigation in Central Gippsland, particularly along the Latrobe River. I note there is some money in the budget announced today for the implementation of the central and southern sustainable water strategy. I would hope though that the government actually does follow through with some of the recommendations or the comments in the draft SWS, particularly those on providing more water that is currently sitting in a dam unused by the power industry that could be used for irrigation broadly along the Latrobe. There are great opportunities for existing farmers and for new people to come in.

This bill has a wide range of changes. I think there are amendments to 11 different acts, many of them relating to authorised officers in respect of ag and vet chemicals, plant biosecurity and drugs, poisons and controlled substances and the like. The point, I guess, I would like to make is that it is all well and good to be making changes to clarify or increase the powers of authorised officers, but if you do not actually have any authorised officers it does not make much sense. We have seen under this government over the last couple of years significant job cuts—145 across Agriculture Victoria, which were reported in February of this year, on top of another 47 last year, which were predominantly soil researchers. We hear whenever these come up. We hear a lot from government members about supposed cuts under Liberal and National governments, but they never actually acknowledge that they are doing these cuts, particularly in the agricultural sector and in Agriculture Victoria.

We often hear the minister say in response, ‘Oh, well, but these won’t affect the services provided to Victorians and to Victorian farmers’. It does beg the question: well, what are those people doing now if their loss is not going to mean anything? So while we see the level of executives, particularly in the public service, skyrocketing under this government, we are actually seeing the number of people on the ground—authorised officers, extension officers and the like in Agriculture Victoria—reduced. To go with that we see in the budget today that, whilst the budget papers claim an increase in the budget for agriculture under the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, in fact when you look at the revised figure for 2021–22 of $551.9 million and the budget figure for next year of $504.1 million, that is a $47.8 million cut to the agricultural output budget—in today’s budget papers released—or 8.6 per cent, so a significant cut. You do wonder, ‘Well, how are all these changes in this legislation to be implemented when there is such a significant cut to both the staffing levels and the actual budget of the agriculture department within DJPR?’. This is on top of significant cuts last year to both agriculture and regional development and is a significant issue going forward.

I might just touch on clauses 89 to 107, which talk about the Farm Debt Mediation Act 2011 and include expanding the definition of ‘farming operation’ to include forestry and aquaculture. And just briefly on farm forestry, it is an area of considerable opportunity for Victoria, but on plantations more specifically it is an issue again of great failure by this government. We saw an announcement in 2017 of $110 million from the government to establish new plantations in the Latrobe Valley, which was in part to try and address the shortfall in plantations and was subsequently relied on by the government to say, ‘It’s part of our transition out of native forest harvesting’. But what has happened with that $110 million? We are now five years down the track—literally five years today since the 2017 budget—and that $110 million has not gone anywhere. There is not widespread new plantation—indeed, from the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee we have been able to ascertain that so far just 500 hectares of plantations have been planted under that scheme and indeed they were not new plantations; they were government plantations on land that had previously been leased by HVP. So it is a net gain of zero in terms of forestry plantations, and that is not helping with our food and fibre production in this state, it is not helping with our exports and it is particularly at the moment not helping with the cost of building materials and subsequently the issues that are affecting the state in terms of housing and housing affordability. So the government stands condemned for being all press release and no action on that issue. I would be concerned as to where it goes in future as well, and there is nothing further in the budget today to give us any hope that that situation will improve.

In other aspects of the bill it certainly does touch on weeds and pest animals, and every rural MP will tell you that is one of the biggest bugbears of our farmers, not just from their neighbours but their roadsides. The Crown and indeed state land more broadly, whether it is state forests or national parks, are havens for weeds and pest animals, and I do not believe this government has given that issue serious enough consideration, including—and I go back to the issue of authorised officers—one of the issues that I get pretty much every year, which is the issue of ragwort in particular, blackberries and thistles in the hills, particularly in the Strzelecki Ranges. It is often about absentee neighbours—absentee landholders—but there is just not the effort from the department these days to enforce the existing rules. We can make changes to the legislation here today, but it is the enforcement of the existing rules, which is very, very much in my experience dependent on the actual ag officers within the department. There are some that have been great and they have a good reputation, but there are others where nothing is done and landholders who are doing the wrong thing simply do not get punished under the existing law.

This bill does tidy up a lot of areas. The opposition is not opposing this legislation. It is an omnibus bill with a lot of minor changes involved. But I say again there is no point making these changes trying to strengthen our agriculture sector when at the same time this government is taking it away by cutting jobs in Agriculture Victoria, cutting the agriculture budget and ensuring that we do not have the future that we should as an agricultural producing state.

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