Speech – Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia Annual Conference


Les, Ladies and Gentlemen it’s a pleasure to be here with you all today and to join you at this very important conference and to start at the outset of course to join you in the celebration of one hundred years of commercial rice production in Australia. It’s a great achievement and something those in this room should be incredibly proud of and I do want to sincerely congratulate you and the many who have gone before you for the enormous contribution that you’ve made as rice producers in Australia. As you all know of course I come from across the border in South Australia, a State that doesn’t produce much rice for obvious reasons and a State that sometimes has a few misconceptions about the rice industry. I’m pleased to stand here and do as I’ve done before in these regions, in these States and in my home State, in Opposition, as well as in Government and say very clearly that I believe the rice industry has an incredibly important role to play, it does play a very important role and I hope it will continue to do so in the future, that the misconceptions held elsewhere are just that, that sectors that like yours that rely and use water in the manner in which you do are very appropriate to Australia’s climate and very appropriate to maximising the output and conditions that we hope for from Australian agriculture. So I want to congratulate you at the outset on the proud history of your industry, on the valuable contribution that you make and on what I hope very much is the bright future that you have. Now I in the roles that I’ve been in over the last few years in Opposition as the Shadow Spokesman with responsibilities in water and now in Government with responsibilities have been on a great learning journey to see and understand and better appreciate parts of the Murray-Darling system and all of the different uses both economic and environmental and deliverables that those different regions provide. And it’s been a great joy over that time to be able visit various regions including to visit the rice mills in areas like Deniliquin earlier this year and in Leighton a couple of years ago and to get a better appreciation of not just what happens on farm but to get a better appreciation of the value adding that the industry does and I think it is one of the things that stands out for the rice industry in Australia. Amongst other agricultural sectors that it’s not just that basic level of work that occurs in the industry of growing the grain, but it is of course the value adding that occurs through the milling process and through the fact that in large part we see rice marketed in Australia and around the world as branded product with all of the value adding that occurs there that adds to the reasons why this is such an important sector and one that we should be looking to have a bright future that you’re discussing at a conference like this.

Now it’s not just one hundred years since commercial rice farming commenced in Australia, but it’s also one hundred years since the first river Murray water agreement was signed in
Australia. We have learnt much in that one hundred year time of course about rice growing, about water management and about how the two relate to one another. Your work in that time as an industry and that of your ancestors and forebears has been of course particularly important. The innovation, the adaptation, the use of technology, the development of new grains, all of the different things that your sector has done over that time has of course enabled it to grow, enabled it produce not just higher quality crops and diversified crops and output for the Australian market and for export overseas but of course has ensured that as a sector you have become remarkably more water efficient in that time. With your industry estimates showing some gains in the order of 60 or 70 per cent in water efficiency as a result of the adaptation of new farming practices and new technologies.

It’s our priority as a Government to ensure that we have both healthy waterways and healthy rivers and healthy and productive river communities. And our policies are geared as a Government to try and to deliver on both of those very important objectives. And as the type of work that you have done as a sector to become more efficient, to become more productive over time that we want to see much more of in the future, right across the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, to be able to have confidence that we can have those healthy rivers as well as those healthy and productive river communities.

That’s why our Government whilst being committed to implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time has made some significant changes to the way in which it will be implemented. And we’ve outlined those changes through the water recovery strategy that we released a couple of months ago, which is the first time, the first time in the now nearly seven years of water buybacks and water investment by the Commonwealth Government, that we have actually had a clear strategy detailing how we intend to buyback water, how we intend to recover water for the environment, how and where that will occur, what the targets are, how the investments will be made and giving some degree of certainty to people within the Murray-Darling of the approach the Government intends to take. But of course it’s not just about putting out a strategy that matters and giving that certainty to people in a document that they can refer to that’s important, what is even more important is of course, what we’ve done and what’s in that strategy. And what we’ve done is we’ve made a very conscious commitment as a Government that aligns with what we said in Opposition to cap the level of buybacks that will be undertaken in the Murray-Darling at 1500 gigalitres, to reprioritise significantly the budget that we had towards water infrastructure, investment in things that make use of water more efficient, and so we are committing some $2.3 billion over the next few years towards those water saving activities. By doing this and making these changes we have confidence that we can see the Basin Plan implemented, but do so in a far more sympathetic manner. In a manner that ensures we can have healthy communities, productive farms working alongside a healthy river system.

The type of infrastructure projects that we’re committed to delivering upon, of course are things that those in this room are all too familiar with. We’re supporting and continue to support major system upgrades where possible through a range of programs generally tailored on a State by State basis. We are supporting investment in on farm upgrades and I’m very pleased that the Rice Growers Association has been a partner of the Commonwealth through numerous rounds of those on farm programs, but I’m particularly pleased that when we announced the last round of on farm upgrades, as a Government we again commensurate with our commitments to increase investment in infrastructure rather than buybacks we increased the amount that was committed to that on farm program. 

We went out initially saying that we’d invest about a $100 million in the latest round, because of the calibre and high quality and value for money of the offerings that were made, we extended that by more than $50 million to make sure that we could provide extra support and get extra programs rolled out. And I hope that over coming weeks and months and years we’ll be able to once again prove that we can make decision where we divert funding that might have gone in to buyback previously in to investment on farm and in systems that actually delivers benefits to the farmers and to the communities through the spending and activities that happen in those communities when those works are rolled out and gets the water back to the environment at the same time. The third leg as such of infrastructure works that we are committed to investing in, system upgrades being one part, on farm of course being the next part, the third leg are environmental works and measures. Actually making how the environmental outcomes that we seek from the management of the Basin ensuring that the water required for those activities is equally as efficient as we expect water for farming activities to be. And there has been some great pioneering work especially here in Victoria but great work done across all of the States to get us to a position where we can be striving to have more environmental works and measures that I hope will provide close to the 650 gigalitres worth of offsets that are allowable under the Basin Plan that was agreed by the Parliament. And if we can get that, then that will allow us to not only live well within, to not only meet our 1500 gigalitre cap on buybacks, but to live well within that cap and come in far closer to a 1300 gigalitre level of buybacks then the 1500.

And tomorrow I will be very pleased to join the Victorian Water Minister, Peter Walsh, where we will visit the Gunbower wetlands. One of the types of projects that demonstrates how it is you can manage to get efficiency in terms of water to environmental projects and not need to require as much entitlement from productive use because you are being more efficient about what you’re seeking to do with the environment. I had the pleasure of going late last year with Peter to the Hattah Lakes – another good example of this, and what we’re working with the states to do is see a list developed from each of those states of potential projects that can be funded in the period through to 2024 to give us that 650 gigalitres of potential offsets under the Basin Plan.

But our commitment of course to see the rice industry flourish and agriculture more generally flourish in Australia extends beyond those issues of the Basin Plan and its implementation and trying to make it more sympathetic to industries like yours. Our commitments goes in to broader areas of the Governments priorities including and particularly our priorities to reduce costs for business, to reduce red tape and to cut unnecessary or excessive bureaucracy. And in that area we’re pleased to have delivered recently on the repeal of the carbon tax, and I know from irrigation communities and districts from around Australia of course how energy intensive it is to shift water. What you’ve seen in terms of your costs and what you’ve felt in terms of those costs over those years is that electricity prices have gone up and up and up and I am hopeful that you will feel real benefits, we expect you to feel real benefits from the repeal of the carbon tax in terms of your electricity costs in that space.

In the water portfolio were trying to our bit to reduce other areas of red tape and bureaucracy. Earlier this year I announced a review o the Water Act and I’m pleased that so many organisations have taken the time to put submission in to that review. I’m very pleased that in reviewing the Water Act we have given particular priority to saying and looking at areas where we might be able to reduce compliance costs and red tape costs and bureaucratic costs for business. And I hope that there will particularly be a look at some of the reporting requirements on irrigation bodies, and irrigators themselves so we can ensure that people aren’t having to complete duplicate, triplicate arrangements in terms of reporting use or other activities to multiple different government agencies when these things should be streamlined wherever possible.

I want to make sure through the Water Act review and through feedback from you all that water trading and the water markets are working as effectively as they should be, but are also as low cost to you in terms of compliance as they should be.

And lastly in the area of reducing red tape and bureaucracy we’ve taken a decision as a Government to close the National Water Commission. Its ten years since the National Water Initiative commenced under the Howard Government and important inroads have been made in terms of reforms to the management of water as a result of the NWI. We acknowledge the good work that’s been done especially by the States and many irrigation districts to see significant reform achieved in terms of the management of our water resources and a creation of an effective market and trading opportunities for those water resources.

We now think it’s time that you no longer need a standalone bureaucratic organisation in the form of the NWC to operate, but the key functions in terms of auditing and compliance can be undertaken independently elsewhere in government.

Broader still from a government perspective, we of course want to see strong support for Australian agriculture in to the future. In Opposition Tony Abbott identified agriculture as one of the key killers of the Australian economy that he wanted to see supported should we form a government. As Prime Minister he together with Barnaby Joyce as Agriculture Minister have kicked off the process of the White Paper on agricultural competitiveness, that’s been taking submissions from around the country and will help to shape the types of polices and reforms as a government that we need to drive beyond our initial steps of red tape reduction and cost reduction like the carbon tax to help Australian agriculture be competitive into the future.

Alongside that we recognise that market access is so terribly important. And I know that coming into this conference and this room there’d be disappointment in some aspects of of course the market access gains that we’ve achieved elsewhere in the economy over the last year. We’re proud that we’ve managed to get trade and access agreements signed with Japan and with South Korea and we’re hopeful that we can get one finalised by year’s end with China. We wish of course that we’d been able, in the Japanese agreement in particular, to strike a better deal for the rice industry, but what we must accept and acknowledge is that across Australian agriculture it’s so very very important for us to strike these deals, to get them done to ensure that we don’t fall behind other economies in terms of market access across a range of different commodity types. But we haven’t forgotten the significance of rice in that regard, we know that your export markets are important and it is at the forefront of the government’s thinking as we work through other trade arrangements into the future.

So across those areas of water management, market access, reducing taxes, reducing red tape, as a Government we are trying to do our best to create the type of circumstances where industries like yours have a bright future. Ultimately, farmers are business people and you’re running businesses of course like any others around Australia and the commercial
conditions and the business decisions you make are indeed yours to make. Our job as a Government, is to try to ensure the arrangements and the structures we have put as few impediments in place in terms of your capacity and ability to succeed and that we do the best we can to create the right type of environment for you to do well as business people and as farmers into the future.

Hundred years ago of course few people starting out the commercial rice industry in Australia would have dreamt that we’d be having discussions talking about the export of rice to Asian nations and whether we had fair market access or not, because the idea of indeed sending rice into those nations was probably seen as a ridiculous one to start with. It’s a sign of the success of the industry that these issues are discussed today, and it’s a sign of all that so many have done in terms of the work over that hundred years that you have delivered an industry in which you can be proud of its work and it’s base and the jobs it’s created and the communities that have grown around it in that time and the future that you should be looking to as being so bright.

I walked in whilst the slide was still on the screen, not quite sure what I’ve done to the slides there, whilst the slide was still on the screen envisaging what the future could be in 2025. A future with 950,000 tonnes of production it said, 13 tonnes per hectare, 9 megalitres per hectare in terms of water use. And most importantly, on that slide, profitable. That word did not escape me on that slide. It’s a demonstration that as an industry you are rightly looking to the future. You know that you need to continually innovate, continue to adapt, continue to invest in new technologies, in new breeds, in new opportunities, and I congratulate you for that. As a Government we hope to be able to create that environment where the vision you’re outlining for 2025 can be met and I wish you every success in doing so. I want to thank you for you’re the work and cooperation that people like Les, and Ruth and many in this room have shown to me in time in opposition since we came into government and I really do look forward to continuing to work with you into the future in this role and I am very happy of course to take any questions today.

Thanks so very much.