Higher education and skills training to support agriculture and agribusiness in Australia report

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:43): I want to congratulate Senator Back, Senator McKenzie and the other members of the committee on the report Higher education and skills training to support agriculture and agribusiness in Australia. It has just been tabled, so I have not yet had the opportunity to read it in detail. But, having heard the principal recommendation, I have to say that it is most appropriate. The timing of the tabling of the report is impeccable. Many of my colleagues and I yesterday attended the breakfast put on by the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education, who had a roundtable here coinciding with the roundtable on the Rebuilding the agricultural workforce report yesterday morning and the previous day. There were a lot of discussion group meetings in this parliament about the very issue which is the subject of this report. What I heard from the leading people in agriculture and agricultural education at breakfast yesterday morning was that we need one centre to coordinate all of the teaching areas. So the recommendation by the committee is prescient and, as I said, very timely. Coming from a rural town in North Queensland, I well understand the need for skills training in agriculture and the importance of getting people to focus on a future in agriculture. Whilst a lot of work is being done in skills training, as I mentioned at the breakfast yesterday it is no good getting a workforce skilled in agricultural areas unless there is someone to employ them. Frankly, I do worry about the future of our agricultural industries. Most of our agricultural industries are price takers and every impost that contributes to their cost of production makes our farmers less viable. The carbon tax, on top of every other tax, and difficult workplace relationships with the awards and regulations in the workplace make it more difficult for our farmers to make a quid. Unless they are able to make a quid, regrettably they will not be around for long. The first thing many friends of mine who are farmers advise their children is to not come onto the farm and to go and get a university education and get yourself skilled in an area where you can be certain of a future and where you will get a pay cheque at the end of every fortnight. That is a problem, but I do not know what the solution is. Certainly we can all talk about reducing input costs and reducing regulation on agriculture, but that is easyit is much more difficult to do anything. I am very critical of the carbon tax, but that is not the subject of my contribution todayexcept to point out that it is things like the carbon tax that keep putting costs up for our farmers. The more you do that, the less they are able to compete with farmers in other parts of the world. At yesterday's breakfast I was talking to a skills person from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation who reminded me that it is 15 years since any approval has been given for an aquaculture farm in Queensland or Western AustraliaI do not know about the other states. With the wild fishery being reduced all the timeit is going to be reduced even more with this quite ridiculous bioregional planning regime that has been announced in recent timeseither we have to import fish, and 70 per cent of our fish is imported already and I understand it will go up to 80 per cent within a few years, or we have to farm our fish. I have been personally involved with an attempt by a group to open up a prawn farm between Ayr and Bowen in North Queensland but the green tape has meant that they have spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to meet what are in my view, although I am not a scientist, quite ridiculous regimes and rules for the operation of an aquaculture farm. Hopefully they will get there, but gee it is a struggle for them. When they do get there, they will need skilled peopleand that is why the report before the chamber is so important. The North Queensland Centre for Tropical Agriculture is a college upriver from Ayr in the small township of Claredale. For years it was the Burdekin Agricultural College; it changed its name and its focus a couple of years ago. It is a Queensland government agricultural college which focuses on training people who want to have a future in agriculture. I express my support for that centre, for the work they do and for the students they turn out who come into the workforce as skilled people. The importance of this report is also highlighted by the fact that with the boom in our mining industry a lot of skilled and unskilled workers in the agricultural areas, I suspect everywhere but I know it to be the case in North Queensland, have left agriculture and gone to work in the mines. They can drive a cane harvesterquite technical employment which requires some trainingin the sugar industry or they can go and get a job driving big machinery in the mines. They are getting double, at times even treble, what they would get in agriculture. That brings me back to the point I was making earlier, which was that unless our farmers can compete in the world, unless they can be profitable, I am pessimistic about the future of rural industries. Given good political leadership, which regrettably we are not getting now, we can turn it around. I am confident that in the future we will make our farmers viable and profitable again. I have a passion about opening up vast tracts of good arable land in northern Australia. There is a big mosaic of good agricultural land in the north, and we have all the water that could ever be needed to irrigate crops. Regrettably, again, the current government has not done much in the area but I am very pleased that the coalition will go to the next election with a very positive policy on Northern Australia. By developing many parts of the North for agriculture we can feed not only Australians but the burgeoning millions, even billions, in Asia and the subcontinent. Again, congratulations go to those senators involved in this report. I know it will be well received in industry and I hope the government does take note of the recommendations that have been made.

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