NEW AGRICULTURAL INDUSTRIES
Matter of Public Importance
Mr AMERY (Mount Druitt - Minister for Agriculture) [5.00 p.m.]: I ask the House to note, as a matter of public importance, the value of emerging agricultural industries to the economy of New South Wales, to job growth in rural and regional communities, and to the prospect of long term viability for farmers in this State. It is fair to say that the prominent industries in the agricultural debate are the wool industry, the grain industry, livestock and its various related industries, the cotton industry, which is always in the news, and the rice industry, which has had another successful year. And of course horticulture, the citrus industry and the ever successful wine industry dominate media coverage and public debate. I want to highlight the fact that the Government takes seriously the emerging agricultural industries in New South Wales and is committed to providing assistance wherever possible. Although I have referred to emerging industries, some have been in existence for many years but have not received any prominence; and
some are new industries which have received attention only in the past few years.
Since Labor came to office in April 1995, a number of Government decisions have had a direct influence on the establishment of new agricultural industries in this State. Those decisions were either avoided or rejected outright by the former Government and its National Party members, who claim to represent, and be the friends of, farmers in rural New South Wales. Industries associated with rabbit farming, hemp production, olives, meat goats and sheep milk for cheese-making hold great promise for the future of farming in this State. In September 1995 I announced that the Government would allow the growing of low-grade tetrahydrocannabinol indian hemp under licence. Initially one permit was issued to the University of New England to conduct trials of the crop. In the spring and summer of 1996/97 another four trials were conducted by interested groups. In February of this year New South Wales Agriculture again advertised for expressions of interest for additional fibre hemp trials and a decision on the applications will be made later this month.
A lot of interest has been shown in the potential of hemp growing as a commercial crop in New South Wales, but it is still early days and a lot of work needs to be done before its viability can be assessed properly. It is important to note that the former Government would not even legalise a trial of this crop - another phobia of the former Government, which held back a number of emerging industries in New South Wales. The former Government would not have carried out the work currently being undertaken in New South Wales. The same can be said of the rabbit farming industry, which has grown rapidly since it was given the go ahead by this Government in September 1995. I was pleased to note that earlier this week the Australian Broadcasting Corporation highlighted the success of the rabbit meat industry and its offspring, rabbit pelts, which are used by Akubra hats and similar industries.
The National Party rabbit phobia denied farmers and regional communities in New South Wales and those seeking to establish an abattoir or rabbit farm - which have already been established in New Zealand and Western Australia - the opportunity to develop another potential money earner. It is incredible to think that New South Wales had the potential to trial or to develop a successful industry such as that which exists in New Zealand, but was held back by the narrow-minded phobia of the former Government. Since rabbit farming was given the go ahead, 163 commercial licences have been approved. Those licences would not have been approved if the coalition had won the 1995 election and I believe the Government should make that point whenever it passes any milestone in respect of the rabbit industry. If people ask why the Government did not do this sooner, it should sheet home the blame to the conservatives in this State.
The majority of licences were issued in coastal areas of the State, with a number also centred around Tamworth. Slaughtering trials have been conducted at Kempsey and an abattoir at Tamworth is in the final stages of approval. I was pleased to read the media report on Cabinet's visit to Tamworth and to see that progress had been made on the abattoir. My department has been working with interested parties to ensure that proper guidelines are followed to establish and construct rabbit farming facilities, control disease and prevent the rabbits from escaping. Again I need to point out that under the former Government none of this would have happened; this emerging industry would not have got off the ground. The rabbit meat industry is developing rapidly and markets for meat, wool and skins already exist.
For example, I was pleased to receive a deputation from the Mayor of Kempsey, who spoke about the Akubra Hats company - a household name in this country, if not worldwide - that uses 60,000 rabbit skins each week. The release of the calicivirus and more effective reduction of feral rabbit numbers has placed pressure on that company. If these new industries can assist that company, it will go a long way towards reducing the necessity for imported pelts, on which Akubra Hats is heavily reliant. New South Wales Agriculture, in conjunction with the Department of State and Regional Development, has been involved in a number of seminars on rabbit farming and other emerging agricultural industries. These positive steps have been undertaken to encourage potentially valuable agricultural enterprises. Another initiative undertaken by the Government is the appointment of a new advisory position within New South Wales Agriculture to work alongside these emerging industries.
I believe this is one of the core roles of New South Wales Agriculture because many of these new industries do not have the associations and cash reserves to conduct research, publish material or promote their products. At least in the early stages, before the industries get a foothold, the department can provide the sort of advice and information on which its reputation has been built over many years. The emerging industries extension officer based at Yanco will assist in developing production technology and market focus for industries such as olives, herbs, chestnuts and quandongs. In recent times between 500,000 and one million olive trees
have been planted nationally. This has been highlighted in some of the specialist media programs that have concentrated on rural areas.
In New South Wales most plantings of olive trees have taken place during the past two years around Tamworth, Dubbo, Warren, the Riverina and the upper Hunter. Industry optimism is being driven by the rapid growth in consumption of olive oil and table olives. Imports have increased by 300 per cent in the past decade. The 17,000 tonnes of olives imported annually are valued at approximately $100 million and this figure is expected to double by the year 2000. Previous attempts to grow olives in Australia failed because our product was not competitive with imports. If the industry is to succeed in the future, work needs to be done to address impediments such as lack of processing facilities, market research and market development.
The emerging industries extension officer will also provide assistance to other horticultural industries such as chestnuts, herbs and quandongs. The Government will continue, wherever possible, to identify areas that offer potential for farmers and rural communities. I am pleased to say that the appointment of the emerging industries extension officer came as the direct result of a deputation I received from the olive industry following the Government's Cabinet meeting in Tamworth. The rabbit farming industry, the fibre hemp trials, the olive industry, the herb industry and many more small but potentially valuable industries will provide farmers in New South Wales with a diverse income base which will complement existing farming enterprises and provide new opportunities for rural and regional communities. My colleague the honourable member for Waratah will outline the growth of the boer goat industry - another fine example of an emerging industry with great potential. Some of the issues I have raised today highlight the fact that although the agricultural industry will always concentrate on major produce, farmers have a great opportunity to diversify. [Time expired.]
Mr SMALL (Murray) [5.10 p.m.]: I am pleased to speak to the matter of public importance. Some areas of the agricultural industry have shown a definite improvement, for example the wine grape industry, which is developing throughout New South Wales. The Minister has criticised the previous Government. However, in its seven years in office the coalition Government did an enormous amount of work and its effort to help rural people in most difficult times was outstanding. Apart from the few areas referred to by the Minister, rural New South Wales is hurting. Country towns are hurting. Banks have closed. What has the Minister done to keep banks open in country areas?
What about the Minister's overreaction to staffing in Agriculture, in which agronomists and wool and livestock research officers have put their hands up and left the department voluntarily. The department has lost the benefit of that experience and it will take some time to rebuild it. After an $8 million cutback the department now has to spend to re-employ staff. Veterinary research facilities at Wagga Wagga and Armidale and the Biological and Chemical Research Institute at Rydalmere were closed. When the coalition was in government I led an inspection of that site following a recommendation from senior members of the Department of Agriculture. My recommendation to the then Minister, and the recommendation of the body of which I was chairman, was that the facility was too important to close.
These important services have been lost, and although it has been claimed that the facilities have been transferred to other areas of the State, that is not the case. Most of the work that was previously carried out at Rydalmere is likely to be carried out in Geelong. Many industries along the Victorian border may decide to move their business to Victoria, where they will be better looked after. New industries may also open in Victoria. I would like to see it happen in New South Wales. Even the Rural Assistance Authority seems to have wound down. This winding-down is occurring at both Federal and State levels.
In many areas country people are not getting what they need. I am not criticising the Minister; he has at least visited country electorates and met the people. Problems arise because he is acting on the poor advice he receives. I referred on a previous occasion to budgetary constraints. The Minister apparently did not fight Cabinet to stop those constraints. The $8 million cutback was originally to have been $34 million. Thankfully the industry was saved that further drastic budget cutback.
Unfortunately, this Government is a seaboard government. Only three members of the Government live in rural New South Wales, which explains the lack of solid information. The Land newspaper has published figures relating to beef sales in Dubbo. On 6 January 1997 prices for cows ranged from $271 to $353. Those figures applied to cows ranging in live weight from 400 to 520 kilograms, with most sales at about 67.9¢ per kilogram. The median price for cows was $312 per animal. On 8 January 1997 the median price for a cow, live weight per kilo, was 82.5¢. This equates to an average price for a cow ranging from $330 to $429, with a median of $380.
This is not the fault of the Minister. We have to look at the big picture. It is totally out of order for the Minister to praise the work of the Labor Party through the Labor Government in New South Wales.
Pursuant to sessional orders business interrupted.