Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland) (19:02): This speech will be the first in a series of speeches I intend to make over the next medium term regarding the grim forecast facing the people in the rural parts of my state. Generations of communities across the northern half of Queensland who have made contributions towards building the wealth of our nation are currently suffering every day from an aggregation of unprecedented circumstances.
Family farms are desperately seeking water and feed to tend stressed and starving stock, whilst at the same time family-owned small businesses are shutting their doors, their enterprises no longer viable. There is a sense of hopelessness and depression for many across this once-productive region. Seriously adding to their woes is the fact that there is seemingly no detailed plan to gather the information that is required to understand the depth and the breadth of their circumstances, particularly with respect to their industry’s debt profile, which in turn could assist in the formulation of pragmatic public policy.
It is my view that immediate action must be taken to understand the full extent of the problem of rural debt in Queensland, and, for that matter, under separate cover, rural debt in the rest of Australia. I am using this opportunity in the Senate chamber today—the first since my maiden speech—to call for a survey into the state of rural debt across my state of Queensland.
Accordingly, I urge the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences and the QRAA to engage with the Australian banking sector to undertake this work. The Queensland government’s Rural Adjustment Authority has traditionally conducted a survey of rural debt in Queensland at two-year intervals since 2000. However, it has been confirmed to my office that QRAA did not undertake its survey in 2013, because the major banks declined to be involved in a state-specific survey—in this case, relating to Queensland. In fairness, the banks had indicated at that time that they would be prepared to consider cooperating with a national survey initiative. However, if the data to determine the debt profile of beef producers in the northern part of Australia was buried in a national survey, then I respectfully submit that its usefulness to develop policy or make decisions to assist or save stakeholder participants in northern Australia would be lost.
The Australian Bankers Association’s policy director Stephen Carroll is on the public record saying, as recently as last month, that there is no crisis in rural debt loads in this country. This organisation claims that rural businesses are in no worse shape than other businesses. Such a statement ignores the alarming trend revealed in the most recent QRAA Rural Debt Survey in 2011 and other empirical evidence published from various sources on this subject. Alarmingly, the 2011 QRAA survey results found debts are growing faster than revenue for many Queensland farmers, with beef industry borrowers who are considered as non-viable increasing from less than one per cent to 6.9 per cent of the total pool in just two years. The survey found the level of rural debt for the beef industry had increased by 17.2 per cent between the 2009 and 2011 surveys to a total of $9.18 billion. These increases occurred when there was evidence published by ABARES that gross farm incomes were declining. Some figures have been presented that show that, as a percentage of gross receipted income, the pro rata impact of debt for many producers has risen from 10 to 20 per cent—a massive increase of 100 per cent.
The equation of more debt and less revenue is simply not sustainable for our beef industry. In fact, it is not sustainable for any industry, but particularly those who had their ability to sell their goods taken away from them without notice. According to Queensland farm industry group AgForce, these current impacts have occurred as the result of the decision to suspend live exports, the condition of ongoing drought and the periodic interventions, and, for some, floods and fire. This real underlying debt position is expected to have deteriorated since 2011 whilst the potential for significant industry debt reduction in the short-term is likely to be limited. However, the issue for some is not that they do not know what the problem is; it is that they do not know what they do not know.
Given our focus on signing free trade agreements with our Asian neighbours, our ambition to collaborate a white paper policy platform to develop Northern Australia and the expansion of our live export trade means we must face up to and take action on this issue. If we are to truly capitalise on the increasing demand for food and fibre in this ‘Asian century’, we must thoroughly investigate the true economic state of our rural sector so that we can ensure there is a productive, stable and profitable agriculture and primary production industry.
Given the facts, it is simply irresponsible for the banks to dismiss the concept of a rural debt crisis and even more irresponsible for them not to test their position. Their posture on this question simply nets off some of the good work that banks are doing in the space of distressed lending. It is imperative at this time that the banks and the banks’ clients accurately see the circumstances the same, because, whether they like it or not, their fortunes are irrevocably linked.
I understand that the New South Wales government had planned to conduct its first ever rural debt survey in 2012 but also had difficulties in convincing the banks to partner with them in that initiative. I also understand that some rural lobby groups are contemplating launching their own debt survey among their members and cattle producers across North Queensland are discussing plans to raise money to fund that task. Similarly, at the Global Food Forum in Sydney yesterday, Queensland agriculture minister, John McVeigh, importantly declared that Australian farmers needed a ‘fair dinkum’ national rural debt survey. Dr McVeigh is probably the most qualified agriculture minister in the country—a minister who is overseeing the most unprecedented and prolonged drought circumstances for his producing constituency in over 100 years. When he speaks, we would all do well to listen.
Enough is enough. These people are sick and tired of hearing us talk. They are sick and tired of hearing Queen Street, Pitt Street and Collins Street tell them that they do not have a problem. Drought and poor government decisions are not just an economic disaster for our farmers; it attacks the very social fabric of our rural and regional communities and undermines the viability of almost every business in my remote and rural Queensland. Whilst there are countless people in agriculture who are on their knees because of these circumstances, there are also many producers across Northern Australia who are face down. These are proud men and women who do not want us to tell them that things are white when in reality they are black.
I say to the banks that these people want you to know that they will swap their debt problem for your debt problem. These people just want the truth, because they know that the truth will guide their government and their banks to implement policies that will guide us out of the quagmire of debt. Through me, this is their call for help.
Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland) (17:00): Mr President, I feel proud for the honour and privileged by the opportunity to serve in this government in the chamber of this Senate. I am grateful for the endorsement of my Liberal National Party and humbled by their faith in my capacity to represent the interests of my fellow Queenslanders in this, the state’s chamber.
I know that our party’s inaugural presidency team of Bruce McIver and Gary Spence are in the gallery today, along with their president’s committee colleague Bernard Ponting, and so I would be indebted to them if they would convey my sincerest thanks and gratitude for my endorsement to those thousands of party members and LNP supporters at home.
I would also like to acknowledge my family and friends who are here in Canberra to support me and celebrate with me the occasion of this first speech. It is of special significance to me that my six grandchildren are in the gallery today. They are, I suspect, one of the main reasons that I am here in the first place.
I want to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people here in Canberra and the Darumbal people of Central Queensland, recognising them as the traditional owners and peoples of this place where I now work and that place where I was born.
I want to begin my speech by acknowledging and thanking my predecessor, Barnaby Joyce, previously a senator for Queensland and now the honourable member for the federal division of New England and our Minister for Agriculture. I want to particularly thank Barnaby for his service to my party, the Liberal National Party of Queensland, and also to the people of my home state. Those people who know Barnaby well know that he is a man who possesses great character, a character tempered by principled values and governed by deeply held convictions. He was, and remains, much loved and respected by the people of Queensland. To the extent I am entitled, Barnaby, I extend to both you and your wife, Natalie, their thanks and appreciation for your service.
As an aside, I can say that the good people of Queensland voted for Barnaby—and now they have me. For some, this fact will be almost too much to bear! Notwithstanding that, I do hope to bring to this position the same level of energy, commitment and dedication as displayed by Barnaby, with a view to realising just a fraction of the outcomes achieved by him for Queenslanders during his terms in office.
It is no accident that I sit here on behalf of the LNP with members of the federal National Party. In Irish folklore, those blessed with the surname ‘O’Sullivan’ were known as troublemakers who, from time to time, caused disruption and strife, sometimes even for the government of their day. Accordingly, I feel my involvement in their ranks to be a good fit.
My paternal lineal heritage in Australia commenced in 1857 with the arrival of my great-great-grandparents Timothy and Mary O’Sullivan, subsistence farmers from the south-west coast district of Ireland. Timothy and Mary and nine of their 21 children were delivered to this country aboard a vessel named the Hastings, the very first immigration ship to dock at Moreton Bay in Queensland. The youngest of the accompanied children on that voyage, a five-year-old boy named Faugh, was my great-grandfather. His journey to the colonies had taken 93 days.
To a man and woman, the clan who arrived at Moreton Bay set about joining many of the original pioneers to open up and settle large tracts of regional and country Queensland. To this day there remains an unbroken line of descendants in the Ipswich, Miles, Roma, Alpha and Clermont districts of my state, where hundreds and hundreds of descendants of Timothy and Mary have made and continue to make a contribution to our nation through the practice of farming and pastoral activities.
My reference to my forebears is not simply an act of reminiscing but more an exercise in staking my case of interest, declaring a personal and historical nexus, if you like, for all things that affect regional, rural and remote areas in my state of Queensland. My own lineal line now represents no less than seven generations of my family who have had a direct and unbroken affinity and relationship with the land. The occupations of my paternal grandfathers and father in order were shepherd, pastoralist, drover and, in the case of my father, saddler and tent maker—core and important professions of their respective times.
Having said that, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that for one infamous moment in time my grandfather the drover apparently thought he was my grandfather the shepherd, as in the late 1800s he was found in the possession of two sheep which apparently were not his own in a mustering camp on the Drummond Range. In another fine O’Sullivan tradition, Grandad apparently spent some time trying to convince the attending troopers that the sheep were in fact feral goats! But, alas, it would seem from historical court reports that the troopers eventually proved too wily for the drover.
Having said that, I can say that I have long since forgiven my grandfather for his indiscretion as I have found the more that I become involved in politics the more difficulty I too have in distinguishing between woolly sheep and feral goats myself! My good friend Senator Boswell tells me that if I am here as long as he has been I will soon be able to make the distinction.
Putting matters of light-heartedness aside, I want to say that the pioneering story of the O’Sullivan family is almost the identical story of thousands of other dynasties who have contributed to the development of my state and, indeed, our nation. From a base of abject poverty, most of these forebears of ours endured almost unimaginable difficulties, courageously facing what would now seem like insurmountable hardships and challenges to commence the new development of an ancient nation. I qualify this statement by recognising Indigenous occupation during this phase in time, acknowledging the conflicts of two cultures where one was motivated by improving the lot of their family and their future whilst the other responded by defending what was already theirs.
It is important to reflect for just a moment on the success of the effort of these pioneering people. These people developed entire communities which were planned and designed to deliver every essential component of social and municipal amenity for their time. They built their own schools, churches, courthouses and the like with their own money as opposed to appropriated public funds. These were eventually very stable, settled and increasingly happy communities.
As my state of Queensland went into the 20th century, and we entered into the post-Federation period, more organised government structures partnered with the people of regional and rural communities of my state and we started—now as one, now as a part of a Commonwealth of states—to develop infrastructure. Together, governments and their pioneering partners constructed road and rail networks. These communities received assistance in the areas of health, education and law and order.
Later, as technologies allowed, government invested in a national network of communications, expanded the likes of aviation services and upgraded and expanded trunk road, rail and energy networks, which in turn served our primary producers, and allied agricultural and pastoral industries, well for a number of decades. Rural economies were able to properly and sustainably exploit that phenomenal system of underground rivers, lakes and oceans that make up one of our most magnificent natural gifts, the Great Artesian Basin.
These things that were done were a bequest from these pioneers to future generations—and, arguably amongst them, this generation. Again and importantly, I also realise the valuable contribution of Indigenous Australians in this process west of the Great Dividing Range. That is a contribution which is often not as well recognised as it could or should be.
The people I speak about knew this: there was no economy in the world—indeed, not one single facet of any one economy—that did not have its genesis deeply rooted in the activities of primary production. It does not matter where you live, where you work or what your premises are made of—or, indeed, what any consumable or fixed item within those premises is made of—the elements that make up those things started with primary production. Even the things you cannot see—such as the electronic transmissions that our modern communication networks rely upon to function, the energy that powers our lights and appliances, and the nation’s transport, health, education and social services networks—rely on fundamental elements that start out in life from primary production.
Whilst in my own case it is an article of faith, it matters not where you believe the genesis of life’s functions have been architecturally created—whether they are created by God or by nature—the base truth is that we have to eat and drink, we choose to be clothed, and we need protection from the elements. Without the primary production of food and fibres for the necessities of life, the transformation of the magical properties of some plants for medicinal purposes and the extraction of the earth’s elements and natural resources, we would be sitting here in a virgin forest, hungry and naked. I know that conjures things up for you!
The historical investment by our nation in these communities—and, more importantly, in the people of these communities—has, to date, been returned to our nation in spades. The phrase that the wealth of this nation was built on the sheep’s back alone is not quite true as a singularism, but there is no doubt that without primary production this nation could not and would not have prospered to the point that it has. Primary production contributes a foundation element to this nation’s economy. There is a direct and irrevocable link between the good economic health of primary producers and the good economic health of the nation. These two things are symbiotic.
Sadly, though, I think there is an argument that we have in some ways failed our original pioneers and are continuing to fail some of our contemporary communities of rural and regional Australia with respect to fundamental issues that go to the heart of the prospects of their future. The progressive restructuring of government agencies with an emphasis on a corporatised model, compounded by the overarching principles of economic rationalism, has seen us significantly and aggressively reduce government based and government funded services to many parts of regional and rural Australia since the 1960s.
Whilst all levels of government acknowledge community services obligations and a responsibility to distribute the wealth of our nation evenly amongst its citizens, we tend to struggle in the delivery of these commitments the further it is that we get away from places where the postcodes end in three zeroes. Whilst I admit that some governments were more efficient at introducing these regressive measures than others, they have all made a contribution of sorts—demonstrating that bad public policy shows little or no respect for the philosophical or ideological bent of its political host.
This public policy culture of rationalising community services and support for regional and country communities eventually and inevitably gave a social licence to the private sector to follow suit. Banks, stock and station agencies, accounting firms, solicitors and the like, all progressively left these communities over the past three or four decades because, in many cases, populations had become so depleted that there was an insufficient critical mass to continue to make their businesses commercially viable. I personally believe these things were the unintended consequences of poorly considered public dogma.
I contend that decades of rationalisations have gone much further than intended and this, in turn, then saw cuts to social services that were much deeper than was ever prudent or required, thereby leaving some communities mere casings of their former selves. The net result of these transitions is that incentives have disappeared for some future generations to make their lives in our regional and rural areas. Where generational transition of businesses and pastoral holdings was once the rule in these places, it is fast becoming the exception. If we are not careful, the profile of ownership and operation of large-tract rural and regional holdings will change and what might replace family owned enterprises and corporations might not be in the interests of the national economy.
In fact, this might not even be in the national interest in the longer term.
Having said all that I have said, it is important to make the point that the future outlook for Australian agriculture and primary production is positive. Increased access to trade and export markets in our region looks very promising. This Senate knows that we have some of the best biosecurity and food health standards in the world. Access to sustainable and environmentally responsible production of good quality produce is at the heart of almost every food security discussion in the world, particularly in those emerging economies on our doorstep. Australian producers meet—and, in most instances, exceed—any accepted key performance indicators or world best practices in those regards, so we are well placed to serve these volume-market demands as their middle classes increase.
However, some of these positive forecasts are a cold comfort to communities who see themselves as mere shadows of themselves of just 20 or 30 years ago. These are communities who expected to have had positive growth trajectories like their city cousins; indeed, they had anticipated growth in services and infrastructure that actually reflected their contributions to the foundations of our national wealth. Sadly, for many the opposite has happened.
Mr President, on their behalf, I can tell you these things. Force majeure in the form of floods, droughts, fires and general storm and tempest events cannot in and of themselves kill these sectors and these regional and rural communities. These people want us to know that they have survived these elements for the last 250 years and they will not buckle to them now. They want us to know that the swings and roundabouts of currency fluctuations that impact trade-exposed and export markets come and go and that they in agriculture are not on their own in having to deal with that challenge. It is a market force that they will accommodate. They want us to recognise their proven ability to compete against heavily subsidised competitors on a global scale. They have been doing this successfully since time began. They want us to acknowledge that their capacity to embrace and implement innovations in technology, adjustments to labour practices and changes that favourably impact on general productivities is amongst the best in the world.
What I sense is that these things alone cannot slay the resilience of these tough and ever-irrepressible Australians. What can and will kill them is if their governments, all levels of their governments, make decisions, or in some instances fail to make decisions, over time that impact directly and irrevocably on their ability to generate fair and reasonable standards and conditions of living for themselves. All they want to do is to compete and prosper in commercial environments that contribute to the downstream economies upon which the rest of us rely for our standard of living.
This government recognises the challenges I have highlighted and they are starting the long return haul to support the viability of our communities in rural and regional Australia. On that front, the Prime Minister’s commitment to the development of Northern Australia will in the fullness of time be seen as one of the big bang decisions of the 21st century. The government’s pending white paper on agriculture is also a once-in.a-generational opportunity for government to redesign the policy architecture of how we factor rural and regional Australia into the consciousness of our policy thinking and decision making.
The Queensland state government’s current plans to decentralise the base of some government agencies to regional areas and to set an objective to promote people’s interests in living outside of the south.east corner are two more solid initiatives that will go towards the rehydration of the regions and the bush. However, more is needed. Governments, this government included, need to continue to redefine their relationship with regional and rural Australia. We need to do whatever we can to provide them with fundamental social services and base infrastructure to underpin their growth, at which time I promise you, Mr President, they will do the rest.
The true wealth of our Australia is not found singularly in financial terms but in the enterprise of people who each and every day make a contribution to the wellbeing of our nation. Their contributions are many and they are varied and they are all of equal importance, which in turn demands that you and I consider them on equal terms when we make decisions in this place.
In closing, I want to say that, for my part, I will to the limited extent that I am able and in line with my obligations as a senator for the state of Queensland be factoring in the interests of all Queenslanders as decisions are made in the parliament. In particular, though I will be applying the test of fairness and equity to policies and legislation that have the potential to impact on the great people of regional and rural Queensland. I will be particularly looking for things that support the rejuvenation of non-metropolitan communities and regions, things that will help small family businesses and the family corporations particularly those in agriculture and allied support industries. In short, I intend to support the businesses that underpin this nation’s wealth and economic security, those enterprises that directly impact on the fortunes of our standard of living.
The senator in me will wake up to this challenge every day that I am in this role to meet that objective, and if the senator in me finds the going a bit too tough in reaching these goals it will give the troublemaker a crack. Hopefully, between the two of us we will be able to make a small impact. Through you, Mr President, I thank the senators for allowing me the indulgence to make this, my first and maiden speech.