MEDIA RELEASE – Hungry for a scapegoat? Sugar fits the bill again
19 September 2017
Australia’s $2 billion sugar industry has once again found itself in the firing line as public policy makers search for a scapegoat for our nation’s obesity issues.
The release of the eight point policy plan from the Obesity Policy Coalition has again overlooked measures that encourage taking personal responsibility for health concerns and instead calls for a sweeping 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks.
Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan said the sugar sector routinely found itself being blamed for the size of the nation’s waistlines, despite overwhelming evidence of broader behavioural influencers.
“Whenever public policy makers are looking for a scapegoat for obesity problems, sugar is always at the top of the list and is routinely singled out and undermined,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
“Australians eat fast food on an average of two to three times a week and according to the Australian Medical Association, between 60 and 70 per cent of the Australian population is sedentary or has low levels of physical activity.
“But apparently any obesity issues can be solved with a tax on sugary drinks. This is a nonsense and just Big Brother politics that Australians find justifiably concerning. The health risks from obesity will not be successfully tackled under we accept that the life choices of individuals has to be the focal point of any policy settings.”
Senator O’Sullivan said with more than 90% of Australia’s entire sugar output grown in Queensland, our state cannot afford to unduly punish cane growing communities.
“No one doubts that tackling obesity is an important social and health issue in our community, but it cannot be at the expense of one of Queensland’s most important agricultural exports,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
“The Queensland sugar industry is a $2 billion market, which exports all around the world and supports countless communities along the state’s rural coastline.
“We will not take a backward step in opposing any public policy proposal that undermines this industry and the communities it feeds.”
Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland) (13:40): I had intended to speak on other subject matter today, but we’re seeing some evolving responses from within the beef supply sector in response to the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee which was tabled yesterday in this place on behalf of Senator Sterle. I want to once more pay credit to Senator Sterle—he happens to be in the chamber—for having chaired a very difficult, long-ranging inquiry into the beef supply chain from a set of references that this Senate provided to him 18 months ago. It was a long, arduous, and very, very thorough Senate inquiry into the beef supply chain. The report is well supported by our side of politics. In fact, there was no dissenting report—in effect, one could say that this is bipartisan, or tripartisan, or—I’m not sure what the term is once you get past three—
Honourable senators interjecting—
Senator O’SULLIVAN: Quart-partisan? Whatever it is, it has the support of all of the elements of this Senate, and there have been some interesting responses. In the limited time I have, I will concentrate on two of them.
The most remarkable is the response today from the chief executive officer of ALPA, the agents’ peak body here in Australia. ALPA was the subject of quite pointed efforts of the committee because of serious, longstanding allegations of corruption and collusion in the marketplace; particularly in the saleyards around this nation, where tens of millions of head of cattle are transacted every couple of years. Today, Mr Madigan has come out and criticised the committee, saying that he’s somewhat bemused and frustrated because the committee has made recommendations that ALPA should review and reform the practices around saleyards. We have found—and clear evidence was presented—that producers, and particularly smaller producers, were at a complete disadvantage in saleyards because of collusive and, I would say, corrupt behaviour over a long period of time.
The genesis of this was what we call the Barnawartha event, where nine of these agents, represented by Mr Madigan, boycotted the Barnawartha saleyards—it’s called the ‘Barnawartha Boycott’. There were thousands of head of cattle there, waiting to go to market, and the nine agents never turned up. The ACCC got involved and conducted an investigation. What were the reasons given by the nine agents? They certainly denied any collusion. They certainly denied any agreement. No. 1 said: ‘The dog got my lunch. The dog took my lunch and I couldn’t go all that way without something to eat.’ Another one had a flat tyre, and the third one said the wipers didn’t work on their car—and on and on it went. The ACCC reported to us in evidence that there’d been an increase in traffic in communication between these agents, some of whom had never spoken to each other before. So for the nine of them and—I say to you, Mr Madigan, straight down the barrel of the camera—for you to deny that there was collusion and difficulties in the saleyards of this nation is a very rich statement! In fact, in his evidence Mr Madigan had indicated that he himself had concerns about this in the saleyards. I’ll use his words:
In my experience I have seen buyers talk to one another—just have a little whisper. I have not heard what they have said. I have no proof of it, but I have seen it. They will go up and talk to one another. One will stop bidding and then walk away, and then they will buy the next pen. I have seen that, yes.
That was his evidence, verbatim. As recently as 28 August Mr Madigan has said, ‘At no stage did I say that’—that since the seventies he had witnessed collusive behaviour at livestock sales. The inconvenient fact for you, Mr Madigan, is that it was recorded on the Hansard. The tapes are here. If your memory is failing you, you should make a visit down here and we’ll make arrangements for you to listen to your own voice.
It suits the agents to have no reform. It suits the agents not to have Senate inquiries or anyone else in authority looking at the behaviour in the saleyards. We opened the inquiry with a leading processor in the industry. Senator Sterle will remember this—it was a magic piece of evidence. Forty years, he said, he had been in the beef industry, and not once had he ever heard, not even in a conversation down at the pub, that there was collusion in the saleyards in this nation.
I say to Mr Madigan and to others in the industry: the more you tell us there’s not a problem—because your credibility is in question—the more inclined we are to look more thoroughly again and again until your workplace, your marketplace, is reformed so that small producers around this country are not subject to collusive behaviour. If he thinks that we in this place are going to roll up into a ball and forget about the recommendations that we have just put through to the minister, then he has another think coming.
Then there is the Cattle Council of Australia. Deary me! I have no friends left in the beef sector, and, I suspect, neither do you, Senator Sterle, after our efforts over the last 18 months, but the Cattle Council represent literally nobody. There are 60,000 producers in this nation, and there is evidence that they quite literally represent nobody. There are eight stakeholder groups who wanted to come together and create what I’ve called a new cattle house. We have been putting pressure on them and engaging with them to consider that, because it was our intention that industry should sort its own problems out. The most brutal and inelegant way to resolve any problems in any sector is to have a Senate inquiry make recommendations to resolve them.
They have come out today. For the last year—they blew the candle out on the cake recently—they have been working in what’s called a transition committee. A very prominent cattleman and administrator in this country, Mr Troy Setter, has headed that up. We have in recent months been hearing snippets of information, anecdotal, some of it coming from members of that transition committee, to say that the Cattle Council really don’t have their heart in it. They want to remain as the Cattle Council. They don’t want to commit to the establishment of a much more transparent, skills-based board structure that will give these 50,000 or 60,000 producers around the country a voice. The Cattle Council have come out today—they’re finally out; the closet doors have swung open—and said that, actually, closing down the Cattle Council of Australia and creating a new entity would require a lot of work and time. I don’t have time in this contribution to articulate all the points that they have come out with in the media today. I know I’m going to be a few Christmas cards short this year, but here’s my message to the Cattle Council: this is the second time that recommendations have been made to my own government to strengthen the peak body, again as a result of the work of Senator Sterle and this Senate committee. The first ones have not been enacted. We will not rest now. We will persist until you restructure, until you properly operate in a transparent way that proves to your government and proves to your industry that you do represent the tens of thousands of small producers around this country who are getting it in the neck every time big processors or market conditions put them in a vulnerable place.
There’s been market failure around beef now for 30 years, and it has to come to end. The power inequities that exist have to be addressed. The recommendations of the Sterle report were 100 per cent supported by us all—not one alteration to the report, not one dissenting report and not one qualifying addition to the report made. I say to my own government and to the industry: ‘Listen up; you need to take these recommendations seriously.’ We need to put our shoulders to the wheel and we need to get this back to being a fair, transparent and equitable market environment for the many tens of thousands of Australians who make a big contribution to our nation’s wealth. (Time expired)
SPEECH – Release of Red Meat Processing Senate Inquiry Report
12 September 2017
I want to acknowledge my colleagues Senator Williams and Senator McKenzie, who jointly were involved in the development of the reference. Senator McKenzie drove this process. Senator Williams and I joined the reference almost as an afterthought, I suspect. This reference was, I think, stimulated by events that occurred in the Barnawartha saleyards in Victoria. Knowing that Senator McKenzie is going to speak, I probably will refrain from spending too much time on that aspect of the report and its recommendations. I want to acknowledge the support of Labor, through the chairmanship of Senator Glenn Sterle. This was a difficult inquiry and a very long one—in fact, it spanned two parliaments. It is fair to say, and I am sure Senator McKenzie will visit on this, too, that we didn’t always receive the level of cooperation and assistance from the industry stakeholders that one may have expected. I can place on Hansard that Senator Sterle did an exceptional job in chairing the committee as we navigated through some of those challenges.
The early recommendations are to consider an inquiry into pre-sale and post-sale weighing in saleyards, to try to bring some consistency, particularly on the eastern seaboard, with respect to practices in saleyards. Again, I will yield that aspect of the report to Senator McKenzie, because I am sure she is going to touch on that, including the recommendations around what we have named ‘the standards of practice in saleyards’. Again, I will yield to Senator McKenzie on that.
One of the recommendations is in relation to the operations and capability of AUS-MEAT, particularly in their role in oversighting objective carcass management in beef processing plants—a significant role, one that has been challenged by, I think, almost a majority of producers at one time or another. This is where the rubber meets the road—when it is determined what they will be paid for the carcasses of livestock they have sold to the works on what is called the grid. There are positives and negatives about the inspection of carcasses and I think it is fair to say that, in this particular case, over a long period of time there has been a collapse of trust and confidence between producers and processors that this process is as objective as they might like. It was often challenged. There were, and remain, reasonably inadequate options for producers to be able to themselves objectively assess and perhaps even challenge processors on some of the descriptions of their carcasses that resulted in payments that they thought were less than what they had wanted.
The advent of technology coming into the meat processing sector, particularly the technology known as DEXA, a dual X-ray system, will allow processors to more accurately—now in the 90 per cent—assess what the meat yield is of a carcass. It will separate meat, bone and other, and this is a positive step in the right direction, even though there has been, I suppose, caution around how this technology is to be introduced. Nonetheless, anything that increases the prospect of objective carcass management in our processing plants in this $11-plus billion industry is a step in the right direction.
We have made recommendations that the operations and capability of AUS-MEAT be looked at by the minister, through the agriculture department, to see that they have adequate powers and that they are adequately resourced and that we ourselves can have oversight over their operations to see that they are doing the job to the best of their ability.
There are two recommendations that I really want to focus on—and I’ll leave the main interest to me until last. The final recommendation to government and to the minister was that they establish a joint government and industry task force to effectively review all aspects of the meat processing and the meat supply chain and production sector. I think this is very timely. The current structures that they operate in are complicated—relationships are complicated. There is disparity in power bases within the whole sector. Of course, they’re working under operations that were put in place about 19 years ago in 1998 by the then Deputy Prime Minister and minister for agriculture, the Hon. John Anderson. It is almost overdue for that entire sector to be reviewed by this joint government and industry task force. It will be a skills-based task force if the recommendations are accepted. We anticipate it will take them some considerable period of time to do their work, as a comprehensive review in such a big industry and sector would be the case.
Let me use the final time I have to speak about what I think is the key recommendation—or, certainly, which is up there with the top recommendations made in the report. It is for government to do virtually whatever it takes to support the establishment of a new peak industry body for cattle producers. Various numbers have been given to us over time of between 30,000 and 60,000 different producers in this country in the beef sector, ranging from small operators who might only have half a dozen livestock through to big family corporations and, in fact, public companies who oversight an industry that has, or ought to have, about 29 million head of stock at any time. We believe those numbers are down quite considerably due to the advent of droughts all over the country. But what is, I think, agreed to by everyone in the industry is that we need to beef up—if I can use that term—the peak industry body that—
I thought it was a good pun, and it actually came to me spontaneously, Senator, so I’m very proud of it. We need to beef up the peak industry body that represents these producers. The advent of new technologies and legislation passed here—I think we all were involved in supporting the legislation—allow the peak body to find out who those levy payers are that, collectively, pay about $50 million plus a year into the Meat & Livestock Australia for the support to the industry in research and development. This is about getting a peak industry body. I said at one of the inquiries: ‘We’ll know when we’ve arrived when members of the Meat & Livestock Australia, and senators and other politicians in this place, break into a sweat when they hear that this peak body has arrived in the building to come and see them.’
I want it to be a powerful body. I want it to get its way on behalf of producers around the country. It needs to be a very transparent body. It needs to have its strength and its power embedded in a grass-roots movement within the industry. It needs to have a skills-based board that I personally believe needs to be renumerated. I don’t care how much they have to pay the members of the board and the chairperson to administer this very important industry in agriculture and, indeed, to our whole national economy. It needs to make sure that its structure allows it to represent and reflect the ideals and the ambitions of producers all around the nation.
I want to commend the report and, in the last moments, I want to pay great tribute to the secretariat under Dr Jane Thomson. This was a difficult report to structure. There was a lot of work and effort, and there were a lot of amendments and restructuring of the report as we got towards this tabling date. Their work, as is always the case, was first class.
I rise to bring the attention of the chamber to a cruel disease called spinal muscular atrophy or SMA. It’s a relatively unknown illness, despite it being the No. 1 genetic killer of infants under the age of two in Australia. It is largely unknown because babies born with it rarely live beyond their second birthday. I’d like to share with the chamber the story of one couple who have had their world shattered by this illness. Their names are Rachel and John, and all members of the parliament would have received a letter from them introducing you to their young daughter, Mackenzie, who suffers from SMA. Mackenzie was the couple’s first child and they told me they couldn’t have been any happier. But, shortly after, their world was turned upside down. At 10 weeks of age, their little baby daughter was diagnosed as having SMA type 1.
This disease is a neuromuscular disorder characterised by the loss of motor neurons and progressive muscle wasting, often leading to death. It manifests over a wide range of severity, affecting both infants and adults, and is broadly divided into five types in accordance with age or onset of symptoms or from the highest attained milestone of motor development. In the case of Mackenzie, she was diagnosed with having the most common form of SMA, which is type 1. Type 1 is terminal. The prognosis for Mackenzie is devastating, cruel and quite unforgiving. The average life expectancy for infants with the condition is nine months at best.
In December last year, a clinical trial was commenced in Australia of a drug that, in some cases, can delay the onset of symptoms. It has also shown itself to be a big step forward in medical advancement and is currently being assessed by the TGA. However, it is not a cure and the prognosis for little Mackenzie remains the same. Rachel described to me how she felt as the medical expert advised them that Mackenzie had a terminal illness for which there was no known cure and that her life expectancy was likely to be less than one year. Rachel described how, as their world fell away, everything went blurry for her. Sounds muffled and she felt like she was collapsing. She remembers looking at her husband, John, and saying, ‘What just happened?’
For most of us, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how such a devastating and shattering experience would feel—from being on such a positive high with the birth of their daughter to being told that their precious little baby will die, perhaps before her first birthday, and that there’s nothing she or they can do to change the situation. As I’ve said, the disease is a cruel and unforgiving condition. From planning and dreaming for the future of their daughter, their time is now spent arranging and giving the best palliative care for Mackenzie. In Rachel’s words: ‘I cannot adequately express the love we feel for Mackenzie. Rather than dreaming of Mackenzie’s future and imagining all the beautiful experiences of life that lay before her, we are now going to have to watch our baby slowly lose muscle movement, lose the ability to feed and swallow and, finally, lose the ability to breathe.’
Before Mackenzie’s diagnosis, Rachel and John had never heard of SMA. Neither had anyone amongst their families or friends. They were soon to learn that it is the No. 1 genetic killer of children under the age of two years. It begs the question: how is it that no-one has heard of this disorder?
One in 35 people in Australia are carriers of SMA. If two carriers have a baby, there is a one-in-four chance of their baby having SMA. These statistics are simply astonishing. This rare neuromuscular disorder is clearly not so rare. Rachel and John undertook all the tests offered to them before and during pregnancy, including genetic testing for more common genetic illnesses, such as Down syndrome. But they were not offered genetic testing to check whether either was an SMA carrier prior to conception. In most cases, such genetic testing is offered only if you have a family history. But four out of five children born with a genetic disorder do not have a family history of the disorder.
Today SMA is not curable, but it is 100 per cent preventable. A couple planning for a family today can find out if they are carriers through having a blood test during the pregnancy screening. Not only can this testing be undertaken before conception, but tests can also be undertaken for more severe genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and fragile X. I’m instructed that this simple test to protect our community obviously only works as a prevention if people know about it.
Rachel and John are both proud to be federal police officers. They are made of fairly stern stuff. When confronted with such a personal tragedy, in their grief they looked to ways to help others and to turn their suffering to something of a benefit for others. They know they cannot change the outcome for Mackenzie, but perhaps their campaign can prevent others from going through such pain and suffering. Accordingly, while caring for Mackenzie they also make the time to push for greater awareness of SMA and increased access to carrier testing. It is through this initiative that I got to know Rachel and John and to know about their story and their aims.
When I met Rachel and John, I asked them what they were hoping to achieve and how we could help them. As Rachel explained to me, they have three main aims—although there is much that can be done in this space. They want to help raise awareness of pre-pregnancy genetic testing amongst people planning a pregnancy and among healthcare professionals. This testing already exists; people just need to know about it so that they can make an informed choice. There is a general lack of awareness of these genetic tests, and SMA more specifically, even amongst healthcare professionals. Secondly, they would like to encourage the federal government to consider subsidising pre-implantation genetic diagnoses during the IVF process for those couples known to be carriers of genetic disorders. This is currently being looked at by government and should be approved without further delay. They hope that eventually genetic testing becomes routine and subsidised to make it more accessible to all Australians. It is so much more effective for us to spend our money on increasing access to carrier testing than to pay for the medical, palliative and social costs associated with these disorders, to say nothing about the emotional impacts on in this case a child and their parents.
I’m pleased to say that there appears to be broad support across parliament for what Rachel and John are trying to achieve. Both the Minister and Assistant Minister for Health have begun looking at ways to assist in achieving these outcomes. In addition, the New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, has met with Rachel, John and Mackenzie and has made a commitment to create a change for Mackenzie. In fact, our own federal Minister for Health has indicated that he has taken a personal interest in their representations. Rachel and John are thankful for the support they have received from some members of parliament, and now they hope that this support turns into action. For my part, I also pledge to do all I can to assist Mackenzie and her family to realise these sensible ideals. Our hearts remain with John and Rachel as they confront what is a very personal and enormously difficult struggle. I promise you that your efforts won’t be in vain.
I rise tonight to reflect upon the life of a friend and fellow political traveller in Alexander Rodney Lockie Wilson, known affectionately to all as Rod Wilson. Rod passed away less than a week ago. He was a pastoralist, a cattleman of serious note, having built very substantial interests in that sector with his wife, Sylvia, and members of their family.
Rod was a political activist. I had known him for more than 35 years. He was a fellow traveller. Rod was a giant within the movement of the National Party of Australia, both at our state level in the state of Queensland and at a national level. He was a community leader, having resided in the Callide and Central Queensland area for most of his life. Rod and his family, including extended family, have made enormous contributions to those communities over that period of time. He also provided very clear leadership over the decades in agripolitics as well as general politics. I have memories of any number of speeches or groupings and activities organised by Rod in his capacity as one of our leaders in that part of our state. His influence was enormous.
Rod was a very fair and measured individual who had a very practical and very, very acute political intellect. He demonstrated often that he was before his time in work that he had done around issues that we now refer to as workplace health and safety. Long before that, the people who worked for him and Sylvia and their family, and indeed members of the broader community, were in the core of his mind as he developed measures and practices around pastoral enterprises that he owned with an emphasis on improving the safety and working conditions of those people. He was responsible for many innovative designs and process changes that have been adopted by so many in that industry. He was a pioneer in developing the use of hydraulic mechanisms that were used in double-decker cattle trucks so that cattle on the top deck could be loaded and unloaded safely using that system. He also had done a bit of work using some innovative engineering adjustments around the design of windmills. I know a number of my colleagues here and those who are not present have had to do the laborious job of pulling bores. Rod designed features around bores and windmills that made that job so much safer. He was an early adopter, for example, with the use of solar energies and retrofitted bores at great expense very early when that innovation of the use of solar pumps and solar energy came into the marketplace for use in pastoral pursuits.
With his wife, Sylvia, Rod built what I think could be referred to as a cattle empire with their daughters, Zoe and Eliza, and their son, William, and their broader family. Rod always acknowledged the contribution of the people who worked with him. They had built a very substantial business, and very frequently, being blessed with those things that come with being a successful businessman, Rod would reinvest not just his time and energy but also financially in the community. And there were other pursuits where he and Sylvia shared the goodness of life that they’d been blessed with.
Rod will be remembered as an individual who had great strength of character. He was a tall and quite imposing man, quietly spoken and very measured. His intellect and intelligence were often very evident in the delivery of his arguments, which were always well structured and very persuasive. Rod was a man who did his homework on issues. He thoroughly understood his subject matter before he put forward his arguments. He will be remembered also for his integrity and his honesty. He and Sylvia, and their entire family, were enormously respected in the communities in which they lived, which I referred to earlier.
Rod also had a great sense of humour. When his darling twin daughters, Zoe and Eliza, were born, he put an ad in Queensland Country Life in which he referred to ‘welcoming two spring heifers’. Sylvia, I understand, has never forgiven him for that, but nonetheless it was entirely consistent with Rod’s way of life and his sense of humour. He will be remembered as a giant of a man and he will be remembered for his contribution and serious influence around state and national agricultural policy. He was a leader in the field, and for my party, the National Party of Australia, he was responsible for building and maintaining a very significant presence in Central Queensland. He had great influence and was very respected by our political movement there.
If I had had the opportunity, which I did not, to ask Rod how he would like to be remembered, I am quite certain that his answer would have been very simple. He would have wanted to be remembered, clearly, as a very good and sound member of his community through life, but he also would have wanted to be remembered as the magnificent husband, father, and grandfather to eight grandchildren that he was. He is missed greatly by members of the Calliope and Central Queensland community. He is missed greatly by members of the inaugural National Party of Queensland and the National Party of Australia. He will be remembered for his legacy of policies and initiatives that he drove and nurtured over many years. It’s only been in recent months that Rod, very unwell and battling a condition that eventually overtook him, rang me about labour reforms in agriculture—about how people who would otherwise have difficulty getting employment because of age or disability might be accommodated by changes in policy that would make it easier for them to be employed.
Rod, you will be well remembered for all the things that I have spoken about and much, much more. I wish Sylvia, the children, the grandchildren and Rod’s extended family condolences on behalf of all of those in our political movement over a long period of time who came to know Rod and work with him. I felt it was important that a contribution as significant as his be recorded in the Hansard of our federal parliament. I just hope that Sylvia and the family are able to confront Rod’s loss and find peace in the knowledge of the enormous contribution that this man made to our state and, indeed, to our nation.