I rise to speak on the 2011-12 annual report of the Department of Primary Industries. As I hope most people in the house would be aware, the DPI oversees agriculture, fisheries, forestry, earth resources and energy industries — —
Mr Lenders — And the hunt for big cats.
Ms TIERNEY — And the hunt for the elusive cats — you are quite right, Mr Lenders.
During the reporting period it also took over the responsibilities of game management and commercial timber harvesting on public land from the Department of Sustainability and Environment. It was also during this reporting period that the National Centre for Farmer Health was taken off the books and subsumed by the Department of Health. Of course the moment we saw that machinery-of-government change we knew what was going to happen — that somehow the centre would get lost within the overall budget of the Department of Health, and indeed that is exactly what has happened. It has been raised time and again and will continue to be raised by Ms Pulford and others, and by me, that that is a really bad decision on behalf of this government.
Today I want to talk about the Education and Training Committee, of which I am a member. It is currently inquiring into agriculture education, whether it be vocational education and training, TAFE, university or postgraduate work.
The committee travelled over to New Zealand to look in particular at the dairy industry but overall at the support systems that are in place for farmers and the general agricultural sector. The take-home message that we received from every single organisation and from farmers as well was that it is important to have that field officer, that one-on-one contact, so that built-up local knowledge can provide assistance and ongoing liaison between government organisations and the farm.
It is important for government members here in the chamber who might question that point to talk to the government members on that committee, because that was a salient point that was raised time and again.
What I am really concerned about, given the amazing work that is documented in this annual report — and I should say on a very slim budget — is that one of the first things we saw recently was the closure of a whole range of DPI offices. In my electorate the offices in Ararat, Camperdown and Edenhope have closed. That is devastating for those local communities in terms of having those families move out, as it will have an important impact on the local economy, but it will also tell an enormously negative story that will have short, medium and long-term effects in the agricultural sector and the agricultural economies in those regions.
I understand that DPI offices have been closed in Ouyen and St Arnaud as well, and of course that will be devastating. It is not just the loss of that one-on-one contact; it is the loss of those very people that we need in times of crisis.
In the recent floods the DPI officers were doing the assessments firsthand, knowing exactly what the damage was and how to refer those farmers through to industry specialists to get the quickest rectification.
My take-home message on this report and the situation we are facing at the moment is that this is the very worst time for the government to make cuts to DPI, particularly in the front-line area. In particular it needs to heed the warnings of the agricultural sector in New Zealand, which knows that shutting down DPI offices and not having field officers is the worst possible thing for a sector that needs our support and needs to be promoted at any cost.
I urge this government not just to restore the DPI offices but also to restore funding to the National Centre for Farmer Health, to restore the fruit fly program and, while we are at it, to fulfil its election promise to cut stamp duty for young farmers.