Agricultural Prices

I want to talk a little bit about beef prices and agriculture prices more generally tonight. A couple of weeks ago I went to the Gracemere saleyards near Rockhampton. They are getting record prices for beef right now, which is a great thing for our farmers because particularly in the beef sector they have been doing it tough for a very long time.

When I was there young steers were going for 288c a kilo that week. There were not too many yardings; there were only 400 there that week because of rain, and that affected how much could get there. But last Friday, when I was not there, just over 4,000 head were sold and prices were still very strong. Light feeder heifers went for 200c to 234c a kilo, grown steers averaged 236c a kilo and bullocks—there were not that many of them, apparently—went for 245c a kilo. These prices have massively increased over the past year and are some of the highest prices we have seen since the 1970s.

Last year a guy from Bruce Farrel Dorn & Associates reported in the paper that prices for these types of cattle were averaging $1.60 a kilo at the same time last year. For a 400-kilo bullock you would get around $650 a head--$650 you would take away. This year, because the prices have gone up, that same bullock would get you $1,000 a head. So, if you were bringing 50 head to market that week, you would get an extra $17,500 for your product. That is solely because of that increase in prices.

When we came to government around 16 months ago, the agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, and the trade minister, Andrew Robb, said that we would get money into the back pockets of farmers and we would increase profitability for farmers, and we have done that. We said we would do that, and we have done that. We have done that across more than just the Gracemere saleyards. It is across the beef sector generally. At the election, prices were around 313c a kilo—that is according to the Eastern Young Cattle Indicator, which is the most comprehensive cattle price indicator in the country. Back at the election, 313c a kilo dressed weight—that is not live weight. The prices that I quoted before were live weight and that is why this one is a bit higher. Then, 313c a kilo; today, 450c a kilo. That is an increase of 44 per cent in just 16 months. Lamb prices have gone up as well. At the election they were 417c a kilo and today they are 565c a kilo, an increase of 35 per cent. Milk prices as well have gone up across the country. The farm-gate milk price has increased from 40.2c per litre at the election to 51.2c per litre today, an increase of 27 per cent. Milk solids have gone up as well, from $5.41 a kilo to $6.89 a kilo, also an increase of 27 per cent.

I am not trying to claim that these increases are all because of government policy. There are always lots of things that affect market prices, demand of course being one of them. But demand for agricultural products has been high for a number of years. It was high during the Labor government and it has continued to be high, particularly in beef markets across the world. But what has changed is that this government is making sure that our farmers have more access to overseas markets and that they can export the product that they want without uncertain and onerous restrictions from government policies and knee-jerk reactions. Of course, top of the list there is the live cattle trade. When you shut down an element of trade for a market you bring down prices. It is not very hard to work out. If you make it harder for people to sell their product overseas, they are going to get a lower price. People who have invested in that industry and have put their livelihoods on the line in Northern Australia in that industry were getting a lower price thanks to the Labor-Greens policies to shut down the live cattle trade in the last government. Since the election, in the live cattle market, we have opened up access to six more countries—or the Minister for Agriculture has got access to six more countries. He has access to Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Cambodia, Thailand and Lebanon. A report was released the other week and we have 99 per cent compliance with the ESCAS. I do recognise that the Labor Party brought that system in, but only after much prodding because of the disastrous decision to shut down the live cattle trade. But there has been a 99 per cent compliance rate. What other industry could claim that? It is actually more than 99 per cent, but I am using that as a round figure. There has been a 99 per cent compliance rate with the ESCAS. 

Of course we have also signed trade agreements with three countries that have given substantially more access to beef: Korea, Japan and China. In Korea, our beef tariffs will be gone after 15 years, and we are no longer disadvantaged relative to the US, whereas before, if we had not signed that agreement, each year we were getting worse and worse relative to the US and we would have lost Korean markets. In the Japanese market, which still remains our biggest market—I think the US is actually going to beat it this year, but that is because of their drought—we have had tariffs fall by 20 per cent in just the last two weeks. They fell from 38.5 per cent for both chilled and fresh beef to 30.5 per cent for frozen beef and 32.5 per cent for fresh beef. That is a 20 per cent reduction for our farmers. That helps them get better prices.

We have had better access to horticulture as well. We have got table grapes into Japan and Korea for the first time. Our first shipment of mangoes to the US has left in the last couple of weeks. Our focus has been on making sure we can get more money into the back pockets of our farmers, because we know that if we do that they will have more confidence to invest in their region, they will have more confidence to employ people in their region and more money gets spun around the town, around the community. A lot of these communities have been doing it very tough both because of those low beef prices that I spoke about earlier and because of the drought. The drought does remain in many areas, but at least we are not creating a government induced drought here for our farm sector by turning our backs on the failed policies of the former government.

There is much more to do here. We have a lot more plans to make sure we have a stronger agricultural sector in this country. Getting prices up was a prerequisite, because if prices had not increased we could not make any more investments in agriculture. No-one would be willing to do that if prices were at record lows. If prices stayed at that $1.60 per kilo we would not have any need to invest in dams or new ports or rail lines, because there would be no need to use that infrastructure with prices so low. No-one would be able to make a buck growing a beast on grass—they would not bother doing it. So we have got those prices up now and we can take the next step and make further investments in infrastructure. That is why I am very happy that last week the Nationals had our first party room meeting for the year. We had it in Wodonga on the Murray. At that meeting we discussed a number of things that we think we need to do for regional Australia. Two of the four priorities we chose are more investment in regional Australia, one of which is to create some real funding to build dams in this country and the other is to introduce stronger competition laws to protect farmers and small businesses from the large supermarket chains. Both of those things can help give a further shot in the arm to our farming sector, because we know there are so many water resources in this country.

The area where I live, the Fitzroy Basin, is the largest catchment on the eastern seaboard. More water goes out from the Fitzroy River to the Pacific Ocean than any other river in Australia; yet it only really has one major dam in its system, the Fairbairn Dam at Emerald. There are other sites for dams that have environmental approval already or environmental approval is not far away. There is the Connors River Dam into the north of Rockhampton, the Nathan Dam to the south-west of Gladstone and the Urannah Dam further up closer to Mackay in the Burdekin catchment. But there is lots of potential in Central Queensland for further investment in dams that will allow people to invest in more intensive irrigated agriculture so that they can fatten more cattle and make more money for our country.

We also need those stronger laws for small businesses and farmers to make sure they have the confidence that they can make a return, because no-one is going to invest in farming in this nation unless they can make a buck doing it. That is why we put our sole focus on making sure we get farmers' profitability up before we start talking about their productivity. In my view, there has been far too much concentration in agricultural policy in this country on just making farmers do better and run faster without being able to make more money. There is no point in investing in ways to become more productive unless you can make more money from it. That is why our focus has been on getting prices up and costs down for farmers, boosting their profits so that we can have a stronger agricultural sector in this country—an agricultural sector that has a positive outlook—and it can provide more jobs, employment and investment for communities in regional Australia.

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