Senate asks grass roots dairy if floor price makes sense

Senate dairy inquiry tours to hear from grass roots

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REPRESENTATION QUESTION: South Australia Dairyfarmers Association president John Hunt.

REPRESENTATION QUESTION: South Australia Dairyfarmers Association president John Hunt.

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A minimum farmgate milk price proposal is far from dead, despite its defeat by a single vote in the senate just before Christmas.

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The bid to introduce a minimum farmgate milk price is far from dead, despite its defeat by a single vote in the senate just before Christmas.

And the key to whether a bill succeeds second time around may just lie in the sense of how close South Australian Dairyfarmers Association (SADA) is to grass roots dairy farmers.

READ MORE: Politicians on milk price: send your questions in

READ MORE: Floor price for farmgate milk senate debate heats up

Labor and the Greens supported the Pauline Hanson senate bill and it would only take the support of the Centre Allianceto pass the senate.

Last December, when the Centre Alliance, whose slogan is SA always comes first, turned to its state dairy organisation for guidance on the One Nation proposal, SADA president John Hunt came out swinging against a minimum milk price, a position SADA confirmed it continues to hold today.

"If this nation entertains the idea we can dictate a milk price at the farm gate that makes the Australian product more expensive than an imported product and somehow consumers won't turn to a cheaper imported product or importers won't pull out of trade agreements built on our free trade credentials then this notion would simply be wrong," Mr Hunt wrote in a scathing November opinion piece for Stock Journal.

But the Centre Alliance agricultural spokesperson, Rebekha Sharkie, said it may revisit a minimum price proposal.

"At the time we just needed to do a bit more preparation and homework on whether what Senator Hanson was proposing was what our dairy farmers wanted," Ms Sharkie said.

"A lot of the feedback we got from the dairy industry more broadly at the time said her proposals were not what the processors or the peak bodies were looking for.

"However, in my conversations over the summer with a number of dairy farmers, I think there's a bit of a disconnect between what the peak bodies are saying and what the mum and dad dairy farmers are saying are the problems and the reasons why so many are leaving the industry.

"We're prepared to look at this with fresh eyes and get a broader sense of what grass roots - those who are getting up at 4am every day - are looking for from government to ensure that they can continue to milk into the future."

SADA president John Hunt said around 55 per cent of SA's 212 dairy farmers were members and the board was made up of practising farmers.

"We're all grass roots farmers, we are the people who get up at 4am," he said.

"Good young people do struggle to come to meetings but there's so much communication and platforms that allow them to contribute.

"It's all about consensus but if someone doesn't agree, they say we're not listening."

Ms Sharkie said there was a sense of disillusionment among farmers and did not underestimate how difficult it would be to encourage them to engage.

"Look, I don't want my grandchildren to be drinking milk from China ... when we have farmers leaving at this rate, we just won't have dairy farmers in my electorate in 20 years' time if we don't work together with dairy farmers on how they see the solution."

Labor says it will continue to support the investigation of a minimum farmgate milk price by the ACCC.

The Greens however, have floated an amendment that would involve having the ACCC authorise any downwards farmgate milk prices.

"The Greens supported Senator Hanson's initial bill when it was brought on urgently, after trying to improve it through amendments," Greens agriculture spokesperson Janet Rice said.

"This committee inquiry is a really important opportunity to hear from farmers about what support they need, and we're going to be listening and learning about what will work best for the sector.

In a speech, Ms Rice said dairy processors would have to notify the ACCC if they wanted to cut prices below the prices that they had paid over the last 12 months.

"That would create a role for the ACCC in monitoring and, if need be, intervening on prices while being less drastic than suddenly imposing a price floor," the senator said.

"Most importantly, it would ensure that a sudden and unconscionable price drop, like that in 2016, would never happen again.

"If the situation was repeated, the dairy processors would have notified the ACCC of their intent to decrease prices and there would be an opportunity to object, to intervene and to prevent the tragedy that occurred in 2016."

Agriculture minister David Littleproud said the coalition would continue to oppose the bill.

"A floor price is not the solution," Mr Littleproud said.

"It's bad economics. Bad for the future of the industry.

"The dairy code of conduct is now taking effect, providing farmers with a clear minimum milk price from processors over the course of a contract - giving them greater bargaining power in negotiations.

"And when it comes to code compliance, the ACCC will be the tough cop on the beat.

"We can't be distracted by populist quick fixes that harm our dairy farmers in the long run.

"The Coalition is working hard to support our dairy farmers to reduce input costs and support them through the drought, with $22 million of election commitments funding a range of initiatives specifically to support dairy farmers.

"Australians are saying they want to pay more in support of their dairy industry - as long as the increase goes directly to those farmers."

The senate inquiry will travel to Mt Gambier on Wednesday, April 15; Toowoomba on Wednesday, April 22; and Warrnambool on Friday, May 8 to hear from farmers.

Send in your questions

You're invited to send in questions for five politicians with an influential role in deciding how the farmgate milk price is set.

The current senate dairy inquiry is still active and coming to Victoria and South Australia to seek input from farmers.

Ahead of the hearings, five politicians have agreed to answer readers' questions about the inquiry and, especially, how dairy farmers believe the farmgate milk price should be set.

All the politicians responsible for the agricultural policies of each of their parties have agreed to answer Stock & Land reader questions, including:

  • Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, Nationals
  • Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor
  • Pauline Hanson, One Nation
  • Janet Rice, Greens
  • Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance

Our national rural affair reporter in Canberra will video the politicians while they answer readers' questions.

We'll post the videos online and include a summary in the following week's paper.

Email your written or videoed question to marian.macdonald@stockandland.com.au or text 0475 954 446.

Tell us your name, your role in agriculture, where you are from and which politician you would like to respond, by 5pm Thursday, March 19.

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