Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal. We know in this House that all men and women are not created equal, at least not in the way that some would have us believe. Some are smarter than others, some have greater opportunity by birth, some make more money than others, some women make better cakes than others, some people are born gifted beyond comparison—and then some choose to be dairy farmers. You must have a special gift and a special way with the world to be a dairy farmer. Good dairy farmers grow great grass which makes healthy cows, quality milk and health products for a nation. These people are part scientist, part horticulturalist, part labourer, part shiftworker and part mechanic. They are schooled in hygiene, refrigeration, nutrition and animal husbandry. They are skilled in carpentry, fencing, drainage and road making. They are able to continue to work seven days a week, under any weather conditions, from daybreak to day’s end and into the night during calving.
Who in their right mind would choose to be a dairy farmer? In my 50 years, I have spent no more than two days in dairy sheds. In those two days I learned that I was not to become a dairy farmer. But the business we were in grew out of dealing with the dairy farmers. They were the farmers in my community, along with potato growers, swede growers, pea growers and asparagus growers. The biggest area was dairying and, as a youth, most of the farms were about 40 acres. Off that 40 acres, they could educate their family and they could buy a new Holden every two years.
The world has, of course, changed. Since 1950, dairy farmers have had to face deregulation at a local, state and then federal level. That affected every farmer from North Queensland all the way to Tasmania. That deregulation was difficult and made great changes to the industry. In my time, I can remember—and there have been more—three major droughts: 1968, the 1980s and the last one, which lasted from 1997 to 2010 before it rained. They faced floods and they faced fires; I have mentioned the droughts. They faced high interest rates in the early nineties and low milk prices. Today they face rising costs for feed, power, fertiliser and every other area of their work. They are an amazing family.
I remember when one of the young people connected to a dairy farm had won a prize—I do not remember what the prize was. I said: ‘We’ll deliver it to the farm—it’ll save them coming to the office. We’ll get in the car and drive to the farm.’ It was a cold, horrible, wet, rainy night. The last time I had seen the woman I found at the farm, she had been dressed immaculately for a night-time function. When I arrived at the dairy farm there were water and dirt everywhere. It was pouring with rain. She had gumboots on and three pairs of tracksuit pants with a pair of waterproof pants pulled over them, a great big jacket and a hat pulled down over her head. She did not want me arriving at that time to say hello and deliver the prize. I thought, ‘This is dairying.’
I remember another time, in the middle of the drought, I received a call from the brother of a farmer—and I will name no names. The brother lived in the city, and he said, ‘My brother’s in trouble and he’s not telling anybody.’ I drove to the farm and the farmer hopped into my car. I said, ‘Let’s just dive round the farm and you can tell me the story of what’s happening.’ It was at the height of the drought, and the government had done good things such as sending the drought bus around, but some farmers still did not approach the drought bus. They would not let their guard down enough to say, ‘I’m in trouble.’ I thought that the only thing I could do for this dairy farmer would be to let him know that it was alright to go to the bus and that there was no crime in admitting that there was an issue there.
We drove around the farm. He showed me the farm and told me how proud he was and what they had done, but there was no water in the dams. He was carting in truckloads of water every day at huge expense just to keep the farm going. At the end of it we sat down and had a talk. I said: ‘You’re not on your own. I’ve spoken to a lot of your compatriots that are dairy farmers in this area and around all of my electorate. It’s a good thing to go, because we are here to support you in this industry at this time.’
At that time my electorate was not getting the drought relief that many electorates in the rest of Australia were getting. I had to go to the Prime Minister and say that my farmers were at a disadvantage compared to other dairy farmers across Victoria, because they lived in a different shire. John Howard, as Prime Minister of the day, never, ever let me down. From his visit to my electorate, as only a prime minister could do in those circumstances, our farmers received drought relief and support. We turned the corner with government support equal to that for every other farmer suffering from drought at that time across Australia.
That farmer had a good story. He did go to the drought bus and things did turn around. Local members—I praise them all on both sides of the House and I have spoken about my respect for members before—sometimes can make a tiny difference that no one except the family in the situation they were in at the time will ever know anything about. Members do make a difference. I could go into all the statistics and bore you witless about how much better my dairy farmers are than those down in the districts near Geelong—but I will not. There are those who are still fighting the fight to supply fresh milk into Queensland and New South Wales against the onslaught of the big retailers, who want to sell milk at $1 a litre so that they can increase their market share eventually at the cost of the producer, the dairy farmer.
Do I have an answer for that today? I say to the member for Corangamite: no, I have not. I do not know how to address that issue, but I know in the long run it will go all the way back to the producer, the person who grows the grass that produces the cow that delivers the milk. And, remember, we export out of my area some 45 per cent of what we produce. That protein goes to countries that cannot produce that protein. We do things for poorer countries out of the wealth of what we are able to produce.
I take great pride in my dairy farmers throughout Gippsland. Whatever we as members of parliament can do to support them in their daily work, as experts in their field, as highly talented, creative farmers, we should do on every occasion. We should support them and tell them how much we appreciate them.