PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has used a tour of Bulla Dairy Foods in regional Victoria to shout about the Australian dairy industry’s improved profitability opportunities driven by free trade agreements (FTA) his government signed-off last year.
But the embattled Coalition leader was also forced to address ongoing questioning about his future and decision-making capacity, sparked by him controversially awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip earlier this week.
Mr Abbott said Bulla was a great Australian success story and 100-year-old family business which had recently expanded dramatically, in large part to take advantage of Australia’s growing exports markets.
He said Bulla was exporting products to more than 20 countries around the world, including big export markets in Asia and would, “benefit enormously from the free trade agreements that this Government has secured”.
“After 10 years of procrastination from our predecessors, we have secured three free trade agreements, with Korea, with Japan and with China which are going to do very good things for businesses like this, for workers at businesses like this and for all the Australian families that depend upon businesses like this,” he said.
Mr Abbott said Australian dairy exports to China would soon achieve tariff eliminations that would produce a 10 to 19 per cent price advantage.
“This is very, very good news for jobs - ultimately it's good news for families and it's good news for jobs and for families from the Abbott government,” he said.
“I'm very proud of what we have achieved here and I'm thrilled that this great Australian business is able to take advantage of the good work of the Abbott government.”
Not distracted by knighthood fallout
However, media questioning also attacked ongoing criticism of Mr Abbott’s knighthood decision which has subsequently raised doubt over his leadership credentials.
Asked if he would lead the government into the next election Mr Abbott said, “absolutely”.
In reference to Prince Philip’s knighthood, he said he “absolutely” accepted there was “a bit of dismay over a call I made earlier this week”.
“I accept that, I respect the right of people to disagree with me,” he said.
“I understand, but look, others might be distracted by this – I'm not.
“I'm getting on with delivering good government and what we see here today is an example of how good government can help businesses, boost jobs, help families right around Australia, because only a good government could have delivered the free trade agreement which is obviously doing so much to help this great Australian business here in Colac.”
Liberal MP for Corangamite Sarah Henderson stood by her leader’s side and highlighted the FTA’s benefits for dairy, food processors across the region and “so importantly for our farmers”.
“I think it's another indication of how we, as a government, are working so hard to stand up for country communities,” she said.
“Of course, for farmers for small businesses, our Harper competition policy review is another very, very strong sign as to how hard we are working for small businesses.”
Ms Henderson said the China-Australia free trade agreement (ChAFTA) would see the elimination of tariffs on ice-cream (19pc) over four years, yoghurt (10pc) over nine years and cottage cheese (12pc) over nine years.
“With some 600 workers, Bulla is such an important employer in Colac, so these FTAs are great news for local workers,” she said.
Securing milk supply
Bulla Dairy Foods chief executive officer Allan Hood is just two weeks into the top job at the south-west Victorian manufacturer, but admitted he was excited the PM had chosen his Colac factory to discuss the future advantages of the ChAFTA.
Mr Hood said the the ChAFTA would play a big role in helping his company reach its goal of increasing dairy exports from five per cent currently, to 20pc over the next three to five years.
Bulla has a partnership in place with Australian Dairy Farmers Co-operative (ADFC) to secure milk supply in the south-west Victorian region.
Last year, the company invested $7 million in a new milk separation plant at one of its Colac factories, which Mr Hood said would allow them to produce butterfat and hopefully expand their product range in the future.
While the ChAFTA has helped instill a level of optimism into the Australian dairy industry, global dairy prices have dropped by about 50 per cent since last year.
Mr Hood declined to make any statements on the impact of the drop in milk prices, adding he was too new in the role to comment.
Bulla - an Australian family-owned business - produces a range of ice-cream and cream products, but competes in the market-place with the likes of Unilever, Nestle, and Peters.
“They are big, international players,” Mr Hood said.
“This puts us on a more even playing field.”
The Queensland election question
Mr Abbott was also questioned on why he was in Geelong and not in Queensland assisting with LNP leader Campbell Newman's election campaign for tomorrow’s State election.
He said Campbell Newman deserves to win and “deserves to win well because he’s been a good government”.
“Campbell Newman has a strong team, a strong plan for a stronger Queensland,” he said.
“All the opposition have is a plan for getting into government.”
Good captain-bad captain
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also spoke to media in Victoria today, giving his assessment of Mr Abbott’s current leadership woes.
“Tony Abbott says that he’s a good captain; frankly it’s not just who the captain of this ship is, it’s the direction this government is taking the Australian nation in,” he said.
“Australians want to see a government who is fighting for them, not fighting for themselves.
“Frankly, the captain of the Titanic would look good standing next to Tony Abbott.”
But Mr Abbott said in 2014, “much more went right than went wrong”.
“Scrapping the carbon tax meant a $550 a year benefit for families,” he said.
“Scrapping the mining tax made Australia, once more, a safe place to invest.
“Stopping the boats meant that hundreds of people were no longer dying at sea.
“Three free trade agreements – good for consumers, good for exporters.
“Setting up our country's future – we cut $2 billion from business red tape costs,” he said.
“The live cattle trade, which the former government almost closed in panic at a television programme, is now booming.
“Sure, we’ve had some difficulties with the Senate and we’re going to be better at dealing with them this year than we were last year.”