LARGER than life Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan will attempt to do the impossible in the new federal parliament by trying to replace Bill Heffernan in holding down a critical agricultural post.
Senator O’Sullivan was yesterday endorsed by the Senate to become the new Chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport (RRAT) Legislation Committee.
His appointment is due to be formally ratified when the Committee meets for the first time in the newly sworn-in parliament, potentially next week.
WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle is expected to be confirmed to continue his well-regarded service as chairing the RRAT References Committee.
Senator O’Sullivan conceded he had big shoes to fill following the retirement of the veteran Liberal Senator and NSW grain and sheep farmer Bill Heffernan, at the recent federal election.
He said Bill Heffernan was highly regarded by many people - not just in the agriculture sector but also regional development and transport - for his work on the RRRAT Committee during his 20-year career.
Senator O’Sullivan said the Committee’s inquiry into competition concerns within the red meat sector was the only one from the previous parliament that’s likely to be re-engaged in the new term.
“I took legal advice before the parliament was prorogued and am confident we’ve put in place a measure to allow that committee inquiry to be re-started,” he said.
“All the 72 other inquiries held in the previous parliament have expired.”
Senator O’Sullivan said continuing the red meat processing inquiry was a priority and he was also considering another one to examine potential improvements to drought support policy for primary producers.
“It will surprise me if we don’t start in this term to look at getting out in front of drought support in agriculture,” he said.
“Fine tuning drought support is essential to allow the sector to look forward and plan knowing there will be drier periods.”
Of other potential inquiries concerning the farm sector, Senator O’Sullivan said the “big bogey man” was the “completely out of control well organised and well-funded liberal-left environmental movement”.
“I use the word environmental very loosely,” he said.
“These are not practical people and they have no regard for their impacts on communities of interest, or the economies of a sector, or indeed the individual economies of families or small businesses, some of which have gone on for generations.
“I’m determined, if I’m able to leave a legacy of my time in the parliament, to put in place measures that help to protect legitimate industries that are behaving in a measured and sustainable way to produce food and fibre for our nation and for export purposes.
“I want to ensure these industries are insulated against some of these frivolous and vexatious actions of the Greens’ movement.
“It’s a real challenge of our generation.”
As an example, Senator O’Sullivan cited the 2011 suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia saying it was “a complete knee-jerk reaction - driven by the environmental movement”.
“There was no science to it - common sense was left at the door - but as a government we should protect our industries across the board from something like that ever happening again,” he said.
Overall, Senator O’Sullivan said agriculture would continue to play a vital role in the nation’s economic future and was Australia’s third biggest exporter of goods.
Despite economic losses due to the mining downturn, he said Australian farming had great potential to grow because of existing trade deals like one with China and potentially new agreements, signed with India and Indonesia.
“Once we get into that space we’ll have the opportunity to improve trade with over half the world,” he said.
“It is a really big deal for any government of the day to support agriculture and that fits very neatly with the regional and transport aspects of this Committee.
“Big national infrastructure challenges have to be met - like the inland rail - if we’re to fully exploit all of our potential with the export of soft commodities in agriculture and in horticulture and the like.
“But having said that there are challenges, like the government’s ability to fund such projects.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he’d developed a very “sound and professional working relationship” with Senator Sterle over the last couple of years.
He said other committee members included Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, who he described as “a wise old general” and WA Liberal Senator Chris Back who he said was noted for his work on agriculture, regional affairs and transport policy.
“One of the first orders of business is to restore the incomplete inquiry into the red meat industry,” he said.
Senator O’Sullivan said he’d recently held meetings with Peter Noble - the head of the Australian Meat Processor Corporation - and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission agriculture commission Mick Keogh.
Mr Keogh’s ACCC Agriculture Enforcement and Engagement Unit is conducting an examination of issues within the meat processing supply chain that’s due to report in about November which will help inform the Senate inquiry’s final recommendations.
“We’re looking forward to the benefit of the ACCC’s work so we can finalise our report,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
“We’re all looking to get an industry based resolution to the inquiry and bring it to a successful conclusion for everyone concerned.
“Imagine if we had the industry and producer bodies, the ACCC and Senate References Committee all agreeing on the measures that should be put in place.
“That’s exactly how the world should work - parliament with industry.
“A velvet touch from government in terms of legislation or regulation - just a minimalist approach and none if possible.
“That’s an attitude you’ll see this Committee bring, in striving towards trying to see that these sectors can look after themselves and any legislation the government brings forward is positive and can enhance the sector.”
Asked if a code of conduct was an outcome of the inquiry - that was instigated by the boycott of a cattle sale by nine meat processors last year - Senator O’Sullivan said “I don’t want to go there”.
“I still remain confident from my discussions that we’re going to resolve it,” he said.
“A code of conduct or a compulsory code of conduct are all tools - but they’re very blunt tools and not an elegant solution to a problem.
“The best way is for industry to acknowledge that there are issues and to address them between themselves and get on with the business of being productive.”
Cattle Council of Australia President Howard Smith said the Senate inquiry had opened a positive environment for processors and others in the red meat sector to reach agreement on a solution - like a voluntary code of practice - that avoided government intervention.