Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon speaks up about Mandatory Code of Conduct to protect farmers

IT'S been 20 years since a coalition government, led by John Howard, deregulated Australia's dairy industry.

Howard did not act precipitously.

Rather, he took the next steps in a long period of necessary reform beginning with Labor Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.

Not long after, the big supermarket chains saw opportunity, using fresh milk as a loss-leader in a strategy to build market share at the expense of the corner store.

It was a strategy that by 2011 gave birth to the "dollar milk" so despised by dairy farmers.

Long caught in a cost-price squeeze, our dairy farmers are leaving in droves as the drought adds to their woes.

Their production costs continue to rise while the price of fresh milk and cheese remain stubbornly low.

In the Parliament last week, Labor teamed with Pauline Hanson's One Nation and others in a second attempt to save our dairy farming families by supporting a Bill, which largely mirrored the policy Labor took to the 2019 election; a proposal to introduce a Minimum Farm Gate Milk Price.

The concept is a simple one.

An independent regulator would regularly assess the cost of producing milk within each dairy region.

It would then set a minimum farm gate price just above that cost.

A Mandatory Code of Conduct would protect farmers from the power of the big processors while still allowing farmers to negotiate the best price for their milk - though no less than the price set by the regulator.

Pauline Hanson's Bill failed in the Senate last week 30 votes to 31.

Liberal and National Party Senators voted together to defeat the proposal.

The vote took place the same day it was becoming clear that the Morrison-McCormack government is not even capable of implementing a Code of Conduct to manage the power imbalance between our farmers and the processors who purchase their milk.

Finally dragged screaming to support a Code, it's been 20 months since the implementation process began.

Sadly, last week we learned the government is working hard to water-down its own draft Code.

The more enlightened farm leaders advise that the amended draft Code would be worse for farmers than not having a Code at all.

The Code is supposed to level the playing field for dairy farmers by - among other things - stopping claw-back provisions in contracts which retrospectively cut payments to farmers.

When asked four times on ABC radio this week to explain the dilution, Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie declined to do so four times.

It is not overreach to suggest that without change, we could lose our dairy industry and find ourselves importing our drinking milk.

Already we import around half of the dairy products we consume.

Yet Scott Morrison refuses to act and National Party MPs are either unwilling, or unable, to stand up for our farmers and to him.

Former Leader Black Jack McEwen will be rolling in his grave.