Interview with ABC Riverina - Country of Origin laws, ACCC Inquiry into the dairy industry

WALLACE:           Labelling – what does it mean to you? Do you have a good look at products? Is it clear enough on the product? Is it clear enough on the supermarket shelf? Well, there’s been some discussions in Federal Parliament about it. Michael McCormack is – of course – the Federal Member for Riverina and the Minister for Small Business. Mr McCormack, good morning.

McCORMACK:   Good morning Simon.

WALLACE:           You’ve had a bit of a look at Country of Origin laws?

McCORMACK:   Well, look, it’s been something that when I first entered Parliament that so many people told me – there should be truth in labelling. It is so important. Country of Origin laws are necessary, not just for consumers at the supermarkets but indeed farmers. People want to know they are buying good, fresh, green Australian produce – dare I say Riverina and Central West produce.

WALLACE:           Well, one of the ones that was always odd was orange juice. The fact that a pulp – a concentrate – can be brought into Australia, bottled using Australian water and plastic bottles from Australia, and called “made in Australia”.

McCORMACK:   Yes, well, look, it was just wrong. These new labels are very simple. We have made sure there is a very clear distinction between “made in Australia”, from Australian ingredients, and those which are packed here, those which are obviously containing ingredients from overseas.

WALLACE:           So these new laws, when will they come into play?

McCORMACK:   Well, they’re being phased in as we speak. They passed the Senate last week and so they will be rolling out. Some of them are already in place. They will be rolling out so, within months, everything is going to be labelled as it ought to be – with a simple kangaroo, green and gold label with a simple little bar chart. It’s pretty easy to see. There’s also, obviously, wording there to indicate “made in” and “packed in”, to make sure that consumers at the supermarket know precisely what they’re buying.

WALLACE:           Is there a cost to get involved in this?

McCORMACK:   Well, there’s always a cost to everything. But the fact is it is actually be cost-saving ultimately. It is going to actually save our farmers. It’s going to save consumers the time and hassle and heartache of buying something and then getting it home and finding it’s actually from overseas, from somewhere they didn’t want to purchase it from. So it’s actually going to be a cost-saving because farmers are going to benefit. And when farmers benefit, Australia benefits.

WALLACE:           We had a text through earlier which said the Grocery Council are often against these things, saying they’re difficult. Yet, if they want to put – say – 30 per cent more and also say the product is going to make you taller and more attractive to the opposite sex, they can run that in on a label pretty quick-smart.

McCORMACK:   Well, yeah, I suppose. And on Valentine’s Day, that’s highly appropriate isn’t it?

WALLACE:           [Laughs]

                                Yeah but I guess sometimes some producers don’t exactly rush to do these things, Michael. Do you think this one they will have to?

McCORMACK:   Well, nobody likes change. But it is law, so it’s compulsory. The labelling is going to be there. When the busy mum or dad – with the kids in-toe – is going through the supermarket, they can look at the shelves and know the item they are buying is exactly what it is and what it says on the label. And that’s important.

WALLACE:           So things like oranges, fruit and vegetables in the big supermarkets, will there have to be things on the shelves there too?

McCORMACK:   Well, they are going to be on the actual item. So it will be clearly labelled. Some will be “packed in Australia”, some will be “made in Australia from at least 10 per cent Australian ingredients”, or whether it’s 70 per cent, or whether it’s 90 per cent. Whatever the case might be, it will be on the label.

WALLACE:           That will change from – what is it – “may contain foreign produce due to seasonal problems in Australia”, or something?

McCORMACK:   Well, if it’s from – say – Canada, or somewhere, it should say that. But Australian-made items will have a very clear kangaroo – a green and gold kangaroo label in a triangle, as has always been the case – so there’s simplification there.   It’s got a little bar chart with, obviously, whatever the percentage is, and there is appropriate wording. “Packed in”, “made in”, “from Australian ingredients”. It’s clear. It’s truthful and it’s consistent with what people were telling me and what people were telling the Government was required.

WALLACE:           Another quick one while we’ve got you, Mr McCormack. As the Minister for Small Business, there is talk around – and there has been for some time – about the dairy industry and its difficulty in surviving and getting a fair cost. Do you get approached by groups such as that, saying they can’t survive when the big supermarkets want to sell a product at this, and we are at the other end?

McCORMACK:   Yeah, of course. And I have spoken to the new owners of Riverina Fresh. Fonterra sold out, obviously, late last year and a couple of fellows from Sydney have bought in. I have spoken to them. I have also spoken – obviously – to Simone Joliffe and many dairy farmers throughout Wagga Wagga and district and elsewhere in the Riverina.

Look, they are obviously concerned with what’s going on. The ACCC are conducting hearings at the moment and are getting more than 100 at each hearing. They are due to report back to the Government this year about what’s needed and what’s required. I know Barnaby Joyce – the Agriculture Minister – is very much on top of this and is constantly speaking to dairy farmers about how we as a Government should approach this and to make sure that farmers get value for the milk that’s leaving their farm gate. To make sure Australian consumers can know the milk they are getting are fresh, Australian products. It comes back – of course – to the Country of Origin labelling as well. We are doing everything we can. We are listening, and more importantly we are acting.

WALLACE:           You’re still waiting for that report to come back to see what can be done?

McCORMACK:   Well, look, yes. Obviously the inquiries are going down to Victoria next week. They are going to obviously hear from the people who are concerned about what’s happening in Murray Goulburn. It’s a big issue and there are different views on both sides of the fence, but we need to make sure, as a Government and as one which cares about our farmers, that they are getting the right price for their produce. Obviously this takes a little bit of time. We are making sure our farmers are able to not just survive, but to thrive. We are making sure that our dairy farmers, that there is an industry for them and we aren’t having to import powdered milk from China or elsewhere.

WALLACE:           Electricity and water prices are regulated – could it be something like milk? Could that be regulated?

McCORMACK:   Well, this is why the ACCC is conducting its inquiries. This is why I spoke with Rod Sims – the ACCC Commissioner – just yesterday about dairy. He’s confident that their report will get the findings that we, as a Government, need and to make sure the best-possible result occurs. That is why, as I say, we as a Government are making sure that we are on top of this. We are making sure we are listening to dairy farmers. And we are obviously taking in the needs and wants of consumers as well.

WALLACE:           So we will keep seeing those “made in Australia”, not “used to be made in Australia” labels on things, Mr McCormack?

McCORMACK:   Absolutely, Simon.

WALLACE:           Thanks for having a chat this morning.

McCORMACK:   Anytime.

WALLACE:           That’s Michael McCormack, the Minister for Small Business and of course the Federal Member for Riverina. 

Cristy Houghton