Back in August, trade minister Robb spoke about the opportunities for produce growers and the Chinese free trade agreement. He mentioned Fresh Select, located in my electorate of Lalor. It is a business that has a turnover in excess of $50 million per annum and is a huge employer in an area that has one of the highest unemployment rates in Victoria. It is a business that has innovated and expanded and sees great potential in the future. The minister for trade outlined:
… Fresh Select is working with China Merchants, which is a major transport and distribution company in China, on a new business model for sending high-quality Australian food and beverages directly from growers and manufacturers to families in China. Produce will arrive from Australia direct into a massive warehouse in Shenzhen , which is already being prepared. Customers by the thousands will order online and be given an electronic access code. Their order will be robotically filled and couriered directly to their apartment block …
I applaud the Fresh Select people involved in the company that I know well and have known for many years. This success, however, is being held back by more than ChAFTA. The problem is a reliable guaranteed water supply.
Werribee South vegetable growers farm some 3,000 hectares in the electorate. The major crops are lettuce, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. They farm very resilient soil, intensively, with up to four crops a year. The annual turnover is estimated at $100 million per annum. They are perceived by retailers as national producers, with their vegetables sold all over Australia. The area is close to markets, and an international airport, in Avalon. The industry employs an estimated 1,000 people a day.
The irrigation channels that serve this agricultural area and Bacchus Marsh are decades old, made of unreinforced concrete, and they leak. Forty to forty-five per cent of the water is lost in these channels. Until quite recently the farmers used two sources of water: fresh from the Werribee River and groundwater from the Deutgam aquifer. During the last drought, when the Deutgam aquifer was exhausted, many farmers embraced recycled water from Melbourne Water's Western Treatment Plant. They modified their practices to allow for the higher salt content because, even after recycling, the salt content is still high. They delivered what they call a shandy, which is 50 per cent recycled water and 50 per cent river water.
This was a major breakthrough for both the farmers and science. But necessity is often the father of invention and in the dire times of the last drought the farmers were left little option but to put their faith in the scientists and utilise recycled water. They did, and the country continued to be fed vegetables from Werribee South. This demonstrates the growers' commitment to their future. We are still losing 40 per cent of the water—whether it be recycled or fresh—because the irrigation system is old and dilapidated, and the fresh water supply is under renewed threat. Reduced flow from the river and dams has seen higher salinity in the fresh water as well as higher salinity from recycled water.
These channels need replacing and the Werribee South growers want the federal government to make a contribution. In the short term, 40 per cent of the water could be saved. This would do much to guarantee the water supply. It would allow for expansion and for more vegetables to be grown in the south-west of Victoria—vegetables that could be exported to China and the rest of the world. Southern Rural Water has planned for the channels to be replaced by pipes at a cost, for the Werribee South district, of $30 million. This would guarantee improved water access for the growers and—as a nationally significant contributor to Australian diets and as a potential for export—the growers, local government and I think the federal government should kick in. After all, they must be of national significance; the trade minister suggested so, in question time, some weeks ago.
With the member for New England now charged with responsibility for water, I urge him to meet with me, as requested by letter, and with the local growers to hear their story. He could hear, too, how a longer-term solution that would allow for maximum use of recycled water would be possible and that with a $350 million investment Melbourne Water could build a desal plant to reduce the saline levels, in the recycled water, to make them more acceptable.
This longer-term investment is not worth considering while we are losing 40 per cent through the channels but, with the piping completed, I can see a world where south-west Victoria would have guaranteed and increased water.