JUST the whiff of suggestion that the government might be about to reduce its services to agriculture is enough to spark an enormous outpouring of indignation.
Invariably the responsible minister is roundly condemned, denies any such intention (even if there had been one) and vows to never do it again.
A classic example of this is currently occurring in NSW in relation to the government’s plan to reorganise its various service organisations. The shadow minister has the scent of blood and the minister is in full denial.
It is not hard to understand why there are protests. Tens of thousands of small businesses receive no assistance from the government, yet farmers have always received special treatment. In particular, they have always had access to taxpayer-funded advisers to help them run their properties.
The fuss in NSW was prompted by the government proposing to rationalise three agencies offering advice into a single agency based around regions.
That has prompted complaints about a loss of “frontline” staff and arguments about the boundaries of the regions.
Based on my experience, two of the three agencies concerned could disappear and not be missed.
As far as I can tell, the Livestock Health and Pest Authority merely writes letters telling landowners what they must do about livestock and pest animals, usually with warnings of dire consequences if they fail to heed them. The Catchment Management Authority takes a similar approach with native vegetation.
That said, some useful advice is available, although a lot of it is about notifiable or seasonally significant diseases in livestock. Not much is relevant to cropping. And like most things free, the advice is not valued all that highly.
To producers serious about their farm’s performance, engaging a competent veterinarian or agronomist to provide advice tailored to a farm’s specific circumstances makes sense.
But not every producer is serious about performance and there are plenty who prefer free advice no matter what the quality. These are typically the people with the loudest voices when that free advice is threatened. I have a suggestion that might convince them to think again.
My proposal is that they focus more on removing government impediments preventing them, and agriculture generally, from achieving its potential. If these were to be removed, there would be no need for government assistance of any kind.
Individually, the factors that hold back agriculture and have led to a decline in productivity over the past decade are well known. But they are not often considered collectively. When brought together, it becomes obvious there is a huge environmental and regulatory burden that never existed a couple of decades ago, each element of which is adding to the cost of doing business.
Some seem relatively petty, such as the rules governing the movement of machinery on public roads and trucking livestock and crops to markets. Cattle and sheep must be identified with ear tags, electronic in the case of cattle, and every movement of stock on and off the property recorded in a national database. A detailed record of chemical usage must also be maintained.
Some are hangovers from the socialist era. Rice growers in NSW, for example, are still considered incapable of selling their own crops and must sell it to Ricegrowers, almost certainly reducing returns. In Western Australia, potatoes cannot be grown without a licence.
There are myriad rules relating to the employment of staff including penalty rates, superannuation, clothing, holidays, dismissal and of course occupational health and safety.
The days when it was sufficient for the employer and employee to simply agree on terms with which they are both happy are long gone. Awards are written with large employers and unionised workforces in mind, and employers risk criminal prosecution and personal liability for getting it wrong.
Then there are all the environmental obligations and restrictions, including the inability to clear native vegetation, claims on rain that falls on the property, limits on riparian rights, and biodiversity corridors that reduce property options. Irrigators face reduced water availability because more is being diverted to the environment, and croppers miss out on productive varieties because state governments either restrict or ban the availability of GM crops even after they’ve passed Commonwealth scrutiny.
And I haven’t even started on the diversion of resources into all the unproductive issues related to climate change.
Some believe an increase in agricultural productivity will not occur until new technology emerges - auto-steer tractors pulling seeders and harvesters, cloned livestock, or a much broader range of GM crops for example.
Some suggest better education and training will help farmers make better use of new technology, or at least know how to take full advantage of expert advice.
No doubt these are important, but so too are the impediments imposed by governments. They particularly inhibit those willing to innovate and take risks.
The government is looking for ways to reduce its expenditure. The cost of providing assistance to farmers is undoubtedly greater than the benefit to taxpayers, and probably greater than the benefit to farmers.
It would make sense to strike a deal in which the government saved the cost of providing assistance in exchange for removing its impediments to farm performance.
It’s a deal worth making.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org