DO YOU remember the National Food Plan? It arrived back when Julia Gillard was PM and Joe Ludwig Minister for Agriculture in the period now known as BR (Before Rudd or Before the Resurrection, depending on your preference.)
A lot of money and two years of work by well-intended people went into developing the Plan, with the aim that it “set a long term direction for our food system and help prioritise our actions and focus resources”.
It does a fairly mediocre job of that. Rather, it contains quite a lot of bragging by Labor about its existing policies. If Gillard and Ludwig weren’t being air-brushed from history, it would probably serve quite well as an election policy document.
I like to gauge government plans by how much they will dip into my pocket and that of an old friend, Tom, who is a Sydney bus driver. I am offended by how much of our taxes are wasted, especially considering Tom’s modest remuneration.
On that basis, the Food Plan contains significant parts I do not like. For example, there is a proposal to spend $28.5 million on an Asian Food Markets Research Fund, to help Australian businesses enter Asian markets. That’s on top of the $700 million already spent on research, development and extension. I cannot see why Tom should pay for something that would normally be undertaken by companies for their own benefit.
There’s a plan to spend $2 million to develop Brand Australia, to “promote Australian food and raise the profile of our nation's credentials as a sustainable food producer”. That amount is barely enough to establish a brand in the domestic market, let alone in export markets. The only beneficiary will be the advertising agency, but Tom will pay.
There’s a plan to appoint “an experienced business leader” as “a Food and Beverage Supplier Advocate to encourage business-to-business links between food suppliers and their customers”. That sounds a lot like a glorified sales rep, and I know he or she will be paid far more than Tom.
The Plan makes much of Labor’s various spending initiatives, including the $60 billion plus National Broadband Network. I agree our taxes should be spent on infrastructure such as ports, roads and bridges, but not if the private sector is willing to do it. And the amount being spent on the NBN is as much as the expenditure on all other infrastructure combined.
On the other hand the Plan endorses the development and adoption of new technologies, including biotechnology and nanotechnology, on the grounds that it is essential to meeting future food needs in Australia and around the world. That’s something that should never be doubted.
It also welcomes foreign investment, albeit with the hoary old caveat of being in the ‘national interest’. Unless I’m the one who decides what’s in the national interest, I think that’s just an excuse for politicians to meddle. It doesn’t take much meddling before it filters down as higher prices.
The Plan also recognises that food production should be included in school curriculums so that students develop a sound understanding of the contribution of agriculture and primary industries. That’s a good idea too, although another $1.5 million of our taxes is allocated to it. Why couldn’t it be done within the billions already allocated to education?
Most importantly, it recognises the importance of trade, both for the Australian food industry and to help developing countries. It endorses market access and free trade agreements, decries barriers to free trade including the use of biosecurity, and says “Buying foods from developing countries can help reduce poverty in the world’s poorest nations.” I heartily approve.
The Greens also have a plan, which they describe as a plan for Australia’s food security. It is an election policy document, released last week.
If it was ever implemented, Tom and I would both have our pockets raided through higher taxes and higher prices for food.
It calls for expenditure of $76.5 million on teaching farmers how to farm more “sustainably”, $85 million on promoting farmers markets, food hubs and cooperatives, $100 million on helping farmers shift to renewable electricity, $35 million on school kitchen gardens, $20 million on avoiding food waste, $10 million on an independent biosecurity authority, $300 million in additional food and agriculture R&D, plus a raft of additional regulatory and advisory bodies.
We might debate the merits of a couple of these, but the assumption that we should all pay for them is quite obnoxious. Good ideas do not need the government spending money on them, and we already have more than enough regulators, advisers and authorities.
But there is more. Private property gets the elbow – their plan says the ACCC should be allowed to force divestments. Free trade is also gone – they want “fair” trade (with no mention of who decides what’s fair), protection for local producers, and government procurement policies that favour local producers. That’s enough to have us thrown out of the World Trade Organisation.
Only approved foreign investment will be permitted. Coal seam gas is out. Free speech goes too – they want advertising of “junk” food to children banned, without telling us what junk means. (I’d say it might depend on whether it is sold by a large American company.) And they also favour “regulatory” means to reduce junk food consumption. That’s code for Big Brother will be watching you.
What these policies add up to is higher food prices and the government’s hand further in our pocket. Foreign investment increases productivity, reduces costs and leads to lower prices. Restraints on free trade, of any kind, lead to higher prices. And my bus driver friend finds the low prices of McDonalds a welcome relief from the cost of living.
The former Soviet Union was fond of five year plans that prescribed how the country was expected to operate. Giant billboards were erected in major cities exhorting the populace to strive to reach the plan’s goals.
The problem was that it was all fiction. Production never matched the plan, the country either ran out of important components or it was in the wrong part of the country, and huge amounts of food had to be imported.
Most of the National Food Plan is similarly fiction. Most of the goals are reasonable, but the means of achieving them are fanciful. What it fails to recognise is that the best thing the government can do is reduce taxes and get out of the way.
And the Greens food security plan is total fantasy. It would return Australia to the middle of last century, when we thought the outside world was strange and scary. All it offers is a future of genteel poverty and expensive food.
I doubt if Australia needs a Food Plan, but if we are to have one it could probably be written on one page. And all it really needs to say is, let’s feed as much of the world as we can, indefinitely and profitably. Everything else follows naturally.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com