IT IS raining here today and I have paused our winter crop planting program for a few days. This should be a welcome opportunity to rest and recharge in preparation for the next burst of work putting in the chickpeas, but every now and then there is an issue that absolutely overwhelms me with frustration anger and disbelief.
Unfortunately, the Nationals are too often the cause and this week Barnaby Joyce has managed to do it spectacularly again.
Our illustrious Minister for Agriculture is belligerently pursuing an agenda to decentralise key agricultural agencies out of Canberra.
On the face of it you might be convinced that this will be good for the regional centres who will soon house these agencies. The Minister is quick to use this rationale to justify his actions and portray himself as a champion for regional Australia.
While his decentralisation agenda is not a grains industry-specific issue, I want to highlight the stupidity of this action by discussing the Minister’s particular intent to move the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) to Wagga Wagga.
As the immediate past chairman of Grain Producers Australia (GPA) I have a particular interest in this sector and maintain a keen interest and involvement. GPA is the current representative organisation recognised by the federal government with legislated responsibilities under the Primary Industries Research and Development Act to oversee the GRDC on behalf of growers, and advise the Minister of industry sentiment around it.
GRDC is a primary research funding organisation funded roughly two-thirds by growers through a compulsory levy and about one-third by government funds. Depending on the season and grain pricing, growers contribute about $80 million a year to GRDC to provide an annual income of around $120 million for research and development purposes.
Over time it has been demonstrated that for every dollar GRDC commits to research for the Australian grains industry about $2 is leveraged from other agencies and the private sector. This means every dollar removed from the GRDC research budget removes three dollars from grains research in Australia.
The estimated cost for moving GRDC out of Canberra is $30 million. This is a direct cost which will come out of growers’ research levies. In turn this means there is an opportunity cost in lost research of $90 million.
In other words the cost of moving GRDC to Wagga equates to around one quarter of the annual grains research spend in Australia.
The Minister has unilaterally made a political decision to keep up appearances of managing his portfolio. The problem is that growers have written to the Minister previously seeking justification for any proposed move and seeking an opportunity for genuine consultation.
In March this year about 100 grain growers gathered in Canberra to discuss the future structure and administration of GRDC. These growers were the industry leaders from across the country and the Minister was invited to attend and speak to the meeting.
This was a unique opportunity for the Minister to consult with the decision makers of the industry and engage in a genuine dialogue about any and all issues including relocation of the GRDC. The Minister snubbed the meeting and did not attend in any capacity.
Subsequently he has advised these same people he intends to move the GRDC, but with a commitment to consult. Seriously!
It seems to me that the Minister is struggling to address the fundamental issues affecting farm viability in Australia. He has failed to address the protection of agricultural land from extractive industries, even in his own electorate. He has failed to resolve a functional drought support scheme for those hardest hit by exceptional circumstances and ineligible to access the under-utilised drought loan scheme. He has failed to even recognise the opportunity in the Reserve Bank Amendment Bill to provide structural reform to rural finance and which he actively quashed.
He has refused to attack the clearly flawed Murray-Darling Basin Plan and help restore vital water to agricultural production in the Basin. He has failed to resolve the monopolistic stranglehold supermarkets, meat processors and grain bulk handling companies have on their respective sectors - and indeed in the case of grains he has failed to even see it.
If he had achieved any one of these things he would have provided a bigger overall stimulus to all agricultural communities across the country and in turn provided a larger and more sustainable economic stimulus. In fact he has managed to prevent grain stocks reporting by bulk handling companies, which was won by GPA in 2012, costing growers between $60m and $100 million a year.
However, he is skilled at moving people’s attention away from the real action and putting on a good show of distraction and misdirection. His most notable recent effort came when he decided to dramatically and publicly threaten Johnny Depp’s dogs.
In March GPA wrote to the Minister discreetly expressing concerns about and asking for justification of a possible relocation of GRDC and did not get a relevant response. The Minister wrote last week announcing his intention to proceed with relocating GRDC.
On May 18, GPA issued a press release publicly asking for the justification of the proposed GRDC move. The press release was signed off by AgForce in Qld, NSW Farmers Association, Victorian Farmers Federation, Grain Producers SA, WA Farmers Federation, WA Grains Group and Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.
In good faith that press release was also emailed to the Hon Warren Truss MP by the current chairman of the GPA, who received this reply:
To: Minister Truss Public
Subject: GRDC Relocation media Release
Sent: Monday, May 18, 2015 9:21:59 PM (UTC+10:00) Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney
was deleted without being read on Tuesday, May 19, 2015 3:30:36 PM (UTC+10:00) Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney.”
Between Barnaby’s demonstrated disregard for industry sentiment and Mr Truss’ response, my experience dealing with the Nationals in my time as GPA chairman is pretty much summed up.
In consideration of Barnaby’s so-called consultation and the obvious disdain his leader has toward industry groups, you must ask yourself how these people can seriously claim to represent us.
The Minister is not moving the GRDC for the benefit of the grains industry. He is moving the GRDC because he feels it will appear that he is being proactive. The tragedy is that this Minister’s aspiration is limited to a legacy of moving a few agencies that should not have been moved and will probably be moved back later.
Wouldn’t it be nice if this Minister actually committed to addressing the real issues instead and indeed delivered a lasting and meaningful legacy?