: With many farming and rural issues needing urgent attention in the lead-up to the federal election, Fairfax Agricultural Media bureau chief Colin Bettles wants to hear what action readers want from the nation’s political leaders. Each week Colin will take the best question and seek to have it answered by the relevant politician or bureaucrat in Canberra.
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THIS week’s Ask Canberra question focuses on removing agricultural trade barriers - an issue which has grabbed the attention of Opposition Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, the Coalition’s Shadow Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister.
Diane Carter, “Well Station”, Mundubbera Queensland asked what the government, opposition and other political parties are doing to ensure a level playing field between Australia’s farmers and our American and European competitors.
“What happened to the Doha round of negotiations?” Diane asked.
“Why must we compete with nations that pay their farmers not to plant crops and pay their producers if prices fall below a given level?
“Is Australia just a backward country that doesn't know how to play hard ball?
“Or are we so enamoured of our impression of ourselves as egalitarian and above playing the games other countries do that we are willing to see our farmers beaten into the ground?”
Diane capped off her question by urging Australia to show the world that our “battler spirit is alive and well”.
Ms Bishop is regarded as one of the strongest players in federal political ranks and is likely to assume the Trade or Foreign Affairs portfolios, even both, if the Coalition wins the upcoming election.
She’s been highly critical of the government’s lack of apparent action to overcome stalled agricultural trade negotiations in recent times, in particular with Korea.
She’s also slammed the government’s failed diplomatic handling of the snap suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia two years ago.
The Deputy Leader said the Doha round of trade negotiations have stalled, although there have been regular efforts at reinvigorating the process.
But she said it was important for Australia these negotiations be finalised as it was dubbed “The Development Round” with a focus on achieving improved access to markets for developing countries.
Ms Bishop said agriculture was a key export for many developing nations and there were hopes the Doha round would achieve significant breakthroughs in terms of reducing or eliminating subsidies and other trade-distorting practices.
“Australia has a relatively small population on a large continent, which enables us to grow, produce and export large quantities of food and fibre,” she said.
“However, this also makes it prohibitive for Australia to attempt to replicate the farm subsidies paid in the EU and US as we do not have the large domestic populations and markets to underwrite such support.
“In addition, Australia maintains large trade surpluses with China (more than $35 billion) and Japan (more than $30billion), both of which are key markets for our agricultural exports.
“Australia relies on our exporters having access to the markets of other countries and we would suffer significant economic loss if there was a retreat into protectionism, particularly if it occurred through retaliatory responses to any policy changes in this country.”
Ms Bishop said successive Australian governments have strived, with the support of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting nations, to finalise the Doha round and achieve greater equity for Australia’s agricultural producers.
She said in the short term, it was vital the Australian government does all it can to ensure agricultural producers in Australia are not burdened by costs such as the price on carbon.
“That is why the Coalition has pledged to abolish the carbon tax and remove unnecessary red and green tape that is placing unnecessary burdens on our farmers,” she said.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has identified trade and competitiveness as key priorities for the industry’s future in its Blueprint for Australian Agriculture.
The NFF released a statement this week from a gathering of 100 industry leaders in Canberra last week to progress the strategic plan, saying it would take action to understand market opportunities and value chains through a costs and needs analysis, to create growth, market access and future opportunities.
At the ABARES Outlook conference in March, Australian Farm Institute Executive Director Mick Keogh asked Federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson about the challenge of removing trade barriers, to be immediately replaced by technical barriers to trade.
“Do you think there's enough energy going in from the Australian government into tackling those (technical barriers) and getting them out of the road as well?” Mr Keogh asked.
Dr Emerson agreed there are many technical barriers to trade but said Australia was also accused of having the same restrictions.
He said the truth was Biosecurity Australia’s quarantine services aren’t used as an artificial trade barrier.
But those services are used to maintain the nation’s reputation as a clean, green producer, he said.
“Because if we get pests in Australia, if we get some of the diseases that result in others markets being closed, such as BSE or foot and mouth disease, then the game's over,” he said.
“We are very clear that we do that, but not as an artificial trade barrier.”
Dr Emerson said Australia has achieved breakthroughs in trade negotiations which have included “tearing down” technical barriers to trade.
“It's a quiet diplomacy, to be very frank with you,” he said.
“Because if we stand on the rooftops and complain, it doesn't seem to get very far.
“A lot of the decisions about technical barriers to trade are not made in the equivalent of their cabinets or by the leader of those countries, but very much at a operational level.
“And we engage with them all the time.
“A number of those market access breakthroughs, including the Russian kangaroo meats to Russia, were very much about that quiet diplomacy.
“I do it at my level and then we follow up at the technical level.
“There's a lot more to do... and we won't relent.”