ONE of my favourite Canberra pastimes is observing federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson’s repeated public appearances, where he’s either singing or talking about anything other than important trade issues, especially agricultural exports.
Dr Emerson is also the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Asian Century Policy which most farmers know contains a political dream that aims to convert Australia’s north into a massive future food bowl to feed Asia’s exploding, hungry middle class populations.
But while hopes abound in Canberra about future dreams, most farmers are consumed by more pressing concerns, like surviving today’s financial pressures.
Those pressures can be relieved somewhat by securing better market access and improving terms of trade, especially for dairy, grain and livestock farmers.
But it seems the Trade Minister has another occupation that dominates the majority of his time in the public domain; defending the Prime Minister.
Perhaps his title should be changed to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on any number of public affairs scandals or disasters including - poor polling results, Kevin Rudd leadership tilts, a broken no carbon tax promise, closing the live cattle trade to Indonesia overnight etc. etc.
This week and last, like so many times before, the so-called Trade Minister was again preoccupied with matters less economic and more immediate to the ALP’s re-election campaign.
His time in the public limelight was focused on defending the government’s poor performance and finding something unpleasant to say about opposition leader Tony Abbott, even after Newspoll put him ahead as the preferred PM.
Ms Gillard’s rating dropped 5 points to 36 per cent in voter polling - while Mr Abbott gained 1 point to 40pc to gain ground in an aspect of public opinion that’s haunted him during his time as opposition leader.
Perhaps people have started realising that saying no to bad public policy and government decision-making could actually equal a positive return.
“It does seem that Mr Abbott is more popular the less he says,” said Minister Emerson in one media interview earlier this week, without mention of any trade issues.
The Minister did however make several little election plugs for the ALP saying this government was strengthening an already-improving economy, which is investing in education and health.
He also said the PM would be spending considerable time in Western Sydney to get an even better feel for the issues facing people who vote – sorry – who live in that part of the world.
However, if you’re reading this rant somewhere out in the bush, in between jobs, what that really means is: the ALP’s not so keen on procuring votes in West Wyalong, Wesburn, Westwood or Westonia.
If the ALP has any hope of survival they desperately need to win seats in West Sydney where the local polls spell particularly unpleasant news and suggest a large number of sitting Labor MPs are gone.
But unfortunately for farmers and agriculture, over the course of this year, that’s where the government’s political attention will be directed and where we can also safely assume fiscal muscle will be flexed.
As one well placed source said, Labor spending all of that time, political energy and taxpayer dollars in trying to win back favouritism in Western Sydney is akin to selling tickets on a redecorated Titanic, after hitting the iceberg.
This lack of attention on trade matters wouldn’t matter so much if the nation’s farming leaders weren’t demanding the government break-through on stalled negotiations for important livestock export markets - with MoUs awaiting final signatures on Iran and Egypt - and the stalled Korean Free Trade Agreement that’s opening the door to US beef exports.
Minister Emerson may not have visited WA recently to see what’s happening on the ground for farmers there and why tightening terms of trade and exploding rural debt means they’re getting squeezed from all angles.
And just in case he hasn’t sat down with the Agriculture Minister either, here’s a reminder.
Sheep prices have plunged by up to 50pc over the past six months and the longer the door to these markets remains locked, the bigger the bottleneck becomes at home, hurting producers and others who rely on that local income for economic survival.
Analysts are warning of a domestic animal welfare crisis that’s gathering in the wings with feed shortages diminishing faster than the ALP’s popularity in rural Australia.
So what’s needed is clear evidence of a Trade Minister who can walk and chew gum - or can defend the PM and electioneer for his party, while securing fair access to export markets - all at the same time.
To be fair to Dr Emerson, he’s got a solid reputation amongst industry and if anyone in the ALP can wear multiple hats and achieve multiple outcomes, it’s him.
There was some redemption this week with news India is now allowing Australian lamb into the country - but industry would expect that other markets like Iran will soon follow.
“We are working hard on market access,” Minister Emerson said.
“We’re working with countries that increasingly are seeing us – along with New Zealand, I might add – as a fantastic place to produce these clean, green products for which you can charge premium prices.
“These middle class customers are prepared to pay more if they know the quality is there, if they know that they’re disease-free.
“That’s what Australia offers and that is a tribute to Australian farmers, because they’re all in there trying to produce the best possible quality and that’s the way to go.”