Paper thin or solid start?

Investigation shows many areas of improvement which add up to a big lead forward on the status quo

TODAY is Friday and no doubt the media pack will be lamenting the demise of Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s weekly media release asking, "Where’s the Abbott government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper?"

Along the way to the White Paper’s highly anticipated release last week, we were treated to a multitude of regular media statements from Labor’s pesky power-broker poking the government.

They were accompanied by convenient excuses from the government as to why the document would arrive late, and reminders of the promises, even as far back as February, that the document was “imminent”.

But after all the poking and the waiting, what does it deliver?

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and many other Coalition members will be claiming victory in releasing the first ever government Ag White Paper, as a strategic planning vision for the farm sector.

But the nagging influence of Mr Fitzgibbon in keeping his foot on the government’s neck, and pressuring Mr Joyce to deliver on the election promise to farmers, also can’t be ignored in the sharp end of the development process.

The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) scored the final document seven or eight out of 10 and said it would have been perfect, if not for the lack of commitment to build the inland rail and some funding and more details around export market branding.

While most analysts felt the NFF’s rating was overly generous and somewhat predictable, many others found the White Paper to be underwhelming, having failed to deliver on expectations.

In my view, the basic starting point for any analysis is to make a direct comparison against what was there before and what the opposition has offered.

By any stretch of the imagination, claiming the White Paper as a $4 billion spend only assisted in making the analysis more difficult and clouded it in needless political spin.

Most analysts felt it contained an actual figure of over $1.2 billion in new funding - but of course some of the line items, like the additional $100 million for the R&D For Profit program, are contingent on the Abbott government continuing on after the 2016 election.

However, there’s little doubt the final document overshadowed Labor’s effort in the previous government of a National Food Plan in the same way China’s population dwarfs that of Australia.

The Food Plan had a basic goal of increasing the value of Australia’s agriculture and food-related exports by 45 per cent, by 2025 with about $40m in funding, pledging $28.5m for an Asian Food Markets Research Fund and $5.6m to build on relationships with trading partners in key and emerging markets.

The Abbott government subsequently cut that funding in this year’s budget and then basically re-delivered it and more in the White Paper, with more than $30m to break down technical barriers to trade and appoint five new overseas Agriculture Counsellors.

Another $12m went towards modernising Australia’s food export traceability systems to further enhance food safety credentials, in export markets.

However, Mr Fitzgibbon’s attack on his counterpart only intensified after the document’s release, despite that comparison.

“Well we know that the Agriculture White Paper was a creature of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Prime Minister himself rather than Barnaby Joyce,” he said on Monday.

“We know thanks to leaks from Barnaby Joyce’s own side that the original draft was full of, to quote, ‘every crackpot idea we’ve seen in the last twenty years.

“So it is obvious Barnaby Joyce has been rolled on the White Paper and I welcome some of that by the way as I suspect those ‘crackpot ideas’ would have been just that.”

Asked about a challenge of bipartisanship support on the Agriculture White Paper, Mr Fitzgibbon said he had tried to deliver it but “this White Paper is so disappointing that it becomes pretty difficult”.

He said the document’s proposed figures “are outrageously inflated” referring to some items, like the $250m a year in repayable drought concessional loans, going out to 10 years.

Mr Fitzgibbon said many of the document’s items were also re-announcements and contingent upon State government contributions, like the $500m for building new dams.

“The bucket of money is not a large one at all, and of course you will see a very substantial policy from the Labor Party well before the next election,” he said.

However, deeper investigation shows many areas of improvement - such as changes to Farm Management Deposits; accelerated tax depreciation measures; cutting red and green tape; building infrastructure’ more commercial focus on R&D outcomes; encouraging greater exports through new trade agreements; stronger biosecurity measures; in and out of drought assistance measures; boosting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s engagement with the agricultural sector, and funds to encourage co-operatives – which all add up to a big lead forward on the status quo.

Added to the strong statements of support, acknowledgement and belief from Mr Abbott and other leaders that agriculture is critical to the economy’s past, present and future, while Labor leader Bill Shorten barely acknowledges the document’s existence, sends a another basic but strong and clear signal.

While the White Paper claims to be visionary and strategic, it’s worth considering how much more could be achieved for agriculture, if the water portfolio was combined with Mr Joyce’s desires to achieve better farmgate returns.

As Mr Abbott said, the White Paper contained money to build new dams because “you can’t grow things without water”.

But also you can’t build dams if the state or federal ministers responsible believe an outcome for the farm sector could threaten their individual career aspirations and its best to sit on their hands, than take action which could spook environmental ideologues in metropolitan electorates.

Asked this week about the dilemma of not having water in his current portfolio, Mr Joyce said he was deputy chair of the Dams Committee, in opposition and chair of the current Dams Infrastructure Committee, reporting back to the Prime Minister.

“I think it's vitally important that we deliver water infrastructure that bears a proper regulatory check of it, but that it's definitively pushed so we achieve our outcome,” he said.

“At times it is frustrating. I've seen plans for Nathan Dam (from) 1928 and we're still seeing plans for it now.

“A lot of these dams we don't have to design them, they're already designed, they're there, they're just not built, and I think we've got to push forward with that.

“It is historically that as other portfolios were started that certain aspects of agriculture over a period of time have suffered attrition and been moved across and I think it's a discussion for future governments where that match best lies.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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