JOEL Fitzgibbon could be wearing a significant amount of egg on his face when the Abbott government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper is finally cracked open.
There’s no doubt the senior Labor MP has excelled at raising repeated questions and suspicions – especially via his weekly media releases – about the White Paper’s extended delay.
“Another week has passed but still no Agriculture White Paper (and) this week Barnaby Joyce has offered no excuse,” he said again on April 10.
But his criticisms must be tempered against an understanding of Labor’s failure to deliver on a six year opportunity to implement a visionary policy roadmap for the farm sector, when in government from 2007 to 2013.
That term coincided with National Farmers' Federation’s (NFF) extensive development of its Blueprint for Australian Agriculture which was released in February 2013.
Its headline policy priority was bolstering RD&E investment to stimulate innovation and arrest flagging industry productivity levels.
That was followed by competitiveness; trade and market access; people; agriculture in society; natural resources and transformational issues.
The Labor government said the NFF’s policy document complemented its R&D policy statement released in July 2012, Asian Century White Paper and National Food Plan released a few weeks after the Blueprint.
But with a change of government in 2013 those policy documents are now - like so many before them – confined to the vast neglected expanses of government archives, gathering dust and cobwebs.
When Labor’s National Food Plan was eventually delivered, it barely raised polite applause while generating mixed reaction from industry leaders for its goal of increasing the value of Australia’s agriculture and food-related exports by 45 per cent, by 2025.
It promised to invest $28.5 million into an Asian Food Markets Research Fund; $5.6 million to build on relationships with trading partners in key and emerging markets; $2 million to develop a brand identity for Australian food and related technology; $1.5 million to support community food initiatives like community gardens and farmers’ markets; and $1.5 million to develop resources to help teach school students about food and agriculture.
Some faceless critics have accused Ag Minister Mr Joyce of stacking the White Paper with “crackpot” ideas which may reflect an agricultural vision from 40 or 50 years ago.
But make no mistake, the Nationals deputy leader has taken up a strong fight at the cabinet table, to deliver genuine outcomes to back up his oft repeated mantra of generating better farmgate returns.
If the White Paper can deliver on key areas like funding to support the development of a Multi-Peril Crop Insurance scheme; enhanced drought policy; reduced red tape; improved transport and water infrastructure; more market opportunities; taxation reforms and concessions and other bold measures - it’ll make Labor’s Food Plan look like Bambi standing alongside Godzilla.
The high level document is being devised through Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s office and was promised to be finalised late last year following presentation to the federal cabinet, after the Green Paper was released in October.
You don’t need to be Treasurer Joe Hockey to know the extended delay in its release is linked to growing concerns about diminishing government revenue.
If there was an endless supply of taxpayer funds there would be far less resistance to funding the paper’s policy suggestions by those economic dry Liberals who gather eagerly at the cabinet table, with red pen in hand, to greet Mr Joyce’s suggestions.
Regardless, the Nationals deputy does face a major challenge, having raised expectations and repeatedly stated the White Paper is being driven by a government desire to get it right, rather than meet a pre-determined deadline, to make a significant difference to the farm sector.
The NFF agrees and is expecting the White Paper to be out before the May budget, with specific funding allocated to the major policy objectives.
In the start of April, Mr Joyce said tough scrutiny of the draft White Paper by the Cabinet's Expenditure Review Committee was understandable but he expected an announcement on its release within the next month.
He also said the Green Paper contained many good ideas which the government was respecting by giving due consideration, given more than 700 submissions had been received.
He also gave a strong indication of his attitude which – rather than delivering a flimsy food plan worth under $40 million that disappears with a change of government – could see a vast vision outlined, underpinned by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, for various programs.
“If you want to get back to the change rooms quickly you can always retire, but I’d rather stay out in the middle batting - and whilst we’re batting we’re getting the runs and putting farmers and rural Australia in a better winning position,” he said.
Another challenge for the Agricultural White Paper is to align cohesively with the government’s Taxation White Paper, recommendations in the recently released Harper competition policy review and Northern Development White Paper.
The Taxation White Paper is due to be released by the end of 2015 while the Green Paper on developing northern Australia was released in mid-2014.
Like all things agricultural and food related, the final proof of this futuristic policy recipe for the Australian farm sector will be judged not by the political criticism it faces now, but by the overall quality of its ultimate consumption, digestion and durability.