I GRABBED 15 minutes with Shadow Minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon recently to chat about bipartisanship, Asia, farmgate returns - and, naturally, alpacas...
Joel, since the election your efforts and those of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce have been somewhat in line - including naming an alpaca for each other with the Australian Alpaca Association, which I’m sure was a highlight. As the term so far has been rather bipartisan, what's your focus moving forward?
I try very hard to take a bipartisan approach wherever I can; that approach when it works is in the best interests of the sector.
There have been, and will continue to be circumstances where we can’t find common ground, and in those cases I take up the fight with the appropriate level of aggressiveness.
My focus is farmgate profitability and ensuring that Australia fully capitalises the potential benefits of the Asia-led dining boom.
Do you think we need to be more “less talk, more action” on the Asian dining boom? Reports say we’ve missed the boat in some ways due to assumptions around proximity and naivety around the perception of our own brand.
We’ve had plenty of investigations, inquiries, reporting and talking, it’s time to start doing something. We need more infrastructure, more research and development and much more on the branding and marketing front.
We also need to come to terms with our dependence on foreign investment and need to start sending the right signals to foreign investors.
So what are your thoughts on the Agricultural White Paper?
I have no problem in principle with the decision to progress a White Paper, but what it will produce is already known thanks to the very many reports and studies which have been commissioned and completed in recent years.
I fear the White Paper is creating policy inertia at a time when we don’t have a moment to lose. I’m also critical of the failure to include natural resource sustainability in the terms-of-reference.
Then is the National Food Plan that the ALP developed when in government something you keep in the top drawer, bottom drawer or has it been shredded?
The National Food Plan is what I was just referring to. It is a quality piece of work which now needs to be further built upon, especially raising the profile of Australian agriculture and the concept of Brand Australia and the value of it.
You’ve held portfolios in varied areas, notably defence. How does agriculture compare, given its stakeholders can be passionately loud and a very attentive bunch to communicate with? Does social media play a part in that?
Agriculture is complex, diverse and immensely interesting. It’s not as tough as defence but it’s challenging. Social media is an important new tool in any portfolio; both for getting your message out and for keeping in touch with the views and thoughts of the sector’s stakeholders.
I’ve often said that everyone has a little bit of farmer in them - so are you a fruit and veggies man? A tractor-loving cropper? Or does a love for animals give you an interest in pigs, beef, wool or lamb?
You missed one, my first love is viticulture! And I would certainly be an innovative farmer incorporating the fantastic advances that exist and are being developed for enhanced farm management. At least I would be, if I ever had the time.
I have heard you enjoy the end product, and frequent many of the watering holes in your electorate when you can. What’s your favourite part about mingling with your constituents?
That I’m as happy having a schooner down the pub with my old footy mates as I am sampling one our finest wines with one of our local wine makers.
What did you end up naming the alpaca, or was there more than one?
Hunter (my electorate), Barton (first Member for Hunter and PM), Barney (in honour of the Minister), Semillon and Shiraz (obvious!) and Marty (adviser’s pick).
My goodness, six of them, a closet alpaca farmer perhaps? Mate they could be good for trimming vines! Does the relationship end with naming, or will you be required to shear them?
For the sake of the animals, industry and its customers, I think we should leave it at naming.
Keep an eye on FarmOnline for JOEL FITZGIBBON's new opinion column, coming soon to a masthead near you.