THE centrepiece of the Coalition’s agriculture policy prior to the 2013 federal election was a commitment to produce a strategic White Paper. It’s a great way to have a policy when you’re not having one.
Not that there is anything inherently bad about developing a White Paper. Properly done, such a document can communicate a government’s views about how a sector’s challenges and opportunities are best managed to produce optimal outcomes. More particularly, it can establish a strategic plan and guidance for policy decisions.
Good government decisions are those guided by policy direction. For example, what does a tax proposal mean when measured against pre-determined equitable principles? Or how does a proposal to address market power abuse fit with principles around competition and regulatory burden?
A Defence White Paper, for example, will seek to establish a nation’s geopolitical situation, determine where any threats may come from and then, all decisions about the size, shape and weight of the defence force and its platforms (ships, planes, artillery etc.) are made through that prism.
If Barnaby Joyce wants to declare strategic direction for future government decisions about agriculture through a White Paper, that’s fine. But is that what he will do? And 18 months into the term of the Abbott government, when will we finally see it?
Six things cause me to be pessimistic about the quality of the long-promised agriculture White Paper. First is its delay. The longer it is passed backwards and forward amongst ministers and government officials the more likely it is to be a document full of compromise.
Second, the title chosen for the document - Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper – seems curiously narrow. Yes, competitiveness is crucial and it implies the notion of profitability and success. But why single out one part of the equation? I fear it sends a signal that the inclusion of some opportunities and challenges are at the exclusion of others.
That takes me to my third concern. The terms of reference for Barnaby Joyce’s White Paper do not mention sustainability or the implications of our changing climate. These issues surely, should have been up in lights, the sector faces no greater challenge.
My fourth concern is the Green Paper – not a bad source of information and data, but it lacks any high-level prescription for our future in agriculture. To be less kind, it does little more than state the obvious and run commentary on the various and often high-quality submissions into the process. If that’s what the White Paper looks like, it will be a failure.
Last week Barnaby Joyce provided his latest explanation for the delay in the White Paper’s delivery. This is my fifth concern. He now says the hold-up is the government’s tight Budget situation. If the White Paper is prescriptive about spending measures it will judged to be no more than an election promises document. The White Paper should set the strategic direction, choices and spending decisions should follow.
My final concern is the dismissal of Department Secretary, Dr Paul Grimes. With his qualifications and experience, surely Dr Grimes was the man to ensure the White Paper was one with merit. In any case, sacking your Departmental head during the development of a White Paper can’t possibly be a good thing.
For 18 months now Australian agriculture – with all its potential and opportunity – has been without government policy or guidance. We all hope the wait will prove worthwhile, but I remain pessimistic.