THE ALP has launched a late bid to win back rural voters, following a poor result in the National Farmers Federation's (NFF) agricultural policy election scorecard.
Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon will announce Labor's new Food and Agricultural Careers Plan - "planting the seeds for Australia's farming future" - while in Tasmania this morning. The plan aims to attract and train the next generation of farmers and food workers to “bolster the agricultural sector and food industry”.
It includes a commitment to create 20 trade training centres, located in rural and regional Australia and dedicated to vocational education in the agriculture and food sector.
Another key platform is the creation of the Agriculture and Food Jobs Board - a national online resource for job seekers.
Mr Fitzgibbon said $6.5 million would go towards establishing an Aussie Food Jobs campaign, with 20 agriculture and food job expos to be held around Australia, supported by a marketing campaign developed with the NFF.
A further $5.4 million would go to the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden National Program, which ensures more school kids to learn how to grow, harvest and prepare food.
Funding for these initiatives will be offset from uncommitted funds in the Caring for our Country program.
Arriving after the NFF rated Labor at two stars or lower out of five for all categories in its scorecard, NFF CEO Matt Linnegar said the Food and Agricultural Careers Plan was better late than never.
While Mr Linnegar was pleased to finally see some focus on agricultural issues, he was less than impressed with the way agricultural policy had "dribbled out" from both major parties throughout the campaign.
Mr Linnegar noted the ALP announcement was called a plan rather than a policy, and wondered whether it would be easier to hold a party to account over a promise made in a policy than in a plan.
"With a plan, it sounds like you just have to take it on faith," he said.
A spokesman for Mr Fitzgibbon said the announcement was a binding commitment to voters.
"All of Labor's announcements in this campaign are fully costed, binding election commitments - as opposed to the Coalition's which are still not costed or public," the spokesman said.
"Labor's vision for agriculture is clear for the future."
Many of the key points in the plan revolved around engaging younger people.
"Labor understands the importance of attracting the next generation of farm and food workers," the spokesman said.
"Around one quarter of farmers are aged over 65, compared to only 3 per cent of the general workforce. The average age of a farm worker is 53, compared to 39 in the overall workforce."
He said the Trade Training Centres, the Aussie Food Jobs campaign and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden National program would help engage with young people to attract the next-generation workforce in agriculture.
The Trade Training Centres were not designed to take over from rural TAFE campuses, he said.
Mr Linnegar was supportive of some of the key points of the ALP plan, but questioned others. For example, he thought some the money going towards the Stephanie Alexander program could be better spent teaching young students about primary industries in the set curriculum in schools across the country.
Overall, Mr Linnegar gave the ALP's latest plan faint praise.
"It's better than nothing," he said.
Last week Mr Fitzgibbon defended the Labor party’s decision not to release a formal agricultural policy during the 2013 election campaign, saying the government’s 17-page response to the NFF scorecard formed the best guide to the ALP's vision for the sector.
That document said Labor’s $42 million National Food Plan would boost Australia’s $30.5 billion food export market by 45 per cent by 2025, and outlined plans to improve market access to capitalise on the forecast Asian Century boom, to bolster investment in rural research, development and extension (RD&E), and to tackle drought policy reforms, foreign investment and other key areas.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Food and Agricultural Careers Plan would help build the economy and secure Australia’s farming future by creating jobs to capitalise on the dining boom.
“Our food production, processing and services industry already employs over 1.6 million Australians, but there are factors driving skills shortages in the sector,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“Australia’s food sector has strong prospects - particularly give our proximity to Asia and our comparative strength in commodities such as beef, dairy, wheat, lamb and sugar - but we must invest in jobs and training to ensure Australia can seize the economic opportunities ahead.”
Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Sid Sidebottom, on hand to launch the plan with Mr Fitzgibbon, said investing in Australia’s farming and food industry was critical to growing the national economy.
“With our diverse climate Australia’s farmers are able to produce a vast range of food, but we must provide more pathways for young people to pursue a career in the food industry and agribusinesses in Australia,” he said.