THE National Farmers' Federation (NFF) has rated the government’s long overdue Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper "seven or eight out of 10".
But the omission of a commitment to start building the inland rail in three to five years and lack of initiatives to support Australian food export branding prevented it winning a perfect score.
The White Paper outlined more than $1.2 billion in programs to bolster the sector’s viability, including $500 million for building new dams.
It was launched this morning by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce at United Dairyfarmers of Victoria vice-president Roma Britnell’s Woolsthorpe dairy farm, near Warrnambool, Victoria.
Mr Abbott said Australian agriculture was a substantial $51b sector that provided 15 per cent of the nation’s total merchandise exports.
But he said while travelling around the country as opposition leader and subsequently as Prime Minister, he heard the industry spoken of as one in decline.
However, he said the White Paper would support the government’s view of agriculture as one of the economy’s strong points and critical to Australia's future plans.
“People would often say to me, ‘Why is it that so many people see agriculture more in terms of the past than the future? Why is it that so many people speak of the farm sector as though it’s in decline?’,” he said before the large gathering of farm industry stakeholders and political guests.
“The whole point of this Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper is to demonstrate to our country - it’s to demonstrate the wide world - that agriculture is going to be at least as important in our future as it’s been in our past.”
Mr Abbott said in the past couple of decades there had been an “enormous emphasis” on mining and resources which was “very, very important”, while throughout the nation’s history agriculture and mining have been able to be coexist
But he said one day the coal will have been dug up and the gas will have been extracted and “we’ll be using other things to do what those minerals currently do”.
However, he said, “we will always need food and our land is with us forever”.
“That’s why agriculture is going to be such an extraordinarily important part of our future,” he said.
“That’s why the prospects for Australian agriculture – right now – are so exciting and they are much more exciting thanks to the free trade agreements (FTAs) that this government has negotiated with China, Japan and Korea.”
NFF chief executive Simon Talbot welcomed the “substantive” package of measures for the farm sector in the White Paper, which he said had been worth the six-month wait after initially being promised at the end of 2014.
He said meetings last night of most NFF members had discussed details of the policy document and had awarded the White Paper a rating of seven or eight out of 10.
“We think it’s the right framework for agriculture to realise its vision and that vision is growing from $54b next year to $100b by 2030,” he said.
“It has been worth the wait. We preferred something was delivered outside of the budget process and wasn’t rushed through pre-budget.
“It’s very important, given the Australian economy is flattening, that we were able to receive from the federal cabinet a fairly substantive package delivered to Australian agriculture.”
Mr Talbot said the only glaring omission from the White Paper was a commitment to build the inland rail, from Brisbane to Melbourne to improve farmer’s competitiveness.
“With that in play it would have been a rating of nine out of 10 or a 10 out of 10,” he said.
“If more for infrastructure, particularly the inland rail, was delivered today it would have been a better and more robust set of results.”
Mr Talbot said the North and South Americans were “light years ahead” of Australia and were catching up on FTAs which gave them a competitive edge.
“For seven years now we’ve been talking about feasibility and scoping studies for the inland rail project but in reality the North and South Americans are light years ahead of us in terms of rail efficiencies,” he said.
“We should stop talking about it and just build it in the next three to five years.
“FTAs give us a head start of four or five on the North and South Americans but they are getting their own FTAs soon and they can already send product to those markets cheaper than we can, which is ridiculous given our closer proximity to Asia.”
Mr Talbot said the other relatively significant omission from the White Paper were specific details and funding to support branding for Australian agriculture and the NFF’s True Aussie brand that they had launched in several Asian markets.
He said more support for improved product traceability systems to better communicate Australia’s food safety brand to our Asian export customers could also have been included in the document.
However Mr Talbot praised the White Paper’s move to implement significant tax measures to benefit farm businesses including enabling banks to allow Farm Management Deposit (FMD) schemes to be used as a business loan offset, reducing interest costs estimated at up to $150m a year, from July 1, 2016.
Farmers will also be able to opt back into income tax averaging after 10 years, from July 1 next year and double their FMDs to $800,000 from the same date.
“The NFF’s view on this is there’s a good focus on drought policy, which needs to be resolved, and the While paper has provided some good insurance and tax incentives but the majority of Australia is not drought stricken and those farmers have been looked after as well,” he said.
“You have one or two good years in every five on average in Australian farming so to be able to put money away in FMDs with pre-tax income and then draw down on that in tough years is very important and helps to establish sustainable farm businesses and communities and is very welcome.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the long wait for a document to guide Australia's farm sector into the future had been in vain.
"There is no big picture, no vision and no strategic plan, no objectives, no goals," he said.
"After an almost two-year wait, expectations of a document of quality were raised but the mood will be somewhat sombre today.
"White papers are about identifying strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for the development of a high-level strategy for overcoming the weaknesses and making the most of opportunities."
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor began the process with the Asian Century White Paper and the National Food Plan, but the Abbott government had provided "no follow-through".
"We were hoping for a planning document but today the Abbott government delivered a grab-bag of promises; some good, some bad and many either vague or on the never-never," he said.