THE Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper will face intense scrutiny from the Abbott government’s Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) during what’s being described as a marathon meeting today in Canberra.
It’s understood the critical ERC meeting, less than two weeks before the federal budget is delivered, will also determine the fate of individual spending items underpinning the government’s Northern Development White Paper.
The forum - also known as the government’s 'razor gang' - was scheduled to convene last week, but the meeting was postponed with Treasurer Joe Hockey unavailable due to delayed flights while in the US on government business.
The ERC is chaired by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and includes Mr Hockey, deputy-prime minister Warren Truss, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, assistant treasurer Josh Frydenberg and senior cabinet minister Scott Morrison.
While it’s understood the ERC meeting is likely to make final decisions on spending items in both white papers, a public announcement would remain weeks away.
Although the ERC’s final recommendations are expected to be reflected in a final document that will then be presented to cabinet for final approval, possibly next Tuesday.
White paper promise
The Agricultural White Paper was an election commitment from the Abbott government which they promised would be released late last year after a draft green paper was unveiled in October.
But the extended delays in its release have sparked ongoing criticisms from Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.
“Another week has passed but still no Agriculture White Paper (and) this week Barnaby Joyce has offered no excuse,” Mr Fitzgibbon said on April 10.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has asked that the federal budget, when it’s handed down on May 12, contain committed expenditure items for the various policy proposals in the white paper to ensure they’re enacted.
The NFF’s white paper priorities are similar to those contained in its Blueprint for Australian Agriculture, which was released in February 2013, highlighting seven key areas including greater RD&E investment and improved farm competitiveness and trade and market access.
Mr Joyce has been accused of stacking the white paper - which is also being devised through Mr Abbott’s office - with “crackpot” ideas.
But he has defended its delayed release by saying he wants to reflect the ideas expressed in more than 700 submissions.
“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 last month.
The Agricultural White Paper is also expected 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.
In mid-February, Mr Abbott said the White Paper’s release was being delayed to ensure the final product gave the nation confidence in agriculture’s big future.
The Coalition government also made an election promise to make agriculture one of the five key pillars of the national economy.
“I always say that it's more important to get things right than to rush them,” he said.
“So, there was an extensive consultation process. We are in the business of finalising the white paper.
“It will be out soon but we do want to make sure it's right and I'm absolutely confident that when it comes out it will give the whole country confidence that agriculture is going to be at least as big a part of Australia's future as it has been of the past.”
Mr Joyce has said the White Paper will be a “seminal” document that outlines the government’s agricultural policy vision and direction in view of that goal and driving export opportunities via the Asian dining boom and future food security.
Drought policy was a key feature of the green paper – with stakeholders saying the best way to prepare for drought was to be more profitable.
It detailed two key drought support measures; encouraging multi-peril crop insurance and introducing accelerated depreciation for new water and fodder infrastructure.
“New commercial multi-peril crop insurance products are starting to enter the Australian market,” the green paper said.
“Insurance products like this can help reduce the impact of adverse weather and drought on farm income by partially offsetting lost revenue.
“One option to encourage insurance uptake could be to provide a grant to reduce the upfront costs associated with the risk assessment process for a multi-peril or revenue insurance product.
“This option could be used while new insurance providers are entering the market and establishing products and withdrawn over time as the market develops.
“Another option - which falls within State and Territory responsibility - is removing or waiving stamp duty on insurance products. This would make insurance premiums more affordable for farmers.
“As the take-up of some insurance products is currently low, the effect on existing State and Territory revenue from this change would be small.”