Ag's raised profile helps build nation

26 Dec, 2015 01:00 AM
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FEDERAL Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce says the Coalition's mission to raise agriculture's profile and recognition of its contribution to the national economy has advanced further in 2015.

But his counterpart Joel Fitzgibbon believes the minister has claimed credit for everything from the invention of the wheel to the iPhone and has been distracted by National Party leadership machinations, to the detriment of farmers.

Fairfax Agricultural Media interviewed the two key agriculture leaders from the mainstream parties to summarise their views on outcomes and highlights this year.

Mr Joyce said the agricultural portfolio had performed successfully but refused to take any personal credit.

Instead he highlighted his department's on-going efforts and the contribution of other Coalition members in rural and regional Australia who also recognise and rely on agriculture's economic contributions.

Mr Joyce said in 2013-14, agriculture experienced a 9 per cent growth in the gross value of exports followed by a 7pc increase the year after and had peaked with a 12pc increase over the first quarter last year.

"If I was back in business as an accountant I think I'd have a pretty happy day taking these results to the board," he said.

"You'll have tough times so you may as well tell people when it's succeeding."

At risk of sounding like a broken record, Mr Joyce referred to record cattle and sheep prices, strong returns for wool and citrus and increases in other commodities this year.

He highlighted the supporting role of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) signed with China, Japan and Korea, more than 50 market access arrangements negotiated by the government and seven new live animal export destinations.

About 5500 people have accessed the Farm Household Allowance to assist them through drought and $400 million was delivered in drought concessional loans, he said.

Mr Joyce said the 2015 federal budget also allocated $70m in tax accelerated depreciation measures for farmers for fencing, water facilities and fodder storage while new counsellors were appointed in overseas markets to assist with selling farm exports and a refurbishment of national biosecurity requirements were also highlights.

But he said this year's biggest challenge was concluding and releasing the Coalition's Agricultural Competitive-ness White Paper in July.

"We went from a $30m food plan under Labor and ended up with a $4 billion White Paper and that doesn't happen by accident," he said.

The White Paper lays out a path for agriculture in this term of government and for future governments, he said.

Mr Joyce also pointed to the signing of new health protocol arrangements which saw the first consignment of 150 head of live slaughter-ready cattle from Australia to China land at Chongqing airport in late October, via an Elders air-shipment.

"I'm happy to ask for more resources because agriculture is earning more money for the nation and I think we've done very well this year," he said.

"You roll within a team and the agricultural team has gone very well within the Coalition but yet there's more to do, like talking to the States about the construction of dams and continuing with important infrastructure projects like the inland rail."

Mr Joyce said he believed Australians realised agriculture played a vitally import role in enhancing the nation's economic prosperity.

"I've always tried to work with the metaphor that agriculture is not just important for the people of Cunnamulla and Condobolin; it's also important for people in Canberra," he said.

"And it's not just important for the people of Mackay it's also important for the people of Martin Place and it's important for Collins Street.

"I think the nation has also become more resilient in their understanding and appreciation of certain areas, like the live cattle trade.

"You can't expect to have money for spending on certain areas like health and education and all these things but then stop the people who are earning that money, like our farmers.

"Everything you stop comes at a price for some service, like a reduced pension or reduced health and education.

"But if someone is out there working hard to make a buck, you light a candle under their altar every day and say 'keep going and go hard'."

Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said higher commodity prices and the new FTA were welcome but overall it had been a year of disappointment for growers and producers.

Mr Fitzgibbon scored the government three out of 10 for its agricultural performance given the highly flaunted White Paper arrived late and was ultimately "disappointing".

He said that document contained some good initiatives such as new taxation arrangements but lacked an overarching narrative to provide strategic guidance and concise goals and objectives for the farm sector's future.

He said his score of three was based on support for initiatives such as the 100pc tax write-off on fencing, water infrastructure and fodder storage announced in the May budget.

"You've got to give Barnaby Joyce some points just for turning up but if you talk to industry leaders privately you'd be aware they're very, very disappointed," he said.

"On the policy front the biggest disappointment for me was the refusal to address a changing climate in the White Paper and to talk in any meaningful way about sustainability and productivity."

Mr Fitzgibbon said the former Labor government released the Asian Century White Paper which was built-on through their National Food Plan and more building blocks were set to flow but "unfortunately we lost government".

He said Mr Joyce had not continued on that path and had "gone off on a tangent and cobbled together some small initiatives in a White Paper that has no over-arching narrative".

He attacked the government's failure to provide adequate drought assistance and the sacking of Mr Joyce's departmental secretary Paul Grimes during the year.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the drought concessional loans never designed to be spent had low take-up by farmers in need.

He said Mr Grimes was a "reformer" unlike Mr Joyce and their differences boiled-over when the then department head challenged the minister's integrity over alleged Hansard alterations.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the "saga" earlier this year over Johnny's Depp's dogs may have been funny but was "an international embarrassment".

Mr Joyce warned the Hollywood actor his two pets Boo and Pistol could be euthanased unless they "buggered off" back to the United States entering the country illegally, in breach of biosecurity protocols.

Mr Depp's wife Amber Heard was subsequently charged with producing a false document to quarantine officials and illegally importing the dogs into Australia on a private jet.

But Mr Fitzgibbon said his opposite number used the opportunity to seek publicity and self-promotion which was "his style, but I'm not sure it reflected well internationally".

The shadow minister also slammed Mr Joyce's on-going push to relocate government agencies such as the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to various regional centres.

He accused the minister of putting his political interests ahead of the sector's interests by continuing to push the decentralisation policy saying it would be "disastrous" for the farm sector and cause the loss of professional staff.

Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce and the government had claimed credit for singing new FTA such as with China but Labor was also vital to the outcome and had been pushing that agenda prior to the 2013 federal election.

He also questioned Mr Joyce claiming credit for the new $379m post-entry quarantine facility opening in Melbourne this year which was a Labor initiative.

"Barnaby Joyce can take no credit for high cattle prices and that's also true for all of the other commodity price rises," he said.

"He never makes reference to the commodities that fall in price.

"It seems every day he's responsible for everything from the invention of the wheel to the invention of the iPhone but I give him credit; he's pretty good on the spin."

"I believe everything that Barnaby Joyce does and thinks is through the prism of his leadership ambitions and that's why he's constantly playing to the crowd and being populist.

"Really good ministers have to be good politicians but they also have to take on the tough reforms."

During a valedictory speech to conclude parliament for the year, Mr Joyce highlighted other achievements including expanding the Department of Agriculture's powers to include water resources to help boost farm gate returns.

He said the government had also moved to ensure Australians' views on foreign investment were considered by lowering scrutiny thresholds to $15m for individual foreign farmland purchases and $55m for agribusiness.

"Still, we have people lined up out the door trying to make sure that they can be part of the action in agriculture, because we are a great place to invest," he said.

"We are still the most liberal place on earth.

"The Australian people asked for greater oversight, and we have delivered greater oversight."

Mr Joyce said the government was progressing country-of-origin labelling reforms to avoid "amorphous and misleading concepts" to give consumers a clearer understanding of product origins.

"This has been a year of delivery and we are absolutely certain that we have the competence and the calibre to go to the Australian people in the next year showing that we have delivered and we have been effective - that it has not just hyperbole and rhetoric, it has been real delivery," he said.

Mr Joyce conceded his battles over agriculture had not always been with the opposition as the Coalition seriously contemplated closing the Agriculture Department and merging it with another department after winning the 2013 election.

He said there was talk about taking biosecurity out of the department and putting the Australian Border Force unit's development under the Immigration Department; a move backed by the Commission of Audit in 2014.

Fairfax Agricultural Media first raised the issue with Mr Joyce in April 2014.

He declared the move, designed to save government money but which threatened biosecurity risk management expertise in areas such as foot and mouth disease, would not be happening.

"That would have left us with a couple of hundred employees," he said.

"I've always been fighting to make sure biosecurity's there and this portfolio agriculture is incredibly important, I hope the Labor Party continues that on."

FarmWeekly
Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media

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