A HIGH-LEVEL management team at the federal Agriculture Department is overseeing implementation of the Abbott government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper with a range of initiatives set to be unveiled soon.
Released in July, the White Paper was a Coalition election commitment which contained more than $1.2 billion in programs and initiatives aimed at bolstering the farm sector’s viability, including $500 million for building new dams.
New Department Secretary Daryl Quinlivan said his organisation currently had a huge work program underway implementing 30 measures associated with the White Paper.
He said some of those measures can be implemented quickly but others will require a change of legislation to implement, like adjusting the Tax Act to deliver changes to Farm Management Deposits (FMDs).
The White Paper and this year’s federal budget announced an increase to the deposit limit for FMDs to $800,000, commencing July 1 next year along with allowing FMD accounts to be used as a farm business loan offset.
An accelerated depreciation regime for fencing valued at $56m and immediate tax deduction for new water facilities and depreciation of capital expenditure on fodder storage assets over three years ($86m) also started on May 12 this year.
“We’re working with Treasury on those at present,” Mr Quinlivan said.
“The accelerated depreciation for farmers was obviously introduced early so that (legislation) is in place already.
“Other measures will be legislated when the Treasurer can get them through the parliament.”
Mr Quinlivan said the White Paper work program included areas that don’t yet have any public visibility but others are “nearly ready for public attention”.
“Some of these measures will be implemented over quite a long period, some of them many years,” he said.
“Other than biosecurity, the White Paper is going to be the major priority for the Department for the next three to four years.
“There’s a big agenda of new work and people are definitely energised by that and on the broader agricultural policy front, there’s quite a degree of confidence of what people will be working on.”
ACCC ag commissioner on the horizon
One of the measures close to announcement is the $11.4m allocated to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to set-up an Agricultural Unit and an Agricultural Commissioner to investigate competition or transparency issues, in agricultural supply chains.
Mr Quinlivan said his Department had been working on the Commissioner’s appointment with ACCC Chair Rod Sims and it was “getting closer”.
Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh has been strongly linked to being appointed the initial Commissioner but has declined to comment.
Mr Quinlivan said the water infrastructure program was one of the bigger elements of the White Paper package and would be “getting some public visibility soon”.
The strategic policy document also allocated drought support measures including up to $250m in Drought Concessional Loans each year for 11 years.
Another $1.8m was put towards additional resources for Rural Financial Counselling Service providers in drought-affected areas and $20m for additional mental health and community support services.
Mr Quinlivan said his Department had been in talks with the States about arrangements to deliver those drought support services “on the ground”, with announcements on the outcomes of those talks also expected soon.
Co-ops on the agenda
The White Paper also unveiled $13.8m for a two-year pilot program to provide farmers with knowledge and materials on cooperatives, collective bargaining and innovative business models.
Mr Quinlivan said his Department had been discussing how that initiative may operate, with people already active in the field, and with State governments.
“The minister identifies this as one of his priorities so we’re giving it a lot of attention,” he said.
“The key thing is to give people good advice on business models for their business needs so this is where we’re going with this.
“Co-ops are quite successful in some areas and less suitable in others so the idea will be to develop a body of information and advice that producers and groups of producers can use to make good decisions about their business models.”
Mr Quinlivan said the Department would be using the $13.8m to pay people with professional expertise in co-operatives, to provide the expert advice to farmers.
“What we’re talking about here is legal structures for the operation of commercial activities,” he said.
“It’s not really a speciality of government so we’ll be accessing professional advice to have this set up properly.”
Mr Quinlivan said farmers or other groups would need to consider any advice and make a decision about the best business model for their enterprise.
He said in some cases the co-op model would suit some producers as a good way of managing their product marketing and in other cases it would benefit “procurement” to achieve economies of scale and better sharing of assets and risk.
Mr Quinlivan said many new programs in the White Paper would be delivered by private providers or by State governments.
“We’re discussing terms and conditions with State agencies at the moment, and when they’re settled and agreed by the two levels of government, commonwealth and State, they’ll be announced and people will be able to access them quite quickly,” he said.
“The funds for most of these programs will be appropriated in additional estimates early next year, so we’re expecting to have the programs open this year.”
The Department’s other work priorities include: improved Country of Origin Labelling measures from reforms announced in July 2015; developing farmer-oriented priorities to target rural RD&E funding priorities for RDCs;
$50m to boost emergency pest and disease eradication and national response capability;
$50m to manage established pest animals and weeds; and $30.8m to break down technical barriers to trade, including appointing five new agriculture counsellors in key markets.