BIPARTISAN brinkmanship has come to the fore following the long-awaited release of the Abbott government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.
With more than $1.2 billion in funding for new policy initiatives, the Coalition’s agricultural backbench committee chair and Victorian Liberal MP Dan Tehan has demanded Labor “put their money where their mouth is” and back the document with bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, Labor Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the White Paper, delivered six months late, contained some positive initiatives but still fell well short of expectations, contained “road blocks” and lacked vision.
At the White Paper’s launch on Saturday in Woolsthorpe, Victoria, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the opposition’s problem was “a lack of understanding and appreciation of agriculture”.
“I’m not saying there’s a lack of goodwill, but certainly, the Liberal National Coalition is of the land and that’s one of the reasons why you can trust us to come forward with policies which are profoundly informed by a love of and a knowledge of rural Australia,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said he wanted to work with Mr Fitzgibbon in a bipartisan manner for the sector’s long-term benefit, but said his counterpart had to clearly state what Labor agreed and disagreed with in the White Paper.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor also wanted to take “a bipartisan approach” to Australian agriculture and the White Paper, to distance agricultural policy from short electoral cycle and “give it a long-term future”.
But he said his party was disappointed by the document, and he believed many in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors would also be similarly disappointed.
“Instead of a strategic document we have a political document,” he said.
“There are some good things in there I welcome,” he said. “The counsellors for our overseas posts will help reduce non-tariff barriers on the trade front (and) we welcome the changes to the Farm Management Deposit Scheme; I’ve been calling for that for a long time, it makes sense.
“But most of the other initiatives are quite vague.
“The R&D spend is good but it’s on never-never and will only partially offset cuts earlier made in the Abbott government’s first budget to R&D.
“Biosecurity is another example: (there’s) more money for biosecurity but it will only partly offset cuts earlier made.”
Ag's 'very bright future'
However, Mr Tehan said the White Paper focused on Australian agriculture’s “very, very bright future” and would help the sector take advantage of “a globalised world and huge demand for our clean, green product”.
He rejected concerns about the White Paper’s delayed release and accusations the draft document was filled with “crackpot” ideas submitted by “backward-looking and protectionist Nationals”, in contrast to economic rationalist Liberals.
“It’s a substantial document and that’s what I’d prefer to focus on; not the comings and goings of the development process,” he said.
“The feedback from the farmers at the launch has been very positive. They want to know what the final outcome is and what the government’s vision is for the sector which we’ve clearly laid out now.
“We’ve clearly said we back Australian agriculture and have put significant funds behind the White Paper and that’s what farmers wanted to see, so I think we’ve got an excellent end result.”
Mr Tehan said more than $1.2b in new money indicated a “substantial investment” by the government to back up the policy document.
“We’re putting our money where our mouth is - now I’m looking forward to Joel Fitzgibbon and the Labor government saying they’ll give it bipartisan support and saying they will also commit to this level of funding,” he said.
A small bucket of money
In response, Mr Fitzgibbon said the financial figures touted in the White Paper were “outrageously inflated” with many items being re-announcements or contingent on state government contribution and the drought support loans, of $250 million per year, going out 10 years and being repayable loans to the government.
“The bucket of money is not a large one at all and of course you’ll see very substantial policy from the Labor party well before the next election,” he said.
“Of course Bill Shorten will support anything that does no harm and a little bit of good (but) my complaint is this was a lost opportunity.
“This was a White Paper that could have done a lot of good.”
Bipartisan support essential
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has also called for agriculture to be treated in a non-partisan manner to remove it from potentially volatile political decision-making zones, such as the environment which underpinned the 2011 Indonesian live cattle ban.
NFF president Brent Finlay said the White Paper was a central Coalition election commitment to help create a stronger business environment for farmers and generate better farm gate returns.
He said it delivered on a number of the NFF’s key priorities, including a stronger business environment, research and development, drought and risk management, infrastructure and trade and market access.
CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey has also called for agriculture to be treated in a bipartisan manner, like the defence portfolio.
He said the Agricultural White Paper provides “a clear vision supported by targeted policies to prepare for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead”.
“Four years ago I highlighted the importance of a long-term strategic vision for agriculture for the same reasons the nation has one for defence,” he said.
“Minister Joyce should be congratulated for delivering a White Paper that sets appropriate policies for a healthy agriculture sector while ensuring innovation is encouraged and unhindered by onerous red-tape and unnecessary regulations.
“While White Papers provide stability and long-term strategic focus, they are living documents and we should look to review and re-energise this document in five to eight years-time while maintaining focus on a competitive and sustainable agriculture industry.”
Climate change overlooked
Australian Greens WA Senator Rachel Siewert said the White Paper had failed to address one of the biggest threats to Australian agriculture: climate change.
“Rather than five short paragraphs near the end of the White Paper, the government should place addressing climate change at the centre of efforts to ensure this sector remains strong in the years to come and ensuring that the volume and quality of produce remains high, delivering strong returns at the farm gate,” she said.
But Mr Tehan said another threat to Australian agriculture was the political alliance between the Greens and Labor.
His message to the ALP was: "divorce yourself from the Greens because you seem to be going more and more to the left".
"(The ALP) need to separate from the Greens because we know in their heart of hearts the Greens will try and shut down Australian agriculture over time,” he said.
“Labor need to stand on their own two feet and also say they’ll commit to this document and the funding.”
Road blocks to investment
Mr Fitzgibbon said a White Paper was about identifying the nation’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities and implementing measures and resources to address that high level strategic vision – but the agricultural document had failed to provide “a new narrative”.
“What we really needed was a big high level strategic vision guiding the sector and sending signals to investors, letting people know where the government wants to produce or direct our natural resources into the areas where the return is highest - attracting foreign investment,” he said.
“The government is doing just the opposite by putting road blocks in the way of foreign investment.
“Not surprisingly there is nothing on sustainability because sadly, sustainability wasn’t within the terms of reference.
“There was nothing on a varying climate and sustainable profitability will come by lifting our productivity and making our land use practices more sustainable.”