NFF issues realistic budget overtures

29 Apr, 2016 01:00 AM

NEXT week's federal budget will contain greater complexity due to the government's intermingling of future fiscal decisions with short-term election promises, says National Farmers Federation president Brent Finlay.

Mr Finlay was in Canberra last week lobbying the NFF's budget demands, when a double dissolution trigger was put in place after the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner bill was thwarted in the Senate.

A July 2 election is now set to be called shortly after the May 3 budget which was moved forward by a week to align with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's reform strategy.

With the nation's finances again facing tight scrutiny, and a $4 billion Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper delivered last year, the NFF remains realistic about potential budget outcomes, with low expectations on new spending allocations.

But Mr Finlay said overall the federal budget would be an interesting exercise to decipher, due to "a whole heap" of election commitments "inter-wound" into the government's forecast economic plan.

"Budget night is going to be a bit more complicated this year," he said.

"We will need to look at our budget-asks and our election-asks and see how they marry up and then we will go to an election within six or seven weeks of the budget being handed down."

The NFF wants the budget to produce a commitment to the White Paper's various strategic measures like building water infrastructure and back longer-term bipartisan goals that maintain the sector's international competitiveness.

The peak lobby group is aware new funding is limited but has asked the government to avoid cutting the agricultural budget and maintain backing on traditional items that suffer regular pre-budget scrutiny, like the fuel tax excise scheme or biosecurity measures.

However, the NFF has asked the government for new spending in areas like committing to building the inland rail and a strategic infrastructure projects fund.

They've also requested; additional agricultural counsellors in key markets to help overcome trade barriers; an extension of the $160 million Mobile Blackspot Program; and reform of the 'backpacker tax' that's set to increase to 32.5 per cent on July 1 and Seasonal Worker Program.

The lobby group's pre-budget submission also calls for $200,000 to develop a working group with Indonesian Farmers Group HKTI and a resultant Economic Agreement roadmap with Indonesia, to support the government's trade aspirations.

NFF also wants an ongoing commitment to the broad architecture of the rural research and development corporation model, including the government's contribution to matching industry levies, which collectively provides $480m that potentially totals $1b per year with combined project contributions from other sources like universities.

The submission also asks the government to address inadequacies in the current Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform, by working with industry and across jurisdictions to develop an adequately funded, holistic policy that improves outcomes for farmers in drought preparedness, management and recovery.

Mr Finlay said he had advocated the NFF's budget priorities with government ministers and MPs during talks leading into the budget but had also reinforced agriculture's importance as a core economic contributor.

He said "it's not always about funding" with the agriculture sector also requiring government legislation that supported business advancement or prevented the introduction of new rules and regulations that impeded profitability.

The NFF's budget submission has also asked for an investigation into specific electricity tariffs for the farm sector and an extension of programs to fund energy efficiency activities.

Mr Finlay said he understood the Abbott and Turnbull governments' frustrations with the Senate crossbench and why an early double dissolution election was being called.

He said in the Coalition's first budget both the good and bad measures were largely blocked by the Senate as well as legislation to implement coastal shipping reforms last year, which the NFF had supported.

"Governments have to govern and having obstructionist small party or no party people blocking the whole process of the government is not sustainable," he said.

"It's about having a straight forward Senate.

"Politics is about parties whether we like it or not - but it's not a good outcome when you can have a very small group that represents very few people, disrupting the whole process of government.

"Governments are there to govern and whether you like or dislike some of the things they do, they should be able to implement their agenda."

Mr Finlay said it was possible the next election could still produce a Senate controlled by a mixture of independent or minor party crossbenchers but stressed the voting rules had been changed to avoid the system being "gamed" like it was at the last poll.

He said if Senators are elected on their own merits at this year's poll "well then we all have to live with that".

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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