TONY Abbott’s concession to be more collegial and consultative has forced change on processes for delivering agricultural policy initiatives.
After his near miss in this week's Liberal leadership challenge, the Prime Minister engineered what he says are significant internal changes to Cabinet processes, staff appointments and public service travel.
He said fundamentally, “this is going to be a government which socialises decisions before they’re finalised”.
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The new process will see the 12 backbench committee chairs now involved in holding Cabinet discussions, at least once every two months. That includes the Coalition’s agricultural backbench committee, chaired by Victorian Liberal MP Dan Tehan.
Mr Abbott said at least every month there would also be a discussion of the full Ministry to address any issues.
“I’m really looking forward to (being) the voice of agriculture at the Cabinet table”
“I want to harness all the creativity, not just ministers' creativity, not just public service creativity, I want to harness all of the creativity and insights that this party room has to offer,” he said.
Other changes included in Mr Abbott’s new regime include getting rid of the paid parental leave scheme and axing prime ministerial knighthoods.
The Coalition also announced stronger scrutiny on the rules governing foreign investment in agricultural land on Wednesday.
Mr Tehan said the Prime Minister’s commitment to include the committee chairs more in policy decisions was “an extremely worthwhile proposition”.
“I’m really looking forward to (being) the voice of agriculture at the Cabinet table,” he said.
Mr Tehan will also be meeting on a regular basis with the cabinet’s policy unit to discuss initiatives.
“Obviously I’ll remain in constant touch with the Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, but the idea here is for us to take some policy ideas forward and I think that’s very important,” he said.
“The PM has made it very clear he wants to make this a better conduit for developing policy for the nation.”
Mr Tehan said the changes to agricultural policy weren’t urgent but any improvement to current processes would be welcomed.
He said Mr Joyce was very approachable and also attended the committee’s meetings held every Monday when parliament sits.
“Mr Joyce has been a very good conduit and the agriculture sector has been very well represented,” he said.
“But what has happened, in areas where there’s been crossover into other portfolios - not just with agriculture - there tends to be a sort of silo (effect) and it can be hard work to bring different departments together to try to solve issues.
“(Now) when issues need more than just the input of the Agriculture Department, we can bring others in and say ‘ok we need to work across portfolios to get outcomes’.
“That’s where I can see this new process being a really good tool for policy development.”
“To put it plainly, the government is spending $100 million a day more than it’s receiving at the moment”
A spokesman for Mr Joyce said while Mr Abbott was already closely engaged in agricultural policy, the Minister welcomed moves to increase consultation with the backbench.
Mr Tehan said the average farmer working in the paddock wanted the federal government, “delivering profitability at the farm gate for them”.
“They won’t be too concerned by how we go about it; what they’ll want to see is a result and that’s what drives me,” he said.
Mr Tehan said the committee met this week and pinpointed the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper and implementing new rules for better scrutiny of foreign agricultural investment, as key issues.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has criticised the government for ongoing delays in finalising those two key areas - but Mr Tehan said the Coalition needed to get both processes right.
“The key thing about the commitment on the Foreign Investment Review Board changes is that we’ve got to ensure there’s not too big an administrative burden,” he said.
Mr Tehan said the government wanted to ensure the White Paper would “stand the test of time” and wasn’t just a document that’s announced one day and then a month later “is old news”.
“We’ve got to make sure there are policies and approaches in the Agricultural White Paper which will set up the agriculture sector, not only for tomorrow, but for the next three to five years,” he said.
However, Mr Tehan warned the White Paper was being designed in a tight fiscal environment.
“To put it plainly, the government is spending $100 million a day more than it’s receiving at the moment,” he said.
“We have to do something about the monetary situation, and that’s the context in which we’ve got to frame this White Paper.
“Now that doesn’t mean we can’t do things by reprioritising and ensuring the focus is really on the issues that matter; and that in particular means driving profitability back to the farm gate.
“The budget is tight and we have to admit that, but as every farmer would know you just can’t live outside your means forever and a day, because eventually the buck stops with you.”
Liberal MP Angus Taylor – also a Committee member -said the White Paper needed to address issues around agricultural finance.
He said various parts of the agricultural sector faced a “debt crisis… and we’ve got to start addressing that head on”.
Mr Taylor said any improvements to agricultural financing via the White Paper process would also relate to drought policy.
“At the end of the day you get through drought because you’re able to finance your way through drought; you can’t make it rain,” he said.
“We all know droughts hit a lot harder if you’re carrying too much debt and so that policy solution is tied up with how you finance agriculture for the next 25 to 30 years.”