NEW Federal Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon wants the words “dining boom” to resonate with Australians in the future and be as ubiquitous as the catchphrase “mining boom” is now.
Minister Fitzgibbon made the call during his opening address at the 2013 Australian Grains Industry Conference (AGIC) in Melbourne on Tuesday, where he also spoke about agriculture’s future opportunities and challenges.
“It hasn’t quite caught on yet as a phrase but I’m determined that as we talk less about the ‘mining boom’ we might find ourselves talking more about the ‘dining boom’,” he said.
“We’ve gone past the investment phase of the mining boom and as we go further down that path, we will see less of the mining boom.
“As Minister, I’m determined to ensure that everyone in the government and the industry and the broader community start talking bout the ‘dining boom’.
“That’s a good way of getting people focused on where our real future and opportunity is and that is feeding literally hundreds of millions of people that are becoming part of the new middle class of Asia.”
Minister Fitzgibbon said Australia had a competitive advantage in exporting grains and food generally, not only from a strategic geographical location near Asia but also from branding our export produce as being clean, green and safe.
The Minister has only a few short months to make an impact on the industry before the federal election.
But he’s also hoping to retain the Agriculture portfolio if Labor is re-elected.
He replaced the former Minister Joe Ludwig late last month who resigned controversially when Kevin Rudd deposed Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.
Minister Fitzgibbon said his new portfolio wasn’t forced upon him and in fact he asked Mr Rudd to give him the job during the upheaval.
“I have a rural electorate and always had an interest in this area of public policy,” he said.
“I saw both opportunity and challenge.
“When I say opportunity, I’m talking mainly about food and the Asian market.
“We’ve got a great Food Plan which is a good start but someone needs to drive it and I’d like to be that person.”
Speaking off the cuff after deciding to “ditch” his prepared speech, Minister Fitzgibbon told the 900 AGIC delegates his first role after entering Federal Parliament in 1996 was on the Rural and Regional Affairs Committee.
He is also a former chair of the Prime Minster's Rural Taskforce.
He spoke highly of his rural NSW Hunter electorate which produces wheat, beef cattle, thoroughbred horses and the “finest wines in world”.
But he said the grains industry had been “somewhat fragmented” in recent years and encouraged delegates to “strive to do all you can to speak with one voice”.
“My work as Minister is much easier if I have a common view coming out of industry and I’d encourage that,” he said.
“The Minister finds his or her work easier, always, if the industry is speaking with one voice and people are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
“Now we do expect of course a divergence of views but it has been somewhat fragmented in recent years.”
However, Minister Fitzgibbon said he witnessed a renewed attitude during a pre-conference meeting of industry leaders.
“I can see that the leadership in the industry is starting to pull together,” he said.
“I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the level of unanimity in the room on a range of issues.”
Minister Fitzgibbon has held brief talks with Senator Ludwig who has made himself available for ongoing advice on managing the Agriculture portfolio.
They also discussed the recently released National Food Plan which contains strategic investment in one of his priority areas – generating greater market access and overcoming barriers to free trade agreements, through a more pragmatic and flexible approach to negotiations.
“I believe the Food Plan hasn’t received the media attention and attention of the broader community that it deserves,” he said.
Minister Fitzgibbon also spoke at the AGIC about US agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland’s $3 billion bid for GrainCorp.
He said it was a matter for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) and ultimately the Federal Treasurer to decide.
Minister Fitzgibbon said he was “acutely aware” of market power issues associated with the transaction but stressed foreign investment, free markets and competition should not be feared.
He said he believed in open competition and market forces, with governments “best served when they get out of the way”.
But he also recognised market failure was a constant concept that needed government intervention where necessary.
“(But) we need to be careful about the message we send on foreign investment,” he said.
“There are exceptions to the rule. State-owned enterprises should face a tougher test, and they do.”
He said agriculture would need greater foreign investment in order to capitalise on future export opportunities presented by the growing Asian market.