AUSTRALIAN grain growers have returned fire in their dispute with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce over moving the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) to Wagga Wagga, in NSW.
Members of the National Farmers' Federation Grains Policy Council (NFFGPC) and the Western Australian Grains Group (WAGG) said they wanted to see a business case for relocating the GRDC out of Canberra, especially one showing how the grains industry will benefit.
Grain Producers Australia (GPA) chairman Andrew Weidemann made a united statement on behalf of his group and AgForce Queensland, Grain Growers, Grain Producers South Australia, the NSWFarmers Association, Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, the Victorian Farmers' Federation Grains Group, WAFarmers, and WAGG.
He said the Minister’s request for GRDC to consider moving to Wagga meant growers’ levy funds - an estimated $31.2 million - would have to pay for the GRDC relocation.
“The Minister’s aim to boost regional communities and create jobs in regional centres is fine and as residents of regional Australia we understand such issues very well,” he said.
“However, we are less certain about the costs and benefits to grain producers of such a move.”
Mr Weidemann said the primary concern was the inevitable disruption to GRDC operations caused by the process of moving the organisation.
He said that disruption would occur through direct loss of skilled staff and their knowledge of work in progress, or diversion of resources to undertake the actual move.
“The disruption will need to be assessed for its impact on regional researchers, right across Australia, because they are people the industry relies on for advice and critical direction on research-related activities,” he said.
“How will causing all this disruption actually benefit growers?
“We are unclear as to why the grain industry should pay for what is clearly a community project more suited to general taxpayer funding.”
Mr Weidemann said GRDC funds were contributed by growers to be spent on work benefitting the grains industry.
He said the grower groups wanted to see a business case that explained how spending more than $30m to relocate the GRDC would produce a better result for productive agriculture than spending the money on research.
“We have researchers and research organisations crying out for funding to help lift the industry’s productivity, so it’s a big issue,” he said.
“GPA and Australia’s various grain grower representative organisations have been in discussion with the federal government for some time about the challenges facing the GRDC, its governance structure and how it communicates with the levy-paying growers it exists to serve.
“Nowhere have our proposals for improvement suggested shifting the organisation, because the reality of travel in regional Australia is that wherever the office moves to, while it might be closer to growers in the immediate vicinity, it will be further away from everyone else.
“The industry is in discussion with the government about the potential to transform GRDC into an industry-owned corporation.
“If or when that occurs it will be a very important step, so surely it should be up to that organisation to decide its office location, rather than pre-emptively making decisions like this,” he said.
“Research expenditure and good management of that process is vital for the grain industry’s productivity and lifting productivity is our priority.
“We invite the Minister to explain the business case for this project he is suggesting we must fund.”
GrainGrowers chairman Andrew Carberry reinforced Mr Weidemann’s comments on behalf of the other grower groups.
“With the tight operating margins in farming, we need to be on the cutting edge of innovation,” he said.
“Any disruption to the GRDC’s operations or gaps in research may have flow-on impacts to the competitiveness of farming businesses.
“When looking at proposals such as decentralisation, we must keep this front of mind.
“The Minister has made his position clear on this matter and as grower groups we are now working collaboratively to work through the best outcome for grains research.
“We look forward to the ongoing discussion with the Minister on how we can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of grains research, of which location of facilities is an important element.”
Speaking to Fairfax Media last week, Mr Joyce said he expected resistance from various groups opposed to the move.
“I will get pushback and with industry you’ll always get pushback when you make statements against the status quo,” he said.
“But I’ll just say this - I’ve read all these arguments before like in 1945 when none wanted to move to Canberra, with 13,000 people in this pokey country town.
“They said ‘Canberra will never work, it’s insane and we’ve all got to stay in Melbourne’.
“Now that argument has evolved so much that no one wants to leave Canberra because apparently it won’t work anywhere else.”