SHADOW Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has weighed into the controversy caused by Australian Workers' Union leader Paul Howes on Sunday after he referred to the demise of "ma and pa farms" in Australian agriculture.
“They are not words that I would have used, because I know some took offence to that,” Mr Fitzgibbon said during a speech in the House of Representatives.
“But I will say this for the comments by Paul Howes: to the extent that he was talking about the need to remodel agriculture in Australia, he was very close to the mark.
“We are facing a very different world.
“Family farms, particularly those small innovative farms that are now working to very much a 21st century model, will remain a very important part of our farming equation.
“But so too will big corporations.”
Mr Fitzgibbon was agriculture minister leading up to the September election following a cabinet reshuffle when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister again in late June.
The Hunter MP expressed empathy towards Mr Howe’s comments, saying there would be more consolidation in the farming sector in future involving more corporatisation.
“We will address the big concern out there about where the next generation of farmers will come from by offering more graduate opportunities with big agricultural companies, equivalent to those companies that we see now mining the nation's oil, gas and coal,” he said.
“In my electorate of Hunter, where we have a good mix of agriculture, viticulture, horticulture, thoroughbred breeding and mining, we see on a regular basis young people roaming around in high visibility uniforms enjoying high wages, good job security, very good superannuation et cetera.
“These are the things that attract young people to certain careers.
“I believe that in the future these will be the same things that will attract young people to agriculture.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said regular concerns about drought, how tough banks can be and “how government has got policy wrong again” would be replaced by “real opportunities in agriculture”.
“Those opportunities will be present in the family farm model but will be more present, in my view, within big corporations seeking to exploit this wonderful opportunity presented by the dining boom,” he said.
“Let us not close our minds to these matters.
“Mr Howes may have, in my view, chosen his words better.
“But he does make a very sold point; that point being that in the 21st century we cannot just stick with the old models of the past if we want to fully capitalise on the dining boom.
“We will need the assistance of big investment to lift that productivity and that output to the extent necessary.
“It is very clear to me and to most thinking people that very large investment - investment to lift our output by up to three times - can only come from big corporations.
“Given our population and our limited capital in this country, it will largely come from multinational corporations that will more often than not be based offshore.
“We should not fear that. We should be encouraging it.”
Mr Howe’s comments about ma and pa farming came on the back of another significant controversy arising from Federal Treasurer Joe Jockey’s decision last Friday to block the $3.4 billion foreign takeover of Australia’s largest publicly listed agribusiness GrainCorp.
Mr Fitzgibbon said: “Nothing in the Treasurer's announcement last week served the purpose of encouraging foreign investment in agriculture in this country”.
“It has not come up until now because the demand was not there,” he said.
“It now is. Nor has the return been there.
“But, as demand continues to outstrip global supply, food prices in Asia and in other places will continue to rise and therefore the profitability of the investments by these big corporations will become more attractive and continue to rise.
“But more will obviously need to be done.”
Mr Fitzgibbon also laid down a challenge for his counterpart Barnaby Joyce to explain how the Coalition would deliver on its election commitment to inject an additional $100 million into Research and Development Corporations.
“One hundred million dollars is a lot of money, in proportional terms,” he said.
“In fact, it would be around 40 per cent of the current government's spend on RDCs. That is a big lift in investment in anybody's language.
“Of course that lift is something the opposition would welcome, but it would be more welcome if we saw some clear indication of how that $100 million will be spent or indeed how that $100 million figure was arrived at.
“How will the money be spent?
“Will the money indeed be forthcoming?
“I invite the minister to, sometime in the near future, reaffirm the now government's commitment to that $100 million promise.”