FARMERS are anxious about the new and expanded Senate crossbench taking an increased attitude of protectionism into the new parliament which could strangulate big gains made in agricultural trade over recent years.
Voting results concluded this week resulting in the Upper House crossbench swelling from eight in the previous parliament to 11 in the new term.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party has won four positions with two Senators in Queensland and one each in NSW and WA while the Nick Xenophon Team has three members, the Greens claimed four, the Coalition 30 and Labor 26.
The new crossbench also includes three re-elected independent or minor party members in NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm, SA Family First Senator Bob Day and independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Derryn Hinch was elected for the first time representing the Justice Party in Victoria and has indicated he plans to launch a campaign to try and ban live animal exports.
Gone from the previous parliament are Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang who like Senator Lambie were originally voted into parliament at the 2013 election for the Palmer United Party.
From Victoria, Independent Senator John Madigan and Motoring Enthusiasts Party Senator Ricky Muir are other crossbenchers missing in the new parliament and both had strong rural policy inclinations.
The Greens and Labor combined (35 votes) could pass legislation in the new parliament with the backing of One Nation, or a combination of the NXT and one of the four independents, to gain the 39 votes needed.
But the Coalition could pass legislation with the support of either of Labor and the Greens alone, or a combination of the NXT and One Nation plus one other crossbencher.
Senators Leyonhjelm and Day are expected to be more inclined to support the Coalition in areas like agricultural trade and foreign investment.
But the NXT and One Nation have indicated they want to clamp down on liberalised policies and challenge political attitudes, in order to protect local industries like manufacturing.
National Farmers’ Federation President Brent Finlay said his organisation had already started talking to all of the crossbenchers amid concerns trade deals signed in the previous parliament - which significantly cut tariff barriers on agricultural exports - may be weakened or neglected, in the new term.
Mr Finlay conceded he was worried a more protectionist attitude was creeping into the Australian parliament which could sabotage trade outcomes achieved under former Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb’s stewardship.
He said export trade was vital for Australian agriculture and moves to grow the industry, by following through on implementing trade outcomes in export markets, as well as removing non-tariff barriers, helps to create local jobs and boost economic activity.
“I’ve said on a number of occasions Australian farmers are exporting about 70 per cent of what we produce and even higher in some commodities but we need to be looking at going towards being a 90pc export nation and that’s how we’ll grow Australian agriculture,” he said.
“Trade is critical for Australian agriculture and the national economy.
“I’m concerned about the discussion and issues raised through the election campaign and we’ve set ourselves at task at the NFF to engage with all elected politicians to have a discussion with them about why trade is important to Australian agriculture.
“We will be talking to everybody.”
The previous parliament saw historic trade deals signed and ratified with China, Japan and Korea, and the Trans Pacific Partnership agreed to but not yet ratified, resulting in tariff reductions on core agricultural exports like beef, dairy, grains and horticulture.
The Australia-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in late 2014 agreed to cut tariffs of 12 to 25 per cent on boxed or frozen beef in nine years and 10pc tariffs on live sheep and cattle would be eliminated in four years.
The reduction in tariffs on livestock related products via the ChAFTA has been forecast to deliver $11 billion in total benefits.
But Australia is not the only country that seems to be moving against trade liberalisation.
With the TPP waiting to be ratified, the two nominees for the US presidential election – Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton – have also stated concerns the deal favours agriculture but impacts other sectors of the economy, taking a more protectionist stance that could see the complex deal between the 12 Pacific Rim countries fall apart, in the final stages.
Mr Finlay said the TPP would ream in in “a state of flux” until the US presidential elections were completed, with the vote set for November 8 and the winner’s inauguration several weeks later.
“We don’t expect to see much happening around the TPP until after February next year,” Mr Finlay said.
“Both presidential candidates are making similar noises that they are concerned about the TPP and what the TPP means for the US.
“I think its best that other countries stay out of that discussion and we’ll see where the US lands (on the TPP) when they have a new president.”
Assistant Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister MP Keith Pitt said the Coalition government would continue to negotiate with the Senate crossbench “in good faith” knowing they were elected by Australian voters who held genuine policy concerns.
“What we can say about the Senate, once it’s finalised, it is the one that the Australian people voted for,” he said.
“It wasn’t one where there was a back room deal or a preference whisperer.
“These are the people who got the votes and these are the people the Australian people wanted and we’ll need to work with them in good faith.”
Mr Pitt said Mr Robb would be remembered as one of the great trade ministers the nation had ever seen and the re-elected government would seek to ensure the trade deals he signed now came to “fruition”.
He said those free trade deals had delivered “great advantages for our agricultural producers”.
“Even locally my macadamia nut producers, the avocados, the lychees, all of the tree crops, they’ve had a great result and they’re going well and the more money they can put on the bottom line, the more Australians they’ll employ,” he said.
Mr Pitt said there would always be pressure around the domestic requirements of non-tariff trade barriers but the new government would also continue to negotiate outcomes, “with those who may be a little recalcitrant”.
He said Australia was an export trading nation which can also have positive impacts on job and wealth creation.
“Trade means more jobs, more investment means more jobs and more tourism means more jobs and that’s the priority for the government,” he said.
Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Steve Ciobo said this week as he visited Jakarta for trade talks on a new deal with Indonesia that he was concerned at an increasing global trend towards “pro-protectionist forces and pro-protectionist politics”.
“That's a real problem,” he said.
“I think it's a problem because all that will succeed in doing is eroding national prosperity for all of the countries concerned.
“The policy orthodoxy over the last 30 years has delivered us improved living standards; it's delivered us outcomes, especially in an Australian context, which has seen us have 25 years of continuous economic growth.
“Now that's not exclusively because of free and liberalised trade, but that is a very key component of why Australia's enjoyed 25 years of continuous economic growth.
“So we want to make sure that we engage with the world, we're outward looking and open to engaging with the world and driving those investment flows as well.”