HEFTY advances in agricultural trade, especially live export markets, have boosted the Coalition’s performance rating on agriculture.
But one year on from the 2013 federal election, failure to deliver greater detail on key agricultural promises - like the additional $100 million promised for R&D spending - has tempered the government’s overall rating.
Following six years of Labor government, the Coalition was elected on September 7, 2013, after declaring agriculture one of the nation’s five key economic pillars.
In an election campaign interview with Fairfax Agricultural Media, then opposition leader Tony Abbott promised an elected Coalition government would revitalise free trade negotiations to benefit agricultural exports and lower regulatory burdens to increase farm profitability, including his key priority: abolishing the carbon tax.
The Coalition’s $147 million agricultural election policy stated support for a “vibrant, innovative and competitive agriculture sector” that would generate $43 billion in gross value each year.
To charge farmers’ engines, the Coalition promised to commission an Agricultural White Paper, to “set out a clear, well-defined and transparent strategic approach to promote more investment and jobs growth in the agriculture sector”.
An additional $100 million in R&D funding was pledged to give rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) “greater capacity to deliver cutting edge technology, continue applied research and focus on collaborative innovation”.
The Coalition also committed $15 million to rebate small exporters for export certification registration costs; $20 million for biosecurity; $8 million to help fast-track minor use chemical permits; $2.2 million to support respondents to naive title claims, and $2 million to boost agricultural education.
The policy also said Labor had “inflicted six long years of neglect and anti-agricultural policies on Australian farmers to appease the Greens” with related funding slashed from $3.8 billion to $1.7 billion.
One of the new government’s first and most difficult moves was to appoint Barnaby Joyce Agriculture Minister ahead of long-serving shadow minister John Cobb.
A year of white and green papers
Since then, Mr Joyce has repeatedly spruiked improved farm-gate returns as the central tenant of his ministry, while referring to the white paper as a seminal document to underpin the industry’s strategic direction.
In February, he released an issues paper containing nine key points for feedback from industry stakeholders which closed in late April, after receiving 675 submissions.
The green paper was scheduled to be released mid-year to give stakeholders more feedback opportunity ahead of the white paper’s scheduled release later this year.
But the green paper has yet to emerge.
Last month at an agricultural logistics forum in Canberra, Transport Minister Warren Truss said the government was now considering issues raised in the white paper submissions and would release the green paper “in coming weeks”.
But industry members also fear the white paper could ultimately amount to nothing because Mr Joyce must present it to federal cabinet for final approval.
The final paper will also be heavily shaped by outcomes from several other large government reviews, including a taxation white paper and comprehensive review of competition policy and regulations.
Opposition vs government perspective
Despite his repeated bipartisan claims, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon slammed the government’s agricultural efforts, scoring them and Mr Joyce five out of 10 for their first 12 months in office.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Coalition had certainly raised expectations by nominating agriculture as one of the national economy’s five key pillars, during pre-election rhetoric.
But he said: “On any objective measure they’ve performed very, very badly” post-election.
“We still haven’t seen a green paper let alone the white paper which means they’re now officially at least two months behind schedule,” he said.
“But 12 months is a long time to have policy inertia and a long time for a government to be saying ‘we will deal with this or that in the white paper’.
“It’s now quite clear the white paper will take much longer than 12 months and in that period we’ve seen no real policy development.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Abbott and Mr Joyce’s drought tour had gained plenty of media attention last February - but the subsequent support package they announced weeks later has barely been delivered, six months on.
He said in some States “not one cent of that money has reached farmers and in fact very little money has flowed to farmers in any State”.
According to Mr Fitzgibbon, the “centrepiece” of the Coalition’s election policy - to increase agricultural R&D by $100 million - lacked specific spending details.
He also accused the Coalition of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by allocating $100 million to agricultural R&D in this year’s budget, to be spent over four years, while slashing a similar amount from the CSIRO, Rural Industries RDC and Co-operative Research Centres.
“It wasn’t much of a promise at all, in the end, because the net impact on agricultural and rural R&D will be very, very small,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce had regularly claimed credit for increasing the live export trade but in effect had “done nothing” beyond policy initiatives already started by the former Labor government, pre-election.
“I’d mark the Coalition very, very low - I think it’s been a poor year for agriculture,” he said.
However, Mr Joyce rejected the opposition’s assertions citing a number of key policy advances, including having “committed” the $100 million for R&D and $15 million for small exporter assistance in the budget.
He also cited the signing of trade agreements with the nation’s second largest and fifth largest agricultural export markets – Japan (valued at $3.8 billion) and Korea (valued at $2.3 billion).
“The Coalition government isn't simply about words, we’re about action,” he said.
“The list of actions this government has taken in the past year all contribute to increasing and improving farmgate returns and market access and decreasing red tape and barriers to innovation and profitability.”
Rocky start, smoother path: NFF
National Farmers' Federation (NFF) president Brent Finlay said Barnaby Joyce’s ministerial appointment was critical to his rating the Coalition seven out of 10 for their first 12 months handling agricultural policy.
Mr Finlay said after a “rocky start” the Coalition and Mr Joyce were starting to deliver on some of their key election promises, like improved market access.
He said Mr Joyce’s high profile, passion and knowledge of agriculture had helped drive outcomes for the farm sector.
Mr Finlay also pointed to the work of Mr Joyce’s former chief of staff Danny O’Brien and incumbent Diana Hallam who stepped into the role in March when her predecessor was appointed the Member for Eastern Region in the Victorian Upper House.
“Having quality staff is one of the reasons why the government’s is going okay now after initially taking a while to find its feet on agricultural issues,” he said.
Mr Finlay said the government’s $320 million drought support package, announced in March, was another big achievement, given the tight fiscal environment they inherited.
But the delivery of a key support measure, the $280 million in concessional loans, had been hindered by State government bureaucracies and on the ground “misinformation”.
He said many drought-stressed farmers have chosen to self-assess, rather than seek professional advice on their individual circumstances and eligibility for household support payments or concessional loans.
Mr Finlay said the Coalition’s post-election work, opening up and reinvigorating live export markets, had been “outstanding”.
He praised Mr Joyce for being “personally involved” in that turnaround and creating market opportunities that had helped put a floor in the domestic beef cattle market.
Mr Finlay said Trade Minister Andrew Robb’s farm experience had also been critical to establishing market opportunities for farmers via the historic trade agreement and Japan and that with Korea, while a deal with China was looking likely by the year’s end.
But the NFF has been critical of the former and current governments for removing the drought policy definition of Exceptional Circumstances without replacing it with an adequate alternative.
The government’s promise to repeal the carbon tax - supported by the NFF - was only fulfilled after the Senate changed over in July.
In post-budget commentary, the NFF praised the Coalition’s commitment to deliver additional R&D spending; drought package; access to minor agricultural and veterinary chemicals; small exporter grants; biosecurity flying squad, and retention of the diesel fuel rebate, indexed in line with the fuel excise increase.
However, the NFF was critical of cuts to Landcare, with spending halved to $1 billion over the next five years; the loss of $11 million over four years to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), and $146.8 million from the CSIRO .