THE long-awaited Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper may fail to align cohesively with other critical policy reform papers, according to the National Farmers' Federation (NFF).
The White Paper was a key Abbott government election commitment aimed at providing a policy roadmap to guide the industry’s future viability.
The Coalition has also made farming one of its key economic pillars, while the sector’s also featured prominently in trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea and will be a major component of the Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP) if signed, and any deal with India.
However, despite releasing a Green Paper in October last year, which outlined draft proposals and key reforms around drought support, taxation and infrastructure, the White Paper’s release remains clouded.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has released regular media statements accusing the Abbott government and his counterpart Barnaby Joyce of policy inertia, due to the White Paper’s non-release.
It was initially flagged to be unveiled in late 2014 following final cabinet approval.
But according to its government website, the document that’s being ultimately managed through Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s office is now “set for completion in 2015”.
NFF president Brent Finlay rejected speculation this week which suggested the government’s visionary farm policy statement may now be released after the May federal budget is handed down.
The NFF has urged the federal government to provide budget provisions that ensure the White Paper’s key reform areas are implemented.
The farm lobby’s 2015-15 budget submission said the White Paper “must deliver a clear and tangible plan for farmers and agribusinesses”.
“It must be a plan that delivers action and outcomes; not more talk and delays,” the submission said.
“This is the opportunity to establish a new and enduring approach to the next golden age of the Australian agricultural sector.”
Last week, Mr Joyce said he’d held a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott to address issues with the White Paper but its ultimate release date is yet to be announced.
“It was a very productive meeting and we’re looking forward to progressing it,” Mr Joyce said.
Mr Finlay said he spoke with key ministers and elected federal representatives this week in Canberra, which was the final sitting period before the budget is delivered by federal Treasurer Joe Hockey on May 12.
He said those talks included questions about the White Paper, which was also raised at the NFF members’ council meeting held in Canberra this week.
Mr Finlay said he was worried the Agricultural White Paper may not align with the government’s Taxation White Paper, Harper competition policy review and Northern Development White Paper.
He said his members were still expecting to see the White Paper released before the May budget “and that’s what we hope”.
“We know there’s a lot of activity happening around this White Paper and we welcome that,” he said.
“But the whole of agriculture are really looking to this White Paper coming out because we’ve been through an extensive process.
“It’s still my understanding we’ll see it before the budget. We know how government works where some things move quickly and some things move slowly.
“However, we’re still unsure how all these policy papers are all going to line up – and how they’re interlinked - but I’m happy for someone to tell me,” he said.
“They’re all part of the Abbott government’s reform strategies, but in business you can’t be pulling some levers over here and other levers over there; you need to pull them at the same time.
“We can’t have any huge disconnect.”
Plenty of papers in pipeline
The Harper competition review Green Paper was released late last year and the resulting White Paper is due to be unveiled next week.
The draft document contained several key suggestions for agriculture, including areas of reform strongly supported by Mr Joyce, such as increasing regulatory powers to deal with market power abuse by the major supermarket retailers Coles and Woolworths.
The Taxation White Paper is due to be released by the end of 2015 and Mr Abbott and Nationals leader Warren Truss released the Green Paper on developing northern Australia in the middle of 2014.
“Northern Australia’s proximity to the Asian and tropical regions provides unparalleled economic opportunity for the nation,” it said.
“Northern Australia should no longer be seen as the last frontier: it is, in fact, the next frontier.
“Northern Australia has existing strengths and natural advantages in agriculture, resources and energy and, with the right policy settings, can expand opportunities in tourism, education and health services as well.”
Drought talks continue
Mr Finlay said the NFF members’ council this week had also discussed the severity of the ongoing drought in some parts of the farm sector in Queensland and NSW.
He said some of the government’s drought support concessional loan measures were failing to reach some farmers who were either not eligible or reluctant to take on more debt, given it may be their third or fourth year in drought and without farm income.
Mr Finlay said the Agriculture White Paper had promised to advance solutions to the current drought policy, which has been regarded as “ad hoc” since the previous Labor government removed Exceptional Circumstances support.
It’s understood the federal government has circulated a proposed $500 million infrastructure package for northern development – to attract potential investment - which would target water, roads, ports and rail.
The northern development process is being overseen by a special committee headed by Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb.
“Water infrastructure should also be a focus, including dams, informed by the work underway by the ministerial working group chaired by the Minister for Agriculture,” the northern green paper said.
“In 2005-06, the gross value of agricultural production at the farmgate in northern Australia was $4.4 billion.
“This grew to $5.2 billion in 2010-11, around 11 per cent of Australia’s total production of $46 billion.
“The development of agricultural industries in the north has largely reflected the availability of water and the quality and locations of soils.
“The pastoral industry is by far the largest industry, generating around 57 per cent of the region’s total agricultural production.
“There are around 11.7 million cattle in northern Australia - 45 per cent of the entire national herd.”