Big year for ag reforms, but an average season the number one wish: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
Updated January 10 2022 - 12:30am, first published January 9 2022 - 9:00pm
FINISHING TOUCH: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is seeking to finish the number of important industry-wide reforms.

AGRICULTURE Minister David Littleproud has grand plans to finish several sector-wide reforms, but his biggest wish is for an average season not plagued by natural disasters.

In the short term, Mr Littleproud is concerned about COVID-imposed labour shortages in the meat and horticulture processing sectors, along with the transport sector.

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But now that the nation is on the "back end of the pandemic", his greatest hope is for a season without flood, fire, mice or untimely rain.

"Most farmers would just be asking for an average season," he said.

"That's all we need to ask for. A lot of work has been done, the reform agenda hasn't been sexy but it's been effective."

The first reform item on the agenda is finalising the ag visa. The new visa has been in operation since October and Mr Littleproud previously said workers would be on farms by Christmas.

However, international negotiations have stumbled, with Southeast Asian countries, which the visa is aimed at, yet to sign up to the deal. Mr Littleproud laid the blame at the Australian Workers Union, who has been lobbying ambassadors, warning them with stories of worker abuse.

"We need the Foreign Minister [Marise Payne] to have clear air, the AWU needs to get out of the road so we can have clear bilateral discussions," Mr Littleproud said.

"The minister has given a commitment to the Prime Minister and I that it will be completed early in the new year, so this month and next.

"We've already got labour hire companies and employees ready to go in those countries, so once they're signed up things will move quickly."

By the end of 2022, carbon farming and environmental stewardship will have moved from the fringes of agriculture to the very centre of the industry.

Government pilots that pay farmers for planting native trees or improving remnant vegetation will be completed, while the private carbon market will continue to mature.

"We want to feel and touch things in the ag sector, that's why we've got these pilots," Mr Littleproud said.

"By the end of the year, farmers will have the information, the data and the third-party endorsement of those who have been through the pilots, so they'll know if it's right for them."

The Carbon+Biodiversity contracts have been signed and work will start early this year, while the remnant vegetation program closed "well oversubscribed" and the successful farms will be announced soon.

The government launched the first stage of its environmental services platform, which Mr Littleproud described as the "ASX for farmers", before Christmas.

"My aim is to have the market platform complete before the election, so by the end of 2022 it is a program that farmers can actually participate in if they wish to," Mr Littleproud said.

"We're making it as simple as we can. We want one market place that's easy to use and people have confidence in, so there is no more confusion with everyone doing different things."

The Business Council of Australia is a strong supporter of the environmental services platform, so there is "already liquidity in the market"

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"This isn't taxpayers paying farmers to do this - we're saying to business, if you want a social licence in Australia, they should be supporting Aussie farmers and getting Aussie carbon credits," Mr Littleproud said.

Rolling out the billion dollars of biosecurity funding is another big ticket item, with many programs focusing on pre-empting threats.

"We've got a pilot with major importers like, Bunnings and IKEA, to get into their ordering system," Mr Littleproud said.

"Say Bunnings wants to order timber outdoor setting from China, they'll order that three to six months before it's shipped. We'll know when they order and we'll be able to tell them exactly what the risks are and how to manage them."

Despite a $370m investment in biosecurity last year, many within the ag sector called for a sustainable ongoing funding for biosecurity, such as the importer levy that was scrapped at the start of the pandemic.

Mr Littleproud said the finalisation of a user-pay cost-recovery biosecurity model was imminent.

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"At the stage now where we're close to an agreement about how to move forward - COVID gave us time to reset, and a chance to embrace the opportunities new technology presented," Mr Littleproud said.

Weather and climate will remain an ever-present challenge. Mr Littleproud said farmers had to make their operations financially resilient before asking for taxpayer support - but if they did need support, the government wanted to ensure it was effective.

"We've been discussing with the National Farmers' Federation and state farming organisations around what good support looks like," he said.

"We've got 26 different programs for drought, fire and flood support, we need to know how to cut that $11 billion in support better.

"We're getting closer to what that looks like, may mean not all will continue but others will be ramped up."

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Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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