Appointed as Australia's first special representative for agriculture in November 2021, Su McCluskey's mix of both practical experience as a beef cattle farmer in Yass, New South Wales, and her lengthy professional resume no doubt made her the frontrunner for the position when it was first created by former Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.
Tasked with influencing global rules, norms and policy in agriculture, as well as promoting the hard work of Australia's farmers in key areas such as sustainability, Ms McCluskey talks about the direction the industry needs to head to ensure the expectations and requirements of our key markets are fulfilled and new trade partnerships are also created.
QUESTION: Tell me about your upbringing and did this influence your choice of career?
Answer: I was born in London and lived there until I was 11-years-old, then spent two years in Fiji before coming to Australia.
My parents were teachers in Fiji but my dad wanted to study engineering, so he went to the United Kingdom to study and kept studying for 12 years, becoming a sonic boom engineer and working on the Concorde.
I think the greatest influence on my career, which has been largely unplanned and eclectic, has been not ever questioning that I couldn't do something and that I could do anything if I worked hard and put my mind to it.
I most likely got this from my parents.
Q: On top of the many professional roles you hold, you are a beef cattle farmer in Yass, New South Wales.
How did you get into beef cattle farming and what sorts of challenges have you faced in running your own farm business?
A: I have been on my property for more than 30 years and first moved here wanting more room and isolation from neighbours.
All the neighbours had sheep but I found sheep rather unforgiving.
I began volunteering at the Royal Canberra Show and got interested in cattle and so started a Murray Grey stud and got into showing cattle.
In more recent years I have run a primarily commercial enterprise, but I love my cows and am really interested in genetics and breed improvement.
The challenges, like any farmer, have been largely around the weather.
Going through several droughts, with the last one still a painful memory, as I had to sell so many good females, have been the biggest challenges.
Q: You were appointed as the Australian Government's first special representative for Australian agriculture just over 12 months ago.
As part of your job you engage with international governments and the private sector to learn about their expectations and requirements in regards to our agricultural exports, while also promoting the hard work of Australian farmers in areas such as sustainable agriculture.
What are some things the sector needs to do or focus on to better satisfy the requirements and expectations of our international markets?
A: My role as special representative for Australian agriculture is unique as I provide an industry voice in high level engagement with government officials and industry representatives on trade and market access.
If there is one consistent message I have heard from every market I have travelled to over the past 12 months, it has been all around sustainability.
And with this comes a growing demand for sustainability to be demonstrated, including through credentials.
So there is increasing pressure on Australian farmers to gather data and other evidence to support any claims to farming in a sustainable way.
The Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework (AASF) provides a central source of information about Australian agricultural sustainability that creates alignment across industry specific frameworks and programs.
The AASF has provided an excellent reference point for me to tell other markets what Australia is doing around sustainability.
But there is more work to do so that we can clearly demonstrate exactly what farmers are doing around caring for the environment, the land, their animals and their people.
We have some great case studies that tell a powerful story and the next stage is to bring the evidence through data to show that we can meet the sustainability goals as set internationally.
Q: From 2015 to 2020 you were a member of the 'Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration'.
With the unskilled and skilled worker shortages continuing to plague the agricultural industry, how do you think the government can best focus its efforts to help address this issue?
A: Worker shortages, both skilled and unskilled, are one of the key issues for every industry sector and most businesses in Australia.
These challenges have become even bigger following the pandemic and of course, the agricultural sector has the additional challenge of operating in regional and rural areas, which makes it even harder to attract and retain people.
Lack of accommodation just exacerbates this issue and in some States, such as WA, it is almost impossible to compete against the mining sector.
We really have to think about how migration, both temporary and permanent, can assist with filling our worker shortage gap.
We have the Pacific Labour Scheme that has certainly helped in sectors such as horticulture, but with tourism starting to open up again across the Pacific we need to look to South East Asia, as well as the Pacific to tap into labour.
And even further afield.
For example, when I was in South America recently, I was made aware that Argentina has many highly educated and skilled young farmers that would love to come and work in Australia.
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So we need to think about the future workforce we are going to need in agriculture and the skills that those workers will need so we have a way that we can train people, both in country and when they come to Australia to help to fill the huge labour workforce gap that we have.
Q: The trade-distorting effects of foreign governments heavily subsidising their agricultural industries has been well publicised.
Do you think there is merit in these countries repurposing some of their government subsidies into research and development to create better sustainability outcomes in agriculture?
A: I am absolutely a supporter of the narrative of repurposing subsidies.
Australia has some of the lowest subsidies in the world and consequently our farmers need to be highly efficient and focused on productivity and profitability.
But our farmers and exporters are competing in other markets that are either highly subsidised, or competing against other highly subsidised countries for market access.
Trying to have a conversation about removing subsidies does not get you very far.
But given everyone is talking about sustainability, having a discussion about repurposing some of the subsidies for better sustainability outcomes allows you to continue the conversation.
And a great way to re-purpose these subsidies is to invest in research and development.
Australia has an RD&E model - the Rural RDC model - that is the envy of the world as it matches industry levies with government money to invest in research and development focused on agricultural productivity, profitability and sustainability.
I use this RDC model as an example of how other countries can still provide support to their agricultural sector without using trade distorting subsidies.
Q: You previously worked for the National Farmers' Federation (NFF).
What was your role there and what was the main thing you learnt while working in that organisation?
A: I was the tax director and general manager of policy for the NFF.
This was during the time of immense reform in the areas of taxation and industrial relations, as well as great gains being made in trade.
It was an exciting time to be at the NFF and the main thing I learned was the power of influence and how to engage, particularly with government, to get the best outcome for farmers.
This was partly about strong advocacy but also about being able to work with a range of stakeholders, to ensure that unintended consequences are minimised.
Q: From your trip to Brussels last year, you said you got the impression that the European Union (EU) is going to play hardball when it comes to countries demonstrating their sustainability credentials.
Can you provide some examples of the EU's requests in this space?
A: The EU has pushed strongly for the need for sustainability credentials and we are seeing this through its Green Deal and Farm to Fork initiative.
But the EU approach is very prescriptive and regulatory heavy and we are concerned that this approach will flow through to the international standards that could impact Australia's market access.
Australia strongly advocates for a principles and outcomes-based approach to trade and market access and emphasises that 'one size does not fit all'.
Australia believes that we must have flexibility in how we meet regulatory outcomes recognising that farmers across the world operate under different climates, different environmental conditions and have different production systems.
We are not the only ones concerned about this and we certainly have support for this approach from Cairns Group Farm Leaders (a coalition of agricultural exporting countries involved in multilateral trade which Australia chairs through the NFF) member countries, as well as countries like New Zealand and Japan.
We are even seeing concerns raised by farmers in EU countries, such as the Netherlands and Ireland.
But it is important we can work together and speak with one voice on this, because it is as important for global trade as it is for bilateral FTAs.
Q: You've also travelled to the United States in your role as Australia's first special representative for Australian agriculture.
Since the Biden administration took over, the US has been relatively quiet on the trade front.
Why is Australia's relationship with the United States still important in regards to our agricultural sector?
A: The US is an important major trading partner of Australia, a key player in the multilateral agriculture trading system and is behind the Sustainable Productivity Growth coalition, which is upfront about the challenge of increasing both production, productivity while at the same time reducing greenhouse emissions, and impact on natural resources.
The US has also been instrumental in driving the development of the multilateral rules-based system and is the most significant agricultural exporter in the world.
So in terms of trade, it is critically important that we continue to maintain a close relationship with the US.
Additionally, the US, like Australia, is going through a period of high commodity prices, global fertiliser shortages, high input prices and food security concerns.
Given the uniqueness of my role, I can build on this to establish relationships with influential industry and government leaders in the US which can only serve us well as we continue to face ongoing geopolitical challenges together.
The US also sees climate and sustainability as key issues and together with the United Arab Emirates, the US chairs the Aim4Climate initiative, focussed on addressing climate change and global hunger through investment and support for smart agriculture and food systems innovation.
This provides an important area of alliance and agreement with Australia.
Q: You are a director of LiveCorp which conducts RD & E and provides marketing services for Australia's export industry.
In dealing with foreign governments and markets, have you witnessed many misconceptions around Australia's livestock industry and its animal welfare practices?
A: There is a general lack of knowledge and understanding of Australian farming practices around a whole range of things, including our animal welfare practices.
In Australia, we have a high level of regulated animal welfare practices which are world standard but this is not always recognised by other markets.
While I do think we can tell the story of our great animal welfare practices better and more often, unfortunately in some markets, our voice gets drowned out by the powerful voices of the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) - this is particularly so in Europe.
As a country, Australia is firmly committed to an evidence and science-based approach to developing any standards or regulations, but sometimes we are faced with ideology from other markets, which can be greatly influenced by the NGOs and consumer groups.
It is important that we continue to push for evidence to underpin any policy or process decisions, including in relation to animal welfare.
Q: You travelled to South America last year where you ran a series of round tables and seminars with the objective to "activate" those countries that are members of the Cairns Group Farm Leaders.
Did you achieve your desired results from that trip?
A: The trip to South America was very rewarding on a number of fronts, including the opportunity to meet with other research institutions and share the agricultural research work we are all undertaking, particularly around sustainable agriculture.
I visited Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil (all Cairns Group Farm Leaders members) and had the opportunity to speak with the presidents of almost all the South American farming bodies at Expo Prado, a key international agricultural event held in Uruguay.
There was a real opportunity to let these countries know that Australia has really stepped up its leadership in the multilateral trade space and to reinforce the message that we need to work together and speak with one voice in terms of defending the science-based principles which underpin the global trading system.
I was able to talk about the importance of working collaboratively through the Cairns Group Farm Leaders to support meaningful reform to the multilateral trading system.
Very pleasingly, within a week of my return we had received a letter from the president of the Federation of Rural Associations of Mercosur, supporting the importance of working together with a single voice for agriculture and to express their special interest in strengthening cooperation with Australia in the multilateral agricultural field, in particular through the Cairns Group Farm Leaders.
Q: Is there a particular country that stands out to you, which you think Australia's agricultural industry can learn from?
A: Every country I go to I learn something new about what we can be doing here in Australia, or how to do it better.
I bring that back to share with Australian industry and government to help continuously improve what we are doing here.
I'd like to think that in every country I am able to provide some new information, explanation or clarity on behalf of Australian farmers about our great farming practices, R&D and sustainability initiatives.
Q: You are a Commissioner for International Agricultural Research.
How does this role complement your role as special representative for Australian agriculture?
A: The Commission provides advice to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on international agricultural research that is delivered through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
Australia has a very diverse agricultural sector that thrives in highly variable and challenging climates with minimal subsidies.
This allows us to have valuable knowledge and expertise to share with other countries facing similar challenges, including farmers, the rural poor, researchers and policy makers.
ACIAR manages strategic partnerships to improve the productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems and the resilience of food systems in partner countries.
This gives me an opportunity to see the benefits that the experience and expertise that comes from our agricultural sector can provide to developing countries in particular.
ACIAR is a unique organisation that identifies opportunities and partnerships to undertake international agricultural research and capacity building, but also helps to improve the productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems in Australia.
This work is very complementary to my role around promoting sustainability.
For example, when you think about something like climate change, we need to think about how we can tackle this challenge within our borders, but also to think globally about how we can help developing countries deal with climate.
In Australia, through our research and development, our farmers and through our supply chain, we do an immense amount to deal with the increasing challenges coming from climate change.
Through ACIAR research projects, there is a lot being done to help developing countries deal with these challenges such as rising sea levels and the impact this has on agricultural production.
Together, these contribute positively to the global impacts of climate change.
Q: You also served as the chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute - how did this broaden your view about agriculture?
A: The Regional Australia Institute is an independent think tank for regional Australia and focussed on regional economic development and building robust regional economies.
Agriculture does not operate in isolation and farmers are part of rural and regional communities and depend on these communities for their goods and services, including health and education.
So it is important that decision-makers at all levels of government, industry and community have the best information to ensure the best outcomes for regional Australia.
What I learned was not just how important a thriving regional Australia is for agriculture, but also how important collaboration between government, industry and the community is.
Q: You were a commissioner on the COVID-19 Advisory Board, what did this role entail?
A: Being on the COVID-19 Advisory Board was a great opportunity to work with some amazingly smart minds, both in the public and private sector, to respond in real time to a constantly changing, hugely challenging and immensely uncertain environment.
The Advisory Board brought the business perspective to the table, but there was the constant need to consider the health, welfare and wellbeing of people as well.
This was a terrific example of government and business working together to provide solutions in an incredibly quick timeframe and demonstrated the ability for us to work together and cut through red tape to be very solutions focussed.
Sometimes we get too bogged down in red tape, process and bureaucracy and I think Australia and the whole world learned a lot about how to manage and mitigate risk through COVID.
Q: What's the next thing you would like to achieve in your role as Australia's first special representative for Australian agriculture?
A: The first 12 months in the role have clearly demonstrated that every country is different and so what you can achieve in each country really depends on what the opportunities are in terms of trade and market access.
The focus of my role is on the multilateral system and the key priorities for this coming year are sustainability, climate change and food security.
So I would like to think that this coming year I can focus on ensuring that our key markets gain a better understanding and appreciation of what Australian agriculture is doing in these areas that can contribute to better outcomes for global trade and market access.
Q: Where will you be heading on your next overseas trip and what will be its purpose?
A: I have upcoming trips scheduled to Chile and Vietnam, where I will be speaking about Australian sustainable agriculture at conferences in both locations.
I am also likely to be in Europe and the US later in the year.
Q: What is your most favourite aspect of your role?
A: I absolutely love the fact you make a difference and influence for a better outcome.
I also love connecting people across the country and globe around research projects and development opportunities.
The fact every country and every market is different and you need to be on your toes constantly and be highly responsive to what you are hearing is exciting for me.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your role?
A: Balancing a part time role as the special representative for Australian agriculture with my five other board and commission roles, as well as being a farmer can be challenging at times.
You have to be a magic time manager and prioritisation is the key.
But all my roles are complementary, even my non-agricultural board role, so I find great synergies in my non-executive portfolio.
Being a farmer myself also means that I am able to bring a practical aspect to my discussions.
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