For this section the Institute invites comments from two differing policy viewpoints. In this edition of farm institute insights, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP and the Hon Joel Fitzgibbon MP provide their opinions on the Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper – is it timely, or a time waster destined to be ignored?


The Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper: timely or a time waster destined to be ignored?

The Hon Barnaby Joyce MP

Federal Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Leader of The Nationals

Growing up on my family farm in Danglemah, which happens to be inside the electorate I now represent, I don’t know how many times I would get to the sunny end of the race whilst I was drenching sheep and think, ‘by gosh, if I ran the show, this is what I would do.’ Through some luck and hard work, but mainly through the support of a lot of incredible people from around Australia, I am now in the privileged position where I can now make a contribution as the Federal Agriculture Minister in the Abbott Government.

It is an incredible opportunity to be in government, and I am conscious of the responsibility not to do anything to damage the country we are representing. Already we have some good runs on the board including a Free Trade Agreement with South Korea, which will reduce tariffs on beef, dairy, potatoes and sugar, we have re-boosted the live export trade, settled a Farm Finance package, and made a whole-of-government decision to keep GrainCorp in Australian hands.

It is a start, but there is much to do. I have never professed to be the font of all wisdom, nor the man with all the policy answers. The higher you go in your career, the more you realise how important it is to seek advice and guidance from people on the front-lines of the industry you represent.

That is why the next big thing – the Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper – is so important for the future of agriculture. If you were to wander through your local saleyards today you would be likely to come across a range of people sharing their views on how things in agriculture could be done better. We hear these views among farmers at party branch meetings, field days and at the country race club. What we need now is to collate them and draw in saleyard fence conversations into some sensible policy suggestions.

As the Abbott Government begins its first term, these are the views I want to hear. For some people it might be that they have got a heap of forms they have to fill out, or charges that they can never quite work out why they have to pay them, they just do it because the Government tells them to do it. For others it might be that there are too many barriers to passing their farm to the next generation or the problems in finding investment capital or co-investment for expansion.

Whilst I do not want this process to just become another ‘talkfest,’ I equally do not want it to become just a list of familiar complaints from people on the land and the peak organisations. I want to hear your ideas and solutions – your positive contributions to benefit our industry. Despite the mining boom, Australia still relies heavily on agriculture. We must encourage a strong agricultural sector, with primary producers that remain among the most innovative in the world.

Australia is a leading agricultural producer and exporter, and the sector has considerable opportunities for future growth creating a greater overall breadth and strength for the Australian economy. A vibrant, innovative and competitive agriculture sector will lead to better returns to farmers, more jobs, more investment and stronger regional communities.

The White Paper is the vital foundation to this process. We have a unique set of assets in Australia, and proximity to the fastest growing markets in the world. It is widely reported that food production will need to increase by 60% by 2050 to feed a population of more than 9 billion people.

Australia’s already buoyant agriculture sector is well positioned to capitalise on this demand but we need a strategy to increase our collective output. The White Paper will develop recommendations for boosting agriculture’s contribution to economic growth, export and trade, innovation and productivity by building capacity and enhancing the profitability of the sector. I am determined that we uncover all options to help boost returns to the farmgate.

This paper will be about asset building and national wealth – it will be an examination without prejudice of Australia’s natural competitive advantage into the future. The issues paper, to be released in the coming weeks, will invite a range of thoughts on food security, improving farmgate returns, debt, drought management, supply chain competitiveness, investment, job creation, infrastructure, skills and training, research and development, regulatory effectiveness and market access.

We are committed to building a plan together with farmers that will help us increase production and export our top quality products to markets across the world. The process will not ignore previous work such as the findings of the National Farmers’ Federation-led Blueprint for the Bush process, which involved interviews with 4000 plus farmers. We will be picking up all that information; we’d even pick up some elements of the previous government’s National Food Plan, if they are still seen to be sound.

If the blueprint represents a wide cross-section of views – then we’ve got something to take forward. Achieving anything in politics doesn’t come by divine inspiration; it comes from listening and a two-way process between politicians and the people they represent. We have a window of light.

I genuinely believe Tony Abbott’s mind is in this space, but I’m not a fool, we’re not going to be in government forever, so let’s make the most of it while we have got the chance.

There is a drought in parts of Queensland and New South Wales, and I never underestimate the enormous difficulties many farmers work under, but I am also optimistic about 2014 and I look forward to hearing from as many people as possible.

Barnaby Joyce is the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Leader of The Nationals. He resigned from the Senate at the 2013 Federal Election and successfully contested the Lower House seat of New England.



The Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper: timely or a time waster destined to be ignored?

The Hon Joel Fitzgibbon MP

Federal Member for Hunter and Shadow Minister for Agriculture

White Papers can be an effective tool for assessing and responding to public policy challenges, particularly those which demand big investments and long-term strategies. They are a self-imposed discipline; ensuring the authors give the relevant issues long and thoughtful consideration and locking government into the strategic response.

In many circumstances the decision to delay policy for a year or more is well justified, particularly when the response may determine the manner in which billions of dollars are to be spent. Defence policy is one such example where the variables are many and the future shape, size and weight of the force chosen has huge fiscal and security consequences.

In other circumstances the benefits may be outweighed by the costs of policy inertia. Minister Joyce’s recent declaration that drought affected farmers will need to wait for the completion of the White Paper before any further assistance is considered is a case in point.

In short, White Papers attempt to predict the future, test the country’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and recommend how government policy might best produce the right outcome in the national interest.

There will be many views about the Abbott Government’s decision to develop an agriculture White Paper. My own is that while some benefits may emerge, it’s likely to tell us not much more than we already know and have the effect of delaying policy decisions at a critical time for the sector.

In recent years there have been an unquantifiable number of studies and reports on Australia’s agriculture trajectory and plentiful strategies put in place – Greener Pastures, Farming Smarter Not Harder, the NFF Blueprint, Feeding the Future, Infrastructure and Australia’s Food Industry, the National Food Plan, the Rural Research and Development Statement, and many Farm Institute papers to name a few.

We know world food demand is growing rapidly and we know we will need to dramatically lift agriculture productivity to fully capitalise on the opportunities that phenomenon presents. Doing so will require a significant lift in investment – in infrastructure, in R&D, and in innovation. By necessity, much of that additional capital will come from foreign sources.

We know what our strengths are. Amongst them our natural resources, our experience, our clean, safe image, and our proximity to huge and growing Asian markets. We understand our challenges – relatively high costs, market access relativities, capital, scale, and of course, climate among them.

It is possibly this last point which most challenges the efficacy of the decision to produce a White Paper. The terms-of-reference do not invite the authors to address questions around resource sustainability. Given the primary policy challenge is producing more food with the same (and in some cases depleting) water, land and people resources, sustainability should have been the lead point of reference.

Australia must act to deal with increasingly less predictable weather patterns and its affects including drought. As the Centre for Policy Development has pointed out; ‘winners of the dining boom will be countries with less fossil-fuel intensive agriculture, more reliable production, and access to healthy land and soils.’

In the past farmers around the globe have increased production partly by farming more land but largely by increasing the use of carbon intensive fertilisers and by utilising increasingly intensive farming methods. It’s simply amazing that the Government has embarked on a White Paper process which will not focus on these issues.

It’s not too late to amend the White Paper’s terms-of-reference and I again appeal to Barnaby Joyce to add resource sustainability, it will be welcomed by the Opposition and I believe, welcomed by all stakeholders.  

Further, the White Paper exercise will be marked a failure if it does not challenge the sustainability of the current Australian farm model. While recognising an ongoing and important role for family farms, it must also face the reality that further consolidation and corporatisation will play a large part in our quest to capitalise on the dining boom.

If we are going to endure a 12 month process, let’s do it properly!

The Hon Joel Fitzgibbon MP was first elected to the House of Representatives in March of 1996. In his 18 years as the Member for Hunter, Joel has held a number of shadow ministerial positions including Mining, Energy and Forestry, Defence, Assistant Treasurer, Banking and Financial Services, Small Business and Competition, and Tourism.

In Government, Joel served as Minister for Defence and Minister for Agriculture. Along the way he also served as Chief Government Whip and chaired the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Mr Fitzgibbon is currently the Shadow Minister for Agriculture.

He lives in Cessnock in the Hunter Valley with his wife Dianne and they have three adult children.

Back to February 2014 Insights contents page.

Images: CSIRO, Gaétane Potard, USDA