SHADOW Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has unleashed an extraordinary, extended invective, attacking the credibility of his counterpart and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce’s farm portfolio work.
Last week during heated debate on a proposed amendment to the Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) enabling legislation, aimed at broadening the discussion to launch his political blast, Mr Fitzgibbon described Mr Joyce’s agricultural performance as “hopeless” and “abysmal”.
The senior Labor MP who entered parliament for the rural NSW seat of Hunter in 1996, which was previously held by his father Eric for 12 years, also said Mr Joyce would, “go down in history as the worst agriculture minister this country has ever had”.
Mr Fitzgibbon also pledged to bet his house on Mr Joyce never building a dam while being the minister.
Mr Fitzgibbon - who was appointed federal Agriculture Minister ahead of the 2013 election and served for two and a half months - also suggested the current minister should step aside in the best interests of the agricultural sector.
He said he also couldn’t name more than one policy initiative that Mr Joyce had delivered for the farm sector, in his four years as Agriculture Minister.
Mr Fitzgibbon’s amendment was seeking to say ‘the House declines to give this bill a second reading as it places the government's political interests ahead of the interests of Australia's farmers’.
He launched into over-drive with his verbal attack after responding to several strategic interjections from Mr Joyce’s Coalition colleagues, during the feisty parliamentary session.
“This tactic is all about protecting the Deputy Prime Minister - they have him in witness protection,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“I saw him turn up for the Australian Farmer of the Year awards upstairs.
“I've never seen him camera shy before, but around the loop he went, with the journos and cameramen running after him.
“How embarrassing it has become for this Deputy Prime Minister.
“Just when you thought he couldn't be any more hopeless, he turns up day after day to prove it yet again.
“His performance in the agriculture sector has been hopeless.
“I am ready to say now that Barnaby Joyce will go down in history as the worst agriculture minister this country has ever had.”
Mr Joyce faced greater than usual media and political scrutiny last week in Canberra after revealing on Monday that he held dual NZ citizenship, with the matter now referred to the High Court to decide his eligibility to sit in parliament.
During the debate, Mr Joyce’s Assistant Minister Luke Hartsuyker stepped in to accusse Mr Fitzgibbon of reflecting constantly on another member, saying it was “most inappropriate and most disorderly”.
“I think it is a terrible display,” he said.
But Mr Fitzgibbon denied he was making any personal attack or reflection on Mr Joyce’s character.
“I'm talking about his performance in this portfolio, which has been abysmal,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he wanted to give the minister the benefit of the doubt and in considering what he’d done for the agricultural sector, could only came up with one policy initiative.
“I will give him credit: we had an accelerated appreciation provision in the 2014 budget, I think, which helped farmers with water infrastructure, but that's it,” he said.
“I was unable to think of one other initiative.
“His white paper is a joke - the industry knows it.
“He's hopeless - he's a failure.”
Earlier in proceedings, Mr Fitzgibbon said the proposed RIC bill was “bad policy” and while it might have reflected the government's intentions – to streamline the delivery of drought assistance to farmers by removing state government agencies and water loan funds - it did little to uphold expected standards; particularly on ministerial and executive accountability.
“The Regional Investment Corporation is another of the current agriculture minister's boondoggles - it's a big pork barrel,” he said.
“It's designed to do one thing only and that is to recover Nationals party votes in just one part of the world…Orange…where the NSW Nationals party had a massive swing against it and in fact lost to the shooters and fishers party a seat which I think they had held at state level for its whole existence.”
Fitzgibbon: waking up to Barnaby Joyce’s modus operandi
Mr Fitzgibbon said the RIC would “administer failed concessional loans for farmers” and also for water infrastructure lending, and raised several concerns about its proposed operations, including those highlighted by the Senate's Scrutiny of Bills Committee.
But in response to concerns, raised also by the National Farmers’ Federation, he said the minister was only putting forward one amendment - to the RIC’s board size being increased from three members to a maximum of five “or something”.
“We have some movement on the blue carpet, because the now Deputy Prime Minister knows this bill is not going to secure passage in the Australian Senate,” he said.
“It says a lot for the Deputy Prime Minister to be facing defeat in the Senate on what seems, on the face of it, to be a simple proposition.
“It says that they're starting to wake up to his modus operandi.
“They're starting to work out that on every occasion he will put his political interests ahead of the interest of others, including Australian farmers, and we see that in the parliament today.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said, “I've been here 21 years, and this is one of the worst bills I've ever seen”.
“I've seen a few ministers fall in my time; in fact I took a departure myself, one time,” he said.
“I've never seen a minister dig in like this minister.
“I've never seen a bloke dig in like this bloke, at the expense of his government.
“At some point, the friends come up and say: 'We love you, mate, but, you're just too of much a drain on this government. This is too big of a distraction. It's time to go. We're sorry, but it's time to go. You can't keep doing this to your government’.
“But not this bloke: he's going to dig in, and he doesn't care how much he destroys the joint.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said in the four years Mr Joyce had been agriculture minister, “I can't name more than one thing he's done for the sector”.
“We hear lots of talk, 'Money on the table, beef prices are up' - as if he somehow had anything to do with that,” he said.
“He's going to build a dam here, a dam here and a dam everywhere.
“He'll never build a dam; I'll bet my house on it.
“He doesn't even have a dam plan; he doesn't have anything.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce was “all hat and no cowboy” and had no “vision for agriculture” or a “strategic plan”.
“He has no view about sustainable profitability, no view about the efficient allocation of our natural resources, no plan to build up the value curve in the previous markets -nothing at all,” he said.
“It's all spin to his base.
“He's spending all of his time worried about what One Nation's going to say next.
“I say to all those out there working so hard in Australia's agriculture sector and in agribusiness: you are right to start waking up.
“This guy doesn't have your interests at heart.
“He thinks about one thing and one thing only, and that's himself, his political interests and the prospects of what I now call his 'dual National Party'.
“The sooner he pulls the pin and does the right thing, the better for all concerned, including those in the agriculture sector.”
NT Labor MP Warren Snowden also contributed to the debate saying the minister had “lost the faith of many across the community”.
“He's an appalling minister for agriculture, as we well know,” he said.
“As we see every day in this place, he gets up to the despatch box in a raucous display of intemperate behaviour, dribbling, spitting and carrying on like a pork chop, yet when he's taken to account and questioned about his behaviour, his citizenship, and his right to be in this place, he doesn't demur.
“It's as if nothing has happened.
“I will make this point: the people who live in cockies corner in this place understand the disrepute the leader of the National Party has brought them into.
“The leader of the National Party has made rural Australians think twice about why they should be saying anything in support of the National Party in this country.”
Nationals respond with staunch defence of leader
But Victorian Nationals MP Damien Drum said the RIC was evidence of an Agriculture and Water Resources Minister “who is about to get things done” and accused Mr Fitzgibbon on playing politics.
“Whatever it takes, he will be the minister in charge of ag and he will get things done,” he said.
“This is an enabling bill that's going to offer his whole sector an opportunity for them to access low-interest loans and to have a support mechanism put in place that's going to be able to assist them.
“The member for Hunter, Mr Fitzgibbon, has simply played politics with his amendment.”
Mr Drum said the Labor Party was saying “somehow or other we have a very poor minister for agriculture” but that wasn’t the message being reflected on the ground.
“That is not the message that we hear when we go out around regional and rural Australia and talk about farming businesses, farming enterprises and the secondary industries associated with farming,” he said.
“When we are talking to these people, the people who are actually driving the nation, driving the economy of rural and regional Australia, they are quite proud of the bloke that is known as Barnaby.
“He doesn't need a second name.
“They actually love the bloke they know as Barnaby.
“He's the one who's getting things done.
“He's the one they can relate to.
“He's the one who actually works for their interests.
“He doesn't need any protecting.
“He doesn't need any shepherding or assistance in these couple of days that he's going through.
“He's big enough and tough enough to deal with that himself.”
Mr Drum also outlined some of the minister’s “accomplishments” for agriculture and by the Coalition in government.
“The ag white paper continues to deliver real, tangible benefits, and that is what this minister is about - $250 million a year is going into farm business concessional loans and we know how important and successful these concessional loans have been,” he said.
“When the dairy industry hit the hurdles that it did, a little over 12 months ago, its cries for assistance were met with an increase in concessional loans.”
Mr Drum said the government had also put another $200 million into strengthening biosecurity and “We have done amazing things with free trade agreements”.
“The boost that has come from our free trade agreements has been phenomenal,” he said.
“We've also seen the food labelling laws - another election promise that Barnaby Joyce was able to push through now that we're in government.
“He's been able to get it to a stage now where Australians will be able to shop with genuine confidence that the labels on the goods in the supermarket will give them an accurate, simple, basic understanding of the content inside those products on the shelf.
“The wine equalisation tax is another area where this minister has been able to push ahead and reach an agreement.
“This has been kicking around in the wine industry for 10 to 12 years.
“One of the biggest things we have been able to do is put some genuine stewardship around the Murray-Darling Basin and the plan for a balance between environmental water and water for active and productive agriculture.”
But Mr Drum said the Labor Party had “no credibility when it comes to agriculture”.
“The biggest decision the Labor Party made when they were last in government was that they stopped the live cattle export trade because of a Four Corners story,” he said.
“They just stopped it.
“That decision from the Labor Party cost beef producers in this country tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.
“No-one can find the minister who did this.
“No-one can find anybody who actually made this decision.
“It must have been made by someone who was invisible.”
Former Queensland LNP Agriculture Minister McVeigh has his say
Queensland LNP MP John McVeigh said following the 2017 budget, Labor announced they wouldn’t support the RIC and proposed to “pocket” $28.5 million, to establish costs as budget savings.
But he said over the past four years, the Commonwealth had paid $37.65 million to the state governments and the NT government to administer various programs.
“Therefore, establishing the Corporation will be, in its own right, a significant budget saving, to the benefit of the Australian taxpayer,” he said.
“Of course, Labor falsely claims farmers are choosing not to take up these loans.
“The reality is that 1342 farm businesses have been approved for $724.4 million of assistance.
“In contrast, therefore, to Labor's bleatings and continued lack of understanding of agriculture and its importance to our economy, the government, through the Regional Investment Corporation, will be focused on assistance that includes the Farm Business Concessional Loans Scheme, drought assistance concessional loans, dairy recovery concessional loans and business improvement concessional loans.”
Dr McVeigh said the Commonwealth's drought policy program seeks to help build farmers’ sustainability and resilience and to prepare them for managing droughts and other challenges.
He said when the Coalition came into power in 2013, “we inherited essentially an empty cupboard on drought policy” after Labor abolished the longstanding exceptional circumstances drought support policy and cut the then agriculture department's budget in half.
“Exacerbating those problems under Labor - particularly in the drought-ravaged regions of Northern Australia, in Queensland, the NT and WA - was Labor's economic and trade catastrophe of the live cattle export ban,” he said.
“That has been documented widely as an exemplar of Labor's ignorance of agriculture, regional Australia and our international trade relationships.
“Certainly on the eastern seaboard, and elsewhere in our country, the beef industry - and not just the live cattle export industry - continues to recover from that catastrophe.
“By contrast, the Coalition has confirmed that farmers' research and development funds should continue to be prioritised, on behalf of the levy payers…towards projects that have the intention of boosting farm gate returns.”
Dr McVeigh said the latter period of his term as the agriculture minister in Queensland also coincided with Mr Fitzgibbon’s “brief stint” as the federal Labor Agriculture Minister.
“He and I very clearly discussed the utter confusion created by his Labor predecessor, the then Senator Ludwig, by announcing suggested assistance programs that had no details and no time lines and were all done, I can confirm, with no reference to industry across the country, including AgForce and the Queensland Farmers' Federation in my state of Queensland, the National Farmers' Federation itself, of course, and other state agencies right across the country,” he said.
“I was pleased to see, therefore, that, upon the change of government and the appointment of the member for New England as our Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, that we saw immediate moves towards clarity on assistance schemes for rural producers and regional communities.
“He, I and colleagues across the country moved very quickly through detailed and constructive conversations about the contrast between state-based farm assistance delivery mechanisms, as I said in our case to QRAA, or the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority, and the processes that he quite rightly was focused on in his reinvigorated federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
“At one stage, such was its expertise, QRAA was the leading state agency and was required to administer schemes for other regions, such as the NT and WA.
“But I could very clearly understand the federal minister's frustrations, though, with some state agency processes that simply did not facilitate the timely and responsive distribution of federal assistance that he, as federal minister, was and remains intent upon.
“I therefore congratulate our Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources on this move towards national consistency, responsiveness and, ultimately, fair dinkum service to farmers and regional communities in each state and territory when the need presents itself.”
'Barnaby bank' a long-time goal
Small Business Minister and Riverina Nationals MP Michael McCormack said the RIC had been a long-time goal of the Deputy Prime Minister.
“Some have called it the 'Barnaby bank',” he said.
“His work to get it established is a testament to his advocacy, determination, drive and vision.
“When hardship occurs or unforeseen circumstances such as a drought or industry crisis hit, the corporation provides the ability to act swiftly to respond and support our farmers as required.
“Labor have said they will scrap the Regional Investment Corporation and pocket the budget savings.
“They will do what they always do.
“They make up these pretend numbers, they spend the money and then, when the money doesn't come in, the money is gone and the economy is the worse for it.
“But, hopefully, they won't get back into government any time soon.”
Mr McCormack said last year, the Victorian Labor government delayed delivery of dairy recovery concessional loans “by playing crude political games”.
But he said the RIC was “the solution to address the politics from Labor, whether it's federally or whether it's at a state level”.
“The corporation will administer the $2 billion in concessional loans to support the long-term strength, sustainability and profitability of farm businesses,” he said.
“The Regional Investment Corporation will also deliver the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, to provide concessional loans to the states and territories to fast-track priority water infrastructure projects.
“We want a secure water supply to unlock even more potential in the agriculture sector and to drive investment across regional and rural Australia, whether it's northern Australia or southern Australia.
“Our agricultural industries are fundamental to the prosperity of regional Australia and the nation.
“They are part of our plan to create more local jobs in country communities.
“Ag is the fabric of our country communities, an important pillar of our economy which has the support of this government.
“Through this bill we'll continue to back farmers, day in, day out.”