NEW Crawford Fund Chair John Anderson says the live cattle “debacle” of 2011 remains the most politically sensitive issue in Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, due to threatening local food security and causing a “nasty spike” in protein prices.
The former Deputy Prime Minister replaced one-time Labor Agriculture Minister John Kerin as the Fund’s Chair this month and spoke today at an event in Canberra hosted with the Australian Institute of International Affairs looking at food security, biosecurity and national security in the Melanesian Arc.
During his talk, he mentioned the Fund’s upcoming submission to the Australian government’s white paper on foreign policy, which has a February 28 deadline.
In that submission, he said the science-driven agricultural research focussed group with global ties would argue food security was “essential for international peace and security”.
Mr Anderson said the Fund would also point out global food security served Australia’s national interests and a “sharper focus” on it, drawing on the “unique” capabilities of Australian scientists, farmers and food processers, would “reinvigorate Australian foreign policy, endowing it with an even more uniquely Australian character”.
He said food security was a “significant driver” of political instability in other countries like Syria and Africa and argued Australia’s foreign policy-makers must be more aware of farming’s role, in meeting that complex political challenge.
Mr Anderson said during the Indonesia and Australia dialogue talks held last year he was told the live cattle suspension was the number one political issue that’s repeatedly ventilated with Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia.
“The issue that is always raised, in terms of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, wherever he (The Ambassador) goes in that country, is not turning boats back, it’s not bugging the president’s wife, it’s not Australians protesting their death sentence, it’s the live cattle dispute,” he said.
“It’s food security; it’s protein; it’s food inflation.
“Even in a country that now has a middle class the size of France or Britain’s, as I understand it, the poor in Indonesia are still spending an average of 70 per cent of their income on food.
“But food inflation - and there was a nasty spike in it, after the live cattle dispute and the debacle that followed - is an incredibly sensitive issue and it goes right to the heart of everything that we’re talking about.”
Mr Anderson said Indonesia was a country that’s easily misunderstood in Australia “in the same way that they often misunderstand us”.
But he said Australia’s northern neighbour was “enormously important to us and might get even more important in the future” as it’s due to become the world’s fourth or fifth largest economy by 2050.
“The simple reality is that Indonesia is the fourth most populist nation on earth and it is culturally very different,” he said.
“It is a Muslim country and it’s the only Muslim country that I can think of globally where their trajectory of governance, if you like, democratic, in a way that is rare in the Islamic world, has been on a good plane, in recent years.”
Mr Anderson told Fairfax Agricultural Media food inflation in Indonesia was a “massive issue politically” but didn’t carry the same weight in Australia.
“We’re used to going to the supermarket and not having any trouble accessing what we need but for the most populist Muslim nation on earth and the fourth most populated nation in the world, right on our doorsteps, food security is a very big issue,” he said.
“I hardly need to point out why we need to get all aspects of the relationship right – the trade aspects; the foreign affairs aspects; and the science and exchange of information.
“Some people would then say, ‘Well why should we provide the expert scientific advice and skills of retired scientists for example - which we often do and facilitate at Crawford - to other countries that might then crank up their own local food production and import less of our products?’
“In fact that’s not the case at all.
“I strongly believe and passionately believe that in every way where we can improve our relationship with Indonesia, the more we will open up the opportunities for trade, not lessen them.”
Mr Anderson said the Crawford Fund’s white paper submission would essentially argue agriculture was something Australia did well, “if not better than anyone else in the world and was an area where we have real claim to being first class in every way” and a higher percentage of the foreign aid program had to be directed towards food security and biosecurity.
“There are real interests in making food security and Australian agricultural research part and parcel of our foreign aid program, not just for reasons of compassion - but also in serving our own interests for building relationships,” he said.
“A greater proportion of our foreign aid program should be focussed on food security and on biosecurity and they’re inter-related of course.”
Mr Anderson said no other country exported a higher proportion of its food and fibre production than Australia.
But he said it was also the case, and easily overlooked, that Australia’s science and expertise contributed as much, “I might argue even more”, to the feeding and the well-being of people in other parts of the world, than our exports.
The former Nationals leader replaced Mr Kerin who was Chair for six years and has been on the Crawford Fund’s board since 2010.
He said this year’s annual conference held at Parliament House in Canberra would focus on “big data” in relation to agricultural research and production.
Mr Anderson said the Fund does “very valuable extension work with farmers in less fortunate parts of the world which is good from a compassionate point of view but very much in Australia’s national and strategic interests”.
“It’s one of those roles that’s probably not as widely seen and acknowledged as possible but the Crawford Fund I think does leverage very effectively, it’s relatively modest budget, to make a very real difference to a lot of peoples’ lives,” he said.