LAST week when the movers and shakers of Australian agriculture gathered in Darwin for the Northern Australia Food Futures Conference, representatives from the Turnbull government were noticeably absent.
The last minute withdrawal of LNP Queensland Senator Matthew Canavan resulted in a statement of disappointment from conference organisers, Northern Territory Farmers, along with various Labour state government ministers.
Speaking at the conference, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Joel Fitzgibbon said there was no area of public policy more deserving of bipartisanship than agriculture and the development of northern Australia.
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Mr Fitzgibbon highlighted opportunities for agricultural export from northern Australia, but called for more practical, achievable policies to avoid the “false hope” seen in the Coalition’s agricultural white papers.
“We are all enthused by the opportunities the north has at its feet, particularly those offered by its proximity to a growing Asia,” he said.
“In the past five years we’ve had both a Northern Australia White Paper and an Agriculture White Paper. Released in 2015, these documents are now three years old. Their only real success has been to raise expectations and to raise hope.”
Mr Fitzgibbon warned attendees not to take promises of funding at face value.
“Beware governments, any government, promising to spend considerably more on infrastructure in what are challenging times in the life of Commonwealth Budgets. There’s not a lot of money around,” he said.
Referring to the northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, Mr Fitzgibbon said the audience should also be cautious of governments offering off-budget need-to-be-matched loans to build dams, ports, roads and railway lines.
“Loans for projects which may or may not be economical.”
He said a more practical approach to agricultural policy was required, and gave a broad outline of his vision for agriculture, without delving into specifics.
“Let’s build the workforce we need, allocate our natural resources efficiently and sustainably, increase our research, development and innovation efforts,” he said.
“Identify the products and the markets, and create the business environment and encourage the private sector to lead the way on infrastructure investment.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said government had a role to play in managing expectations, specifically keeping the benefits of preferential trade deals in perspective.
“They are unequivocally a good thing and both the major political parties can take some credit for those most recently concluded,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the 2012 ANZ Greener Pastures report suggested $600 billion of new capital investment would be required to reach aspirational outcomes in agricultural growth by 2050.
“To put this in context, the agriculture sector in Australia would need investment of just over $26 billion per annum on top of existing levels of investment,” he said.
“In other words, just over two and a half times recent annual levels of investment in agriculture will be required.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said industry and political leaders needed to build community confidence and understanding in foreign investment.
“Playing to populist community concern is a zero sum game,” he said.
“Fiddling with Foreign Investment Review Board thresholds and membership sends all the wrong signals to potential investors and our own communities alike.
“Offending our largest trading partner with reckless language just to win a local vote, doesn’t help our cause much either.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Australia’s key competitive advantage was its reputation as a provider of clean, green, safe, high quality, and ethically produced food.
“In the near future, our strong commitment to environmentally sustainable farming practices and animal welfare standards will also count in our favour,” he said.
“That’s why our biosecurity and traceability structures must be a first priority for any government at state or federal level.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said it was hard to see farming terms rising markedly and profitability would rely on lowering costs and raising productivity.
“Government has a role to play, by improving market access and guaranteeing appropriate levels of public investment in research and development, innovation, road, rail and telecommunications infrastructure and of course, lowering regulatory costs,” he said.
“Sadly, the 2016 Productivity Commission Report on Regulation in the Agriculture Sector is another body of work collecting dust on the Prime Minister’s book shelf.
“A good report, I recommend it to you, lot’s of recommendations, none of them embraced.”