Ag leader debate tackles big issues but fails to deliver answers

Ag leader debate tackles big issues but fails to deliver answers


Climate change and the future of family farms feature as Littleproud and Fitzgibbon go head to head at National Press Club


Big questions on key issues remain unanswered after today's debate between the two contenders for federal agriculture minister - incumbent David Littleproud, and Opposition spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon.

The two contenders squared off at the National Press Club in Canberra in what was at times heated debate which grappled with the big issues of energy, carbon, climate change, market deregulation and the future of family farming.

But few convincing blows were landed from either side, adding to what has become an increasingly tight contest in the fight for government heading into the May 18 poll.

Both major parties are within striking distance of the 77 seats required to form a majority government.

Every vote in a marginal electorate will count, the bush holding more than its fair share of them, and rural voters more powerful than they have been for a long time.

Those undecided though would do well to find any clear direction from today's debate.

Energy remains a sticking point for the Coalition, still grappling to form a plan for the energy market, or to reduce emissions, as the ideological split in the Liberal party continues to prevent formulation of a policy.

Meanwhile, power prices spiked to record highs in NSW and Victoria.

Just as concerning was Labor's gaps in its carbon plan. Mr Littleproud accused Labor of dishonesty in its claim that agriculture would be exempt from its 45pc reduction target.

He said Labor had not revealed how much carbon emissions it planned to capture by tightening land clearing laws across the country, nor if it would compensate farmers from lost productivity.

"The fact that they haven't done the numbers says to me that it is on the run and populist. So agriculture isn't except from the 45pc reductions," Mr Littleproud said.

"Labor is lying. The reality is this. That you are going to get in place a system to take away farmers' rights to make a living.

"You have to be honest with the Australian people if you want to be the next government. You can't slink your way through."

Mr Littleproud did not address the pressing issue of input costs for agriculture, which have spiked as the Coalition dumped former PM Malcolm Turnbull over its energy wars.

Mr Fitzgibbon said a Labor government would end a decade of the Coalition's "carbon wars", but did not address Mr Littleproud's accusation that Labor would use carbon capture from restricted land clearing to benefit the wider economy.

Labor has not yet released an estimate of the economic impact of from its ambitious climate and energy policy, which centres on a $15 billion plan to cut emissions on 2005 levels by 45 per cent across all industries and to achieve 50pc renewable energy in national generation mix. (link /story/5783652)

In addition, he said Labor would create new revenue streams with its Carbon Farming Initiative, which would enable farmers to participate in the carbon offset market the Opposition plans to create if it forms government.

"We'll put them (farmers) in the carbon market. We'll spend $40 million creating methodologies so that they can earn revenue out of the carbon market.

"The land sector provides the cheapest offsets. Our farmers will be creating them when we get the methodologies right.

"This is the best defence to drought - building resilience on farm through the carbon market. We've also got $100m Farm Productivity and Sustainability Profitability Fund to help them build that resilience."

The MPs were questioned by the audience about the future of family farming in Australia, in light of their previous assertions that farmers are the economic backbone of rural communities.

What would they do to halt the trend, which has grown over the past 20 years in Australia's deregulated economy, toward consolidation and corporatisation of family farm businesses?

Do they want to see family enterprises continue to be consolidated into a corporate businesses, or leave the industry?

Mr Littleproud rejected the pessimistic premise of the question, but did not address the issue, instead highlighting the Coalition's record of forming new trade agreements and driving ag sector growth, while regulating foreign investment at levels that are advantageous for Australia.

He did not reveal ihs thoughts on whether family farms can compete with the growing corporate presence.

"Those trade agreements are putting real dollars in people's pockets," Mr Littleproud said.

"We will also make sure that we're protecting foreign investment that's in the national interest. Foreign investment is good. But it has to be in our interests


"When it comes they have to pay their fair share of tax. Labor says they will lift the caps on the thresholds to make sure we have an oversight around the level of foreign investment and the concentration of foreign investment.

"We should decide the foreign investment. It should be good for the country."

Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor's role in government would be to institute "enablers to give family farmers the best possible opportunity" to prosper. He did not say how the balance would be struck between corporate of family interests.

"The ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) told us 59pc of farm entities have an annual turnover of less than $200,000. That's a turnover not a profit," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

"So, there will be structural change, but it's not for government to determine the change. It's for its investors, the farmers themselves, to determine their future.

"Some of our best and smartest investors will be family farmers. Some of our best investors will be the big corporates, the multinationals."


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