Ag must not waste national policy re-think

Ag must not waste national policy re-think

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Ron Boswell is a former Senator from Queensland and former leader of the National Party in the Senate.

Ron Boswell is a former Senator from Queensland and former leader of the National Party in the Senate.

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Opinion: Former Queensland Senator Ron Boswell says agricultural leaders must make policy makers focus on making it easier, not harder for our productive sectors to succeed in global markets.

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Opinion | The Gauge 

One of the few silver linings in the coronavirus cloud is the overdue recognition that, when it comes to our economy and our living standards, we still rely heavily on agriculture and mining production and exports.

It is not what some so-called experts predicted.

Late last year, before COVID-19 struck down the world economy, a Harvard professor published a report which judged global economies by their 'complexity'.

Australia fared badly, ranking 93rd in the world, largely because our economy relies on commodity exports, like agriculture and resources.

One newspaper said the key finding of the report was that Australia was "rich but dumb, and getting dumber." The report's findings haven't had a good crisis.

Australia's economy has performed better than many other developed economies, partly because our economy is not as 'complex' as Harvard professors would prefer.

We were not as affected as other countries more dependent on services trade and/or caught up by disruption to complicated supply chains.

In March, at the centre of the crisis, Australia recorded its biggest ever trade surplus, partly on the back of a 7 per cent increase in farm exports and a 14 per cent increase in resources exports.

While many economies have completely shut down, our farmers have continued to provide food and fibre to fellow Australians and tens of millions of consumers in many economies around the world.

So have regional food processing and manufacturing firms as well as the resources sector.

The key thing is that a larger share of the Australian economy - particularly in regional Australia - has kept working than many developed economies around the world.

The second silver lining from the crisis will surely be a sharper focus on ensuring we don't weigh down our most important sectors once things open up again.

The reality is that nearly 29 years of continuous economic growth made us complacent. The national focus slowly shifted from keeping a sharp eye on the basics.

We became indulgent.

Activist groups indifferent to the need for economic growth got more attention than they warranted.

It became more popular to stop agriculture and mining projects than to start them.

Our energy costs went from the cheapest in the developed world in 2004 to some of the most expensive.

That means higher costs for the farm sector all the way up the farm production supply chain.

Higher costs for energy intensive inputs like fertiliser, more expensive on-farm electricity costs and increased off-farm processing and milling costs.

Today, even excluding processing costs, energy costs are now equal to 9 per cent of the gross value of farm production.

These costs vary across farm commodities, accounting for 16pc of the gross value of sugar production, 13pc of dairy production, 7pc of beef production and 6pc of the costs in the sheep meat sector.

Low energy costs weren't the only casualty.

State and territory governments have made agriculture even more costly by making land clearing even harder.

Farmers have seen their ability to manage their own land sharply constrained.

And, at the last federal election, the Labor Opposition ran on a platform of extending Queensland's tough vegetation laws across the nation.

Labor has also committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050 without explaining how CO2 emissions from our 28 million cattle and 64 million sheep can be eliminated without a near complete reduction in the livestock herd.

And we should never forget that the last time Labor was in Government it contemplated reducing livestock emissions by replacing the protein from beef and sheep with that from 240 million kangaroos.

There is little wonder why people living in regional Australia wonder about policy prescriptions dreamt up in inner city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

The bottom line is that we now have an opportunity to rethink and simplify our policy settings.

The complacency is gone.

While the strong performance of our agricultural and mining sectors has stopped the economy from complete freefall, three and a half million Australians have lost their job or been stood down.

There is a new focus on the basics.

Priorities have been re-set.

Expectations of government have been simplified.

My sense is that the Australian people want a single-minded focus on making sure Australian farmers are able to do what they do best - producing food for Australians while nurturing and conserving their land for the long-term.

We have to ensure our policy makers focus on making it easier, not harder for our productive sectors to succeed in global markets that will be even tougher and more competitive than ever.

Ron Boswell is a former Senator from Queensland and former leader of the National Party in the Senate.

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