WEDNESDAY, 13 MAY 2015
SUBJECT/S: 2015 Budget, Agriculture Policy
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: There was plenty in the speech and the Government has identified key parts of the electorate which it believes it needs to win back to improve its electoral standing. But there’s nothing in the detail. The centrepiece of course was another re-announcement of the Concessional Loans Scheme and they keep inflating the value of that by talking about the value of the loans. This is the amount of money that they are prepared to lend to drought affected farmers not what it will cost the Budget. And of course they keep re-announcing the same amount of money because they haven’t been able to spend the money. Why not? Two reasons. One, most farmers decided it’s not worth the pain, the paperwork, the relationship with the bank, the premium just isn’t there for them, many others just simply haven’t been able to qualify for the loans. Beyond that of course there are a few tax breaks - always welcome, particularly around water infrastructure. But you’ll recall that not long ago they were giving grants for water infrastructure, which is far more attractive for farmers. That money ran out five minutes later because they didn’t allocate anywhere near enough money. None of those tax breaks start until 2016, which means farmers won’t even begin to accrue any benefit until 2017, two years ahead for farmers who have been in drought now for three years.
JOURNALIST, ANNA VIDOT: Leaving aside that fact that obviously the farmers who are currently in drought would like something a bit more urgently then that, and the fact that farmers would obviously prefer cash grants over loans, who wouldn’t? But we have been having in this country discussion for a very long time about the need for a sustainable and longer term approach to dealing with drought, preparing for drought, in that context, tax concessions for this sort of stuff: water infrastructure; fencing; silage storage; that’s the right way to go isn’t it ?
FITZGIBBON: Certainly market based approaches are the right way to go and we’ve now gone what twenty, twenty-one months under this government without an Agriculture Policy. When we desperately need one. We have so many opportunities and challenges ahead of us and yet no overarching strategic guidance from this Government. And it appears to me that the White Paper remains on the never-never. There is no commitment as to when it might be produced and I really fear all the signs are there that this is going to be anything but a strategic document. But rather a bit of a spending wish list, which the Government knows it doesn’t need to commit to this side of an election, or indeed on the Forward Estimates. So there is a lot of sleight of hand here and it really makes me angry to see Joe Hockey last night give so much attention to agriculture without backing it with anything of substance.
VIDOT: One of the other interesting areas in the Budget for Ag is around the trade aspect - selling what you grow if you manage to grow something. One of the things we’ve heard certainly from the National Farmers’ Association is that they wanted the Government to put some serious resources and cash behind helping exporters take advantage of Free Trade Agreements that we’ve signed recently in Asia. The Government has done that by appointing people overseas to help promote Australia, it’s expanding the Australia Week events which we know and it’s helped creating this dashboard thing which the NFF is very excited about to help farmers keep track of tariffs. What do you make of those kind of measures? Is that the sort of thing that you see as going to make any difference to people tapping into those Free Trade opportunities.
FITZGIBBON: But this is just the ordinary work of government. The Labor party started the work on these Free Trade Agreements we didn’t get there before the election, I accept that. The Government finished the work so they should, god forbid if it took them another three years and they still didn’t complete the Free Trade Agreements. That would have created a stir. But of course we really don’t have Free Trade Agreements yet because we have an enormous layers of health protocols and other technical barriers to get through that takes time. It took the New Zealanders years to overcome many of those, so you do have to invest in people and resources to make that happen so the Government gets no credit for spending the money it needs to spend to make those Free Trade Agreements work.
VIDOT: Finally of course you’re currently in Opposition, presumably you’ll be making a pitch to voters ahead of the election that we are expecting next year. When might we see what Labor is going to put on the table for agriculture and for drought, but for agriculture generally.
FITZGIBBON: You’ll certainly see a comprehensive agriculture policy from us. My focus is on financial capital. That the capital we will need, including foreign capital - by the way something this Government runs interference on, that the money that we will need both government and private to reach our ambitions and our aspirations. Human capital: the skills; the intellectual capital; the research we need to again meet those aspirations; physically capital; the infrastructure we need to get our goods to port on rail and roads in the most efficient manner. And just as importantly, and this will be a real emphasis for me, natural capital: how we better manage our limited natural resources in the most efficient and effective way to ensure that profitability in our agriculture is sustainable.