THE FUTURE FOR AUSTRALIA’S AGRICULTURE SECTOR IN A CHANGING WORLD
ADDRESS TO CROPLIFE NATIONAL MEMBERS’ FORUM
OLD PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 17 NOVEMBER 2016
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I understand Minister Joyce failed to join you today as originally planned.
I’m not surprised. His on-going determination to re-locate the APVMA to his own electorate defies belief.
But not quite as much as his decision not to front you today to defend it. You can be sure that on your behalf, on behalf of farmers and on behalf of the APVMA team I will continue to oppose it.
When I last addressed you I brought along a thoughtful written speech. I didn't use it.
Rather, I was driven to offer a fulsome critique of the Minister’s performance in the agriculture portfolio.
As popular as my spray may have been, this year I'll try to stick to my script, at least until I hear popular demand to do otherwise.
Up on Capital Hill we've all been a bit busy working out what the US election outcome means for Australia. The truth is we don't yet know.
• Will President Trump be a free-trader or a protectionist?
• Will he withdraw from our Region or further engage?
• Will he manage the US economy astutely and responsibly, or increase debt to new and dizzy heights?
On each of these questions the former Republican nominee and now President-elect has sent different signals. In two months, we'll have a better picture but it still won’t be a clear one.
That could be 12 months or more in the making.
Australia can’t wait 12 months.
We need to be preparing now for both A and B; business as usual, or a different world - economically, strategically and politically.
Even if Donald Trump delivers on only one third of his promises, the political dynamic globally will continue to change. Citizens everywhere will continue to challenge the orthodoxy and the status quo, and they’ll do so in greater number.
That's why as politicians and business leaders we have to challenge the orthodoxy too.
If we want to argue for free trade we need to be open to a debate about it.
If we want to continue to enjoy strong capital inflows we need to be more honest, forthright and transparent about it.
If we want to maintain community faith in our alliance with the United States in the face of both a new and very different Administration, and a changing Asia-Pacific region, we need to show we are open to alternate thoughts.
I'm a free-trader, a big supporter of foreign investment and a strong supporter of the strategic alliance we have with our great and powerful friends.
None of that will change.
But if we are to maintain public support for each of them, we need to be prepared to openly debate them, and to be honest about both the benefits and challenges they bring.
For example, politicians can’t talk incessantly about the benefits of preferential trade agreements, without acknowledging food imports are growing faster than food exports.
And they shouldn’t talk about tariff reduction outcomes, without also talking about the significant non-tariff barriers which are yet to be overcome.
Or to overreach on the benefits of trade deals which level the playing field with some of our competitors, but do nothing to change our exposure to commodity price fluctuations, or to lift our productivity.
To do so sets government up for political failure. It does so because when the information vacuum is inevitably filled by others – typically the minor parties – the integrity of the government of the day is undermined.
We need to be honest about the net benefits of preferential trade deals. Like promises of dams which may or not come to fruition twenty years from now, it not only undermines the credibility of government, it raises false hope and breeds complacency.
Similarly, when a government walks both sides of the street on inbound foreign investment – simultaneously claiming to support it while introducing discriminatory FIRB screening thresholds - public confidence is undermined.
That confidence is further undermined when a foreign investment land register is promised but the outcome falls well short of public expectations.
This is also true of ANZUS. Opinion polling has consistently demonstrated a high level of public support for this vital treaty.
Of course some of that support comes from those who have memories of the role the United States played in our security in the 1940s. But as more time passes, maintaining majority support will take a greater amount of work.
This is even truer now given the changing strategic dynamic in the Asia-Pacific, and the uncertainty created by the election of Donald Trump.
Those who run to the cameras to pledge unqualified support for ANZUS despite the changing dynamic do not help the cause.
Worse, it is reckless to accuse people of being anti-Alliance for sparking a conversation about how the changing regional dynamic, and how a tectonic shift in US politics might impact on the ANZUS relationship.
Rather, strong leaders at this time should be welcoming of a public discussion about ANZUS, to do otherwise is to suggest that the Alliance is not one between equal partners with common security interests but rather, one between a powerful ally setting the terms and a smaller power accepting those terms without question.
The latter is not the relationship the Australian people have consistently singed up to. If we want to maintain their confidence, and therefore their support for ANZUS, we need to be open to a public discussion.
To fulfill our food and fibre aspirations in the growing markets of Asia, we need to speak with a strong and independent voice.
We can do that as a strong ally of the United States, but only if the relationship is one seen to be built on mutual respect and a joint determination to maintain an open regional economy and a rules-based global order.
Our neighbours will respect that.
Just like they’ll respect our foreign investment rules, but only if they apply equally to all who seek to invest here.
The Chinese in particular must be confused. Our Government says it wants them open for business. To not only accept our product but to also embrace the trade and quarantine rules we’re used to playing by.
But when they want to invest here, we adjust our rules to suit ourselves.
Indeed at the recent NFF Congress here in Canberra, making reference to the Australian people, Barnaby Joyce told those gathered:-
“there’s one thing people won’t do, and that is die for a rented country”.
These and comments like them do our cause immeasurable harm.
Foreign governments and investors do seek guidance in the attitudes of Governments. It’s for our Government to set clear strategic guidance; to signal what we want to achieve in the agriculture sector, where and how we want our natural resources allocated, and where we see investment priority.
The current Government offers no such guidance. Barnaby’s rhetoric is often colourful and sometimes comical.
But he has no vision or strategy for sustainable economic growth. Beyond a dam, here there and everywhere, and a sprinkling of boondoggles, he is silent on policy.
Terms like premium markets, innovation, biotechnology, productivity and sustainable profitability give way to one-liners about cattle prices and Johnny Depp’s dogs.
Meanwhile, in Australia’s agriculture sector, productivity is flat-lining, profitability is patchy, and we are losing global market share.
The Government must come to learn that our key competitive advantage is our reputation as a producer of clean, green and safe food. In coming years, our commitment to animal welfare standards and sound environmental practices will also serve us well.
To capitalise on that reputation, we need to focus on premium markets; ensuing our limited labour, financial, water and soil resources are being allocated where they earn the highest return. While volume is always important, we have to focus on value.
And we need to recognise the important role our crop protection and biotechnology companies will play in achieving our ambitions. You will be an important part of any productivity agenda, and we should be encouraging you, not discouraging you.
That’s the future I want for Australian agriculture and I know you do too.