When I was the nation’s Defence Minister I had the honour and privilege of leading the development of a Defence White Paper.
The first thing I was determined to do was to put some stability, discipline and certainty into defence planning by insisting that in future, white papers should be produced every five years, rather than whenever it politically suited the government of the day.
It’s past time we brought a similar disciplined process to agriculture policy.
The Americans do it, the Chinese do it and it would make sense for us to do it too.
In defence policy we begin with values and principles – our role as a responsible global citizen, our commitment to peace, the right to self defence, the right to protect, and the responsible use of force.
We then make an assessment of the geopolitical situation both in our region and beyond. We ask ourselves where instability is most likely to occur and where threats to our own security might emerge.
We then use that information to determine the size, shape and weight of our Defence Force. Defence boffins call it 'strategic guidance'.
This is what we need in Australian agriculture policy more generally – high level strategic guidance and planning.
We surely know what we want in agriculture - sustainable profitability, food security, food affordability, and global food adequacy.
But we don’t have an over-arching plan to get us there.
Now if Barnaby Joyce were reading this he’d no doubt shout: “Bingo - I’m doing just that through my Agriculture White Paper!”
I hope that is true. But in addition to being seemingly on the never-never, I hold well-founded fears that the government’s Agriculture White Paper will be anything but a discipline-imposing, goal setting, strategic document.
Rather, I fear it will be a political document and a document of compromise.
A document full of old ideas not new ideas. A list of spending promises which may or may not ever be delivered.
In the current economic environment, beware of politicians making big spending promises – they are either gilding the lily or setting themselves up for failure.
Documents which state the obvious about our current circumstances; identify future infrastructure projects we already know about and then raise unrealistic expectations about funding support, serve no real purpose.
Let me put my money where my mouth is by setting out what I would do. The strategic assessment should not be difficult.
Our strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities are well known.
On the positive side: the 'dining boom'; our clean, green, safe image and reputation; our proximity to Asian demand; our experience, knowledge and skills; and our capacity for innovation.
On the flip-side is: our limited natural resources and our changing climate; relatively high cost structures and cheap import competition; an uneven international playing field; old or under-developed supply chain infrastructure, and a shortage of investment capital.
Our threats come in many forms – pests and disease, dumping, and an unanticipated return to global protectionism are among them.
Maybe more worrying is complacency and a lack of collaboration – between governments and also between governments and industry and investors.
But identifying the strategic environment is one thing. How you turn that knowledge into strategic guidance is a far more complex challenge.
This is the real work of a white paper.
It’s past time we took the next steps towards a comprehensive high-level agriculture policy.
Just as government ministers must decide what our defence posture should look like and how much money should be spent where – so too must those who lead agriculture in government.
And just like in the defence space, it will take the co-ordinated efforts of many ministers in different but relevant portfolios – Treasury, the environment, trade and transport to name a few.
Of course it’s the private sector, not government, which creates wealth.
The role for government should be to provide high-level strategic guidance backed by market-based incentive pathways which send the right signals to investors.
Australia has limited natural resources and limited domestic capital. We need to ensure that those limited natural resources are directed to the areas which produce the greatest return for investors, and that investors clearly understand the government’s priorities, and, therefore, where it stands ready to provide the greatest level of encouragement.
Remember, in the years immediately ahead, government spending will be constrained by the global economic environment.
But government has the capacity to attract investment to areas where we need it most, and where the nation secures the greatest return.
It must be able to tell investors first: “We are open for business” and second: “We have a long-term strategic plan which both helps you make a quid while at the same time enriches our nation”.
I ask you to turn you attention to New Zealand, where successive governments have set down for themselves key objectives and goals, and are making significant investments in research and development and creating national industry champions.
Second, and some distance out from an election, let me set down what should be the key foundations for the development of an agriculture policy guidance document.
I submit five pillars from which to build an agriculture policy.
The first is human capital – the people and skills we will need to succeed. The second is financial capital – the money we need to fulfil our ambitions.
The third is natural resource capital – managing our limited natural resources in a productive and sustainable way.
The fourth is physical capital – the infrastructure we need.
The fifth is intellectual capital – the product of science and our research and development extension efforts.
Between now and the election I will have more to say on these five pillars as Labor develops its plan for Australian agriculture.
This article was first published in the FARMONLINE on Monday the 6TH of April 2015.