My final contribution for 2014 seems a good place to review the year in agriculture. It began with great promise – a White Paper (not delivered), additional expenditure in research and development (no money spent but a lot cut), a new drought policy (failed), a foreign investment register (still waiting), and a decentralisation policy (which turned out to be a half-baked plan to pork-barrel in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate).
Barnaby Joyce claims some success though, he takes credit for every commodity price which is up, but takes no responsibility for those which are down. When challenged, he’s been unable to cite one policy initiative which would allow him to take credit for any price rises.
Of course he does nominate the Free Trade Agreements as a win. The FTAs will undoubtedly be a good thing for Australian agriculture being as they are the product of years of work across four governments. They will eventually allow us to match the prices offered by competitors who secured deals earlier. I say eventually because these Agreements are not all yet in force. Even after they do, settling on protocols and removing other technical barriers will still take a considerable amount of time.
A level playing field on trade barriers is one thing, but it’s not the only thing which determines our competitive edge. So too does productivity, production capacity natural resource allocation and our clean, green and safe image. None of these issues have been seriously tackled this past year. Oh that’s right; we are still waiting for the White Paper!
A recent ABC story out of Vietnam helps to bring the production capacity question into full view. It reminded us that it’s been a record year for live cattle exports to Vietnam. However it also pointed out that importers are anxious about the recent FTA between Australia and China and the impact it could have on future supply.
Vietnam has become northern Australia's second-biggest market for live cattle and by year's end is expected to have imported about 140,000 head. But the Vietnamese are worried Australia will start exporting beef cattle to China and consequently, reduce supply to Vietnam. Their fears were further fuelled by silly reports in the media suggesting Australia is poised to supply up to one million head per year to China.
It’s a reminder that Australia needs more than access, it needs a strategic plan.
But the other interesting thing which emerged from the ABC yarn was a comment from the Northern Territory’s Agriculture Minister who said in response to the concerns of the Vietnamese:
"When talking with importers about how a trade with China might affect the market here in Vietnam and Australia's capacity to supply this market, I guess what I've been pushing is that if the Vietnamese own cattle properties in the Northern Territory or northern Australia, it kind of helps to ensure continuity of supply and that's great for the relationship long-term”.
Now there’s a comment which appears in conflict with Barnaby Joyce’s anti-foreign investment rhetoric. You know, the one he uses almost daily unless it’s Gina’s Chinese partners investing. The Northern Territory’s Minister can head for the beach relaxed on one front – the Vietnamese won’t have to worry about the foreign investment register, not this year anyway!