Last week was a busy week up on the Hill.  It was a week of “Bs” Biosecurity, the Budget and of course, Barnaby and Boo the dog.

Labor’s modernisation of Australia’s outdated quarantine regime passed through the Parliament and we were all busy dissecting the net effect of the Budget on all of us who live well outside our capital cities. And I (like many) was left scratching my head over some the statements made by the Agriculture Minister.

Firstly to what should have been the focus of headlines this week, the passing of legislation to provide an historic overhaul of Australia’s biosecurity system.  This legislation replaced the Quarantine Act of 1908.  Labor initiated the Beale review of our biosecurity system in 2008 and produced historic draft legislation in 2012.  Unfortunately the 2013 election stalled the passage of the Bill through the Parliament.  Strangely, it then took the Abbott Government fifteen months to re-introduce the Bill and when it did, despite assurances that the Bill was unchanged, Labor found the legislation had been amended to remove the statutory position of the Inspector General of Biosecurity. The powers in effect were now with the Minister for Agriculture.  

I strongly protested the removal of this crucial position and Labor moved amendments to the Bill in the Senate to restore it.  With the support of the minor parties it was clear that the amendments would be successful.  Barnaby Joyce responded by back-flipping and submitting his own amendments to achieve Labor’s objective, that is, to restore the power, independence and security of tenure of the Inspector General of Biosecurity.  An independent “cop on the beat” if you like.

Having the most effective and responsive biosecurity system we can possibly achieve is crucial to our food security and to maintaining our clean, green image which also gives us a competitive advantage in global markets.  Despite Barnaby Joyce’s best efforts, the Bill that passed the Parliament last week provides us with the system we need to protect our largely pest-free and disease-free status.

On the Budget front I was hopeful that the Government would announce meaningful measures to assist drought affected farmers.  Sadly the Concessional Loan announcement made was actually yet another re-announcement of an earlier scheme that few farmers have found useful.  It appears that’s why they keep re-announcing the funding, they can’t spend it!

There was also the announcement to allow accelerated depreciation on investments in water and food storage infrastructure.  That’s pretty sound policy except that the scheme offers no relief for farmers until 2017.  This is a very strange decision given many farmers are suffering their third year of drought and need help now.  Of course you also have to have the cash to make the purchase and have made a profit to take advantage of the tax break.

The Government also announced a $35 million “stimulus package” to fund local infrastructure in drought affected areas.  The problem with that is the funding is dwarfed by the $1 billion the Government cut from the annual grants it provides to local councils to undertake that same work.  In Western Queensland’s drought affected Maranoa electorate for example, the value of the funding cut was $47 million.

In fairness there was also some money for rural counselling and wild dog control which was welcome but very modest relative to the scale of the drought and the curse it has imposed on farmers and rural communities.

And then there was the media spotlight on Barnaby which had us all shaking our heads.  While the media was distracted with his public stoush with Johnny Depp, little notice was given to his extraordinary statements on the night after the Budget.

When asked on the 7.30 Report the night after the Budget why farmers would have to wait two years before being able to claim the new tax deductions announced, Barnaby Joyce stated that:

“The reason this happened is because they were agricultural white paper initiatives. The depreciation for silos, the fencing, and the water reticulation they were announced in the budget and the time frames didn't match up. We will now make them match up and we'll do that when we release the white paper”.

Surely drought affected farmers deserved a better explanation than this.  I have to wonder what input Barnaby had to the Budget process and whether this Government is aware of the immediate plight of drought affected farmers.  

As for the dogs at the centre of all the media attention, Boo and Pistol.  As it happens I too agree that Australia’s quarantine requirements should be adhered to, however, once the breach was detected proper procedural process to deal with the situation at hand would have been undertaken.  Rather than grandstanding and personally attacking Mr Depp, Barnaby should have been assuring the Australian public that he would undertake a thorough investigation as to how the breach occurred in the first place.

Then the Minister should have better spent his day reassuring drought affected farming families that he is doing his very best to assist them by ensuring the budget measures announced on Tuesday night could be brought into effect immediately.

This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday the 18th of May2015.

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