Where do the fisheries and forestry sectors sit in the priorities list of the Abbott Government? 

Having been dropped from the Agriculture portfolio title, they are not feeling much love.  Still, they remain the responsibility of the Agriculture Minister and should not be treated as the poorer cousins of Agriculture. They are important areas of the Australian economy, yet Barnaby Joyce dares not speak their name.  To rub salt into the wound, neither fisheries nor forestry were included in the Agriculture White Paper process.

The Australian Forest Products Association wasn’t hiding its concern over the White Paper omission when it said: “Our forest, wood and paper product industries are closely related to agricultural industries. Yet, surprisingly, the Agricultural Competiveness Terms of Reference stated that ‘the White Paper will not consider industry competitiveness issues associated with the fisheries and forestry sectors’”. Fishing industry groups responded differently, they reluctantly accepted the Abbott Government’s message and have not participated.

Seafood is a multi-billion dollar industry for Australia. It is our fifth largest food producing industry, worth more than $2.2 billion to our economy every year.  The sector earns $1.2 billion in foreign exchange annually.  Forestry and wood products is another substantial industry – earning around $2 billion in foreign exchange each year, employing 61,000 people and producing $20 billion worth of manufactured products.

But where do they fit into the Abbott Government’s thinking?  Where are the strategic plans for these two important sectors?  Isn’t seafood food, and shouldn’t it be part of our “Dining Boom” aspirations?  Won’t demand for carbon-storing wood products in Asia produce a “Fibre Boom”?

Neither the “Dining Boom” nor the “Fibre Boom” will come to us; the benefits will not be handed to us on a platter.  In this increasingly open and competitive world, we will have to work for their bounty.  The private sector will do most of the heavy lifting, but ultimate success will require strategic planning and guidance from government.

There is no forestry or forest products plan.  That’s despite the fact that we are not only failing to meet our full export potential, but indeed we are becoming increasingly import-dependent. Two wonderful recently constructed timber buildings in Melbourne’s Docklands, were constructed entirely from imported wood.

Australia last had a plan to address our wood supply problem in 1997.  “Plantations for Australia: The 2020 Vision” was a fair effort.  But sadly it lost momentum with the failure of the Managed Investment Schemes and has not met its objectives.

While the Abbott Government fiddles, cuts research & development funding, and continues to import shiploads of timber, other countries including New Zealand are working towards the next generation of opportunities – in cross laminated timber, wood-to-plastics and biofuels.

In fisheries, the Fisheries Research & Development Corporation is doing good work in areas like productivity, certification, stocks, and the environment.  The Korea and Japan FTAs accommodated seafood and let’s hope for good news on China.  But no one in the Abbott Government is talking about a strategic plan for the sector.  Try this – Google - “Barnaby Joyce Seafood”.    

For that matter, Google “Barnaby Joyce forests”.  Now try - “Barnaby Joyce beef”.  See what I mean?  I rest my case.

Our meat, grains, dairy, horticulture and viticulture products are all of critical importance to the Australian economy.  But so too are the fisheries and forestry sectors, it’s time they received a bit more love.

This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday the 17th of November 2014.

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