It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister has failed to take account of one of the most important guiding principles in politics: expectations management.
It’s no wonder because his Prime Minister has been masterful at doing whatever it takes in the present for political advantage while worrying about the consequences later. As Opposition Leader he deliberately ignored the impact the Global Financial Crisis and collapsing coal and iron ore prices were having on our economy. He refused to recognise the then Labor Government’s competent management of those challenges.
Further, he sought to demonise every Labor Government achievement; the new funding arrangements with cash-strapped state governments in health and education (which he has since unravelled), action to address environmental issues (unravelled), historic pension increases (which he tried to unravel) a new disability scheme, the removal of discrimination from our domestic laws, the apology to Australia’s indigenous people, and the modernisation of our industrial awards. And there are many more examples.
Tony Abbott’s key objective was to have the electorate believe that everything that was wrong in our economy was the fault of the Labor party; that the election of Tony Abbott would herald a new era of wealth and prosperity.
Of course, he now tells us it is all about the global situation and tries to distract by attempting to have everyone thinking not about the economy or costs of living pressure, but their personal safety and security (ie. “the death cult is coming to get us”).
The now Prime Minister’s style became infectious and Barnaby Joyce was not immune. The Agriculture White Paper - finally delivered just over a week ago - was supposed to lay the foundations for an economy built around the opportunities that the growing global food demand has on offer.
However, the longer the delivery of the White Paper was delayed, the more Barnaby Joyce fuelled expectations; “better to be late and get it right,” he regularly declared.
But he didn’t get it right. We were all hoping for a big picture document; one which provided high level strategic assessment and guidance. A White Paper which offered both a narrative and clearly defined goals and objectives. One which presented analysis of Australian agriculture’s strengths weaknesses, threats and opportunities: new and innovative ideas about how we might set market-based price signals to attract investment where it is most needed and where the mobilisation of our natural resources in the most profitable and sustainable way. Maybe, some modelling quantifying potential supply-chain efficiencies.
Instead, the White Paper told us what we already knew and offered not much more than a collection of initiatives - some good, some bad and others which will do no harm. Some welcomed, but initiatives that could have easily been announced 18 months ago.
But don’t take my word for it; here are the thoughts of a few other White Paper critics:
“It is symptomatic of the failure of the agriculture white paper to grasp the pivotal issues facing the farm sector”… “The white paper pays lip service to the importance of foreign investment but provides no justification for the arbitrary lowering of thresholds for Foreign Investment Review Board screening on farms and manufacturers, as well as other companies dealing with agricultural produce”. - David Uren, The Australian, July 9, 2015
“There is plenty to like about the white paper but plenty that could have been done with a lot more strategic thinking – which is surprising given the amount of time the White paper took to develop”. - Mick Keogh, Australian Farm Institute, July 5, 2015.
The Australian Newspaper’s rural expert, Sue Neales described the White Paper as “a list of dot-points lacking passion ... (and) from early indications, it would be hard to describe the government’s launch of its white paper on agricultural competitiveness as a heady, enthusiastic or euphoric endorsement of agriculture and food production as the brightest star in Australia’s future". - The Australian, July 4, 2015.
"Where in #AgWhitePaper are young people? Where is investment encouraging ag careers? Disappointed by lack of investment in future workforce!" - Future Farmers Network, Twitter July 7, 2015.
“Abbott can slow that change. But by pretending there are easy options he is just raising expectations that will eventually be dashed." - Alan Mitchell, The Australian Financial Review, July 7, 2015.
There’s that word again: “expectations”.
By the time the White Paper was released, I thought Barnaby Joyce may have learned the 'expectations management' lesson but sadly it wasn’t to be.
Indeed the announcement came with a $4 billion price tag. This is surely the biggest con-job ever presented to the Australian electorate!
I’ve challenged Barnaby Joyce to authenticate this figure. He won’t, because he can’t. To massively inflate what it was offering, the government has relied on many tricks: counting the total value of repayable loans over 10 years; including economy-wide, non-ag-specific and previously announced (mostly by the former Labor government) projects; offering money which the government knows will never be spent, and counting on money which is contingent upon unlikely contributions from cash-strapped state governments.
Further, many offerings are years beyond the Budget’s forward estimates while others only off-set cuts imposed in Tony Abbott’s first Budget.
It’s for Barnaby Joyce now to manage the disappointment of so many in the agriculture and agri-business sectors. But sadly, it will fall on others to pick up the pieces following an opportunity missed.
This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday, 13 July 2015.