Speech - Address to the National Farmers Federation - Monday, 12 October 2019

Happy 40th Birthday to the National Farmers’ Federation. It’s certainly a milestone worth celebrating.

I’ve just done a little bit of research and I discovered that in those 40 years the National Farmers’ Federation has had 13 Presidents and nine CEOs. Term-limits aside, it tells you which job is toughest!

But maybe just as importantly, in that time you’ve had 20 Agriculture Ministers, which either says something about you, or something about us?

But whatever the answer to that question I think it’s fair to say that for all the changes playing-out around the globe we can be thankful for one constant: the ongoing role that advocacy groups play in our society, our communities and in our economy.

That’s good news for you, and its good news for me. 

To carry my dreams I long ago pinned my hopes and aspirations for our Country, and indeed the world, on the Australian Labor Party. I decided early on in my life that Labor would be my vehicle to push my ideas and what I believe are the correct changes for the Country, an even better Australia, and a fairer and safer and more prosperous world.  

You – and those who have given themselves before you – have pinned your hopes on the NFF and its member organisations, to pursue your dreams and to pursue your aspirations for the Country, and the globe. That makes us alike in our ambitions.

Now, you’ll all be thinking that that’s where the similarities between the Labor Party and the NFF end. I don’t think that’s true. 

The Labor Party is an organisation born out of adversity and struggle: the great fights for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, safer workplaces and the right to return home safe at the end of the shift.

We are an organisation with great longevity, just like the National Farmers’ Federation. We are now more than 100 years old, but 40 years is very significant.

During the seventies, facing challenges on many fronts, our agri-politicians in Australia came to the conclusion that the best way to carry influence with an increasingly influential federal government was to have a truly united national organisation. When you think about it, many decades before that, trade unionists decided the only way going to secure the changes to society that they were pursuing was to secure parliamentary representation. I think that’s another very interesting commonality to be found between the Australian Labor Party and those who have found their way to serve the various farming organisations in this country, including of course, the National Farmers’ Federation.

Of course, in the 1970s they were facing the impacts of global oil shocks and what that meant for decision-making. It was the beginning of the challenge to the  protectionist model and price support for farmers. The emergence of stagflation as another challenge, as was increasingly volatile commodity prices including the collapse in the wool price.

While the NFF and the Australian Labor Party have not always agreed – in fact we’ve had a disagreement or two – it’s also true that we both want the same thing for Australia’s agribusiness sector. We all want the agriculture sector to grow, to make an increasing contribution to the Australian economy and to create wealth in this country. 

That’s why we’ve been very happy to back the National Farmers’ Federation ambition to take the industry to $100 billion by 2030. A very admirable and noble cause and I believe, an achievable cause.

I understand that today you released a progress report and unsurprisingly, it indicates we’ve hit a few head-winds, chief among them the drought. I’ve said many times before that nothing could be more inviting of bipartisanship than the impacts of the wrath of Mother Nature. It is something we should bind close together on, and work together on. Labor has extended that bipartisan hand and we will continue to do so. 

I congratulate the NFF for leading the charge on drought and not waiting for the Government to deliver a comprehensive drought policy. Fiona, I look forward to seeing your work when you produce it at the end of the week. 

Like most of you, I’ve witnessed first-hand the impacts of this terrible drought. It’s long. It’s hot. It’s dry, and its impacts are devastating for so many families and communities.

We need a drought policy based on four key foundations – maybe you’ve heard me say it before: mitigation, adaptation, infrastructure investment and income support where warranted.

Mitigation is obvious. We keep having this fight about a changing climate and what is causing it. I think it’s time to put that fight behind us, to stick to the precautionary principle, and act. To do something about it rather than come to a more certain conclusion in ten years’ time, that we should’ve acted ten years ago.

Adaptation is about changing behaviour – behaviour both on-farm and off-farm. Urban water usage efficiencies and on-farm water use. Whether it be regenerative agriculture - improving the health of our soils – all those things that build resilience on farms is something we must work on together.

Investment is so important in water infrastructure in particular, and there is no political argument that we need to get investment flowing in the efficient use of water in particular. But not just water – the productivity of soil-health, and the things that go with it.

Income support, of course will always be necessary. The test for viability shouldn’t be whether you can survive the seventh year, or the eighth year, of the worst drought in our time. If people need income support and they’re assessed to be in need of it, they should continue to receive income support. 

Yes, we must help them either restructure their business – the way they do things on the land or, find a way to do something else, if that’s not possible. But viability in year seven or year eight should not be the test.

I congratulate the President Fiona Simson for her courageous pronouncements on climate change. There are an increasing number of people on the land acknowledging that something is happening and we need to take action to address it. We should not waste one more moment arguing about the causes, we should just act.

I was so encouraged on Friday when I attended an event organised by UNICEF where they had taken about 100 young people off farms, in drought affected communities. They brought them to beautiful Lake Macquarie just on the edge of my electorate to enjoy themselves and to talk about farming, drought, climate change and their own futures. There, in Q&A, I encountered some very intelligent kids who had obviously thought long and deep about the challenges the sector faces. 

But interestingly at one point I became a little frustrated as of the young guys said, “Well, you’re the politician.” I thought, “You’ll do alright, you’ll be at the NFF in the not too distant future I suspect.” It caused me to take a little poll of my own and I asked the audience about climate change, and I asked, “The climate is changing. There’s no doubt about it. It’s changing in erratic ways, but some people say it’s just a part of a natural cycle. We’ve had the Federation Drought, the Millennium Drought, we’ve had wild weather before. But, some people think that it’s more than that and we’re all together making a contribution which is causing adverse outcomes.” So I asked them to raise their hands if they thought it was the latter – that we were making a contribution. To my surprise I saw a sea of hands.

Then I asked whether they believed we could do something about it by, for example, taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emission and only about four hands went up. And then a young woman saved me, she yelled out “not alone.” I thought that was an interesting interjection. So I rephrased the question, “Do you think that acting together as an international community we can make a difference?” And again, I saw a sea of hands.

I was encouraged by that simply because we have to act on the precautionary principle, we have to do something now. I do believe we can act in a way that positively impacts on the agriculture sector.

I remain convinced a political settlement is needed to resolve what has been a two-decade long point of disagreement accompanied by political point-scoring. This debate has been going on the whole time I’ve been here, and I think it’s time to put the weapons down and talk about what we need to do to resolve the issue.

As we meet – and for every year for the last four years – greenhouse gas emissions have been rising. To me that is unacceptable, and I think that would be unacceptable to our young people. It surely isn’t too hard to make some gains, to start reducing emissions instead of allowing them to continue to rise. We have to turn that around and we can’t afford to wait three more years.

I know the Prime Minister says he’s on track to meet his target of 28 per cent. It  simply is not true and we need to call it out.

There are organisations beyond the political parties that can play a role here. I suspect Scott Morrison doesn’t listen to me all that much.

But I think your organisation can have real influence. I think you’ve got to appeal to the Government to take a different path, to become serious about not only reducing emissions, but giving you a better opportunity to participate  in the carbon market. 

As you’ve been saying: place a long-term focus on resilience. I’d like to do that with you, as modestly as I can as a member of Her Majesty’s opposition. Drought is not the only challenge we face together: There’s also the vagaries of agricultural export markets and our heavy exposure to them; growing global competition in our key export markets; commodity price-falls over time, in real terms; increasing foreign investment uncertainties; disruption,such as rising community concern about the treatment of animals and the health of Australia’s natural environment.  

There are plenty of challenges out there, but plenty of opportunities. We are still the producers of the cleanest, safest and highest quality product in the world. Our proximity to Asia is still an advantage to us, we have enormous opportunity. But we also live on the driest inhabited continent in the world and we have limited quality soil resources. 

There’s plenty of work to do. I believe the NFF is well-placed to further insert itself in this debate; to persuade the Government that we need to turn emissions around and we need to do it now. I also congratulate the NFF for pushing for a comprehensive, national agriculture policy in which Government leadership was been underwhelming.

I’m looking forward to joining you for your Birthday celebrations tonight.

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  • Joel Fitzgibbon
    published this page in Media 2019-10-15 12:36:57 +1100