Speech - Moving with consumer preferences - A sustainably profitable food sector - Australian Lot Feeders' Association Beefex 2018 Conference

***CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY***

I have been in the agriculture portfolio for five years.

People often ask me why – as if there are more important responsibilities.  I reject that assertion.
 
There is no more important sector than the sector which feeds us, and makes such a valuable contribution to global food security.
 
Just as important, I love the portfolio:  it’s interesting; it’s full of interesting people; it is diverse; and it’s full of opportunity.
 
It’s also full of challenges and I love a challenge.  After all, what is the point of being in politics if you are not going to tackle the challenges and make the most of the opportunities?
 
But of course politicians don’t, and can’t do that alone.  It’s the private sector which drives innovation, investment and wealth in any economy.
 
But working with industry, government does have a significant role to play in:

  • Creating the right investment environment;
  • Incentivising investment in research and innovation;
  • Providing a workforce; and
  • Constructing a regulatory environment which protects property rights; protects our natural assets; and provides for fair workplaces while not imposing counter-productive regulatory burdens.

But there are a couple of other important roles for government too:
 
The first is to provide some high level strategic guidance.  That is, letting the market know what its vision is; what its priorities are; and what it’s prepared to do to give industry a pathway to the fulfilment of our joint aspirations.
 
But for five years now the agriculture sector has been most marked by policy inertia.
 
The objectives have been unclear and the focus disproportionately allocated.
 
According to the ABS, 60 per cent of Australia’s farmers have turnovers of less than $200k.  Indeed 31per cent have a turnover of less than $50k. 71per cent  have no employees.
 
For the past five years, these are the business entities the Coalition Government has almost entirely been focused on.
 
Think about that hopeless 2015 Agriculture White Paper:

  • $30 million for insurance advice;
  • $22 million for Farm Household Allowance advice;
  • $11 million for an agriculture ACCC commissioner;
  • $13 million to teach farmers how to form a cooperative; and
  • $250 million worth of concessional loans.

All of those - largely failed - initiatives were designed to win the hearts and minds of the 60 per cent.
 
Month in, month out, Liberal and National MPs rise in the House to declare they are farmers; it’s an attempt to claim only they understand farmers and farming. 
 
Of course, they are themselves, part of the 60 per cent, or more likely, the 31 percent.
 
Each and every one of Australia’s 85,500 farm businesses is important.  And I want to focus on them too.
 
But if given the opportunity to serve as your Minister, I will give at least as much time to thinking about and working with the 20 per cent of firms that are responsible for 80 per cent of our farm output.
 
That’s many of you in this room today.
 
And thinking about your Association and the industry's very good work on animal welfare and sustainability brings me to another role for government: managing rapidly changing consumer expectations and preferences.
 
I was recently having a conversation with a grower about the emerging debate about Glyphosate.
He said:
“We don’t want any knee-jerk reactions”
 
Of course, he was referring to the actions of politicians.  Maybe even Labor politicians?
 
I made the point - he needs to be less concerned about politicians and more focused on consumers.
 
I said the trick to ensuring our farmers have on-going access to the products they need is ensuring the broader community has faith and confidence on the regulator and the regulatory regime.
 
And politicians and industry leaders alike have a role to play in maintaining that confidence.  At the risk of sounding a bit too partisan about it, I have to say the current government is not doing much of a job of it.
 
But my overarching point is that consumers – both domestic and export - will continue to grow more discerning about the food they consume.  They’ll want it clean, safe and high quality as they always have, but increasingly they’ll want reassurance that it’s grown in an environmentally sustainable way and produced in an ethical way.
 
Now the Lot Feeders Association, MLA and the Red Meat Council are all over these growing consumer demands.
 
But is our Government?  I think not!
 
For the food and fibre sector, the worst response from politicians is one which attacks and demonises those who raise environmental and animal welfare concerns and defends the status quo no matter what that looks like.
 
Because the facts are that the status quo does not always look good and consumers are voting with their feet.
 
Rather, the government of the day needs to anticipate the change and work with those in the sector who are not moving sufficiently quickly to accommodate growing opposition to out-dated practices.
 
That’s the best approach for the sector because it helps those lagging, and it prevents the laggers dragging down those who are already accommodating changing community attitudes.
 
And it’s good for the economy because it lifts productivity and increases the value we secure for our allocation and investment in our human, financial and natural resources.
 
So I thank you all for leading the way and being ahead of the game. 
 
Of course there is much more to do and I know you are not standing idle.

  • How do we manage a more challenging climate and potentially, a contracting natural resource base?
  • How do we maximise our research and innovation efforts?
  • How will we make sure you have the feed your feedlots need?
  • How can we secure more premium markets?
  • How do we address our identity crisis on the branding front?
  • How do we deal with our workforce shortage?
  • How do we ensure we have sufficient capital inflows to grow?
  • Are our traceability systems are as strong as they can be – securing our reputation as a provider of clean, green and safe food?
  • How do we get beyond the trade liberalisation headlines and more seriously into the non-tariff barriers standing between us and key markets?
  • How do we accelerate the accreditation of processors for market access purposes?

These are the issues I want to work on with you.
 
They are critical to securing our path to greater sustainable profitability.
 
I wish you all the very best.


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