ADDRESS TO NORTHERN TERRITORY CATTLEMEN’S ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE
STRATEGIC THINKING FOR AUSTRALIAN AGRICULTURE
DARWIN CONVENTION CENTRE
FRIDAY 27 MARCH 2015
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My 19 years in Federal Parliament have taught me many things:
• to watch my diet;
• to watch my alcohol consumption; and
• not to mess with a Northern Territory cattleman, or cattlewoman for that matter!
The last is one I remind my colleagues of on a regular basis.
It’s one I learned in large part, during the 2011 suspension of the live trade sector.
I’ve expressed many times in the past my regret that so many people were so adversely affected by those events and I do so again today.
The positive I take from those events is that ESCAS – the animal welfare system which now protects the sector from future shocks - is helping us open new markets, and raising the standards of other exporting countries.
There are many other lessons I’ve learned over the course of my lengthy political life.
Four stand out.
The first is that the development and successful prosecution of good policy should always be our first priority.
The second is that getting the politics right does matter because most big reforms take time and therefore, political longevity does count.
The third lesson is that lessons 1 and 2 should teach us that the power of persuasion and winning bipartisanship provide the easiest path to policy implementation success.
John Howard, for example, backed many of economic reforms of the Hawke Government and in doing so, helped to deliver the right outcomes for the country like the floating of our exchange rate which at the time faced resistance within the Treasury itself.
The fourth most important lesson I’ve learned is that good policy is almost always the manifestation of 5 things:
1. hard work;
2. extensive consultation;
3. thorough research;
4. long-term thinking and vision; and
5. an adherence to one’s values and principles.
Let me expand on each.
The first, hard work is important, but it speaks for itself.
The second, consultation, is critical. Particularly with the sector or community group which stands to be the most affected by the policy proposal.
Sure, sometimes entrenched thinking and sectoral politics can be hurdles but that’s where good research and evidence-based persuasion come in.
So the third is research. It’s what drives evidence-based policy and the power to persuade and take people with you.
Public policy must be founded in fact and when it is, a good political outcome is usually assured.
The fourth, long term thinking, planning and vision is also crucial – public policy is like a game of chess, every move has consequences down the track.
The fifth is values and principles. If a policy maker is not sticking like glue to his or her values and principles, then they may as well give the game away.
But what does all this mean to you?
It matters because what I’ve said best describes my approach. I’ve learnt the lessons.
In other words, I want to work with you and others in ensuring you - and Northern Australia more generally - reach your full potential.
And your potential is very significant.
I believe we all agree that nothing will be more important to further economic success in the North than sustainable profitability in agriculture.
It is important now, and it will be important in 10, 20, 30 and 40 years’ time. Indeed, well beyond then.
When I was the Defence Minister I had the honour and privilege of leading the development of a Defence White Paper.
The first thing I was determined to do was to put some stability, discipline and certainty into defence planning by insisting that in future, White Papers should be produced every five years, rather than whenever it politically suited the government of the day.
It’s past time we brought a similar disciplined process to agriculture policy.
The Americans do it, the Chinese do it and it would make sense for us to do it too.
In defence policy we begin with values and principles – our role as a responsible global citizen, our commitment to peace, the right to self-defence, the right to protect, and the responsible use of force.
We then made an assessment of the geopolitical situation both in our region and beyond. We ask ourselves where instability is most likely to occur and where threats to our own security might emerge.
We then use that information to determine the size, shape and weight of our Defence Force. Defence boffins call it “strategic guidance”.
This is what we need in Australian agriculture and in Northern Australia policy more generally – high level strategic guidance and planning.
We surely know what we want in agriculture:
1. sustainable profitability;
2. food security;
3. food affordability; and
4. global food adequacy.
But we don’t have an over-arching plan to get us there.
Now if Barnaby Joyce was here he’d no doubt shout: “Bingo - I’m doing just that through my Agriculture White Paper!”
I hope that is true. But in addition to being seemingly on the never-never – just like the Northern Australia White Paper - I hold well-founded fears that the Government’s Agriculture White Paper will be anything but a discipline-imposing, goal setting, strategic document.
Rather, I fear it will be a political document and a document of compromise.
A document full of old ideas not new ideas.
A list of spending promises which may or may not ever be delivered.
In the current economic environment, beware of politicians making big spending promises – they are either gilding the lily or setting themselves up for failure.
Documents which state the obvious about our current circumstances, identify future infrastructure projects we already knew about and then raise unrealistic expectations about funding support, serve no real purpose.
Let me put my money where my mouth is by setting out what I would do.
The strategic assessment should not be difficult.
Our strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities are well known.
On the positive side:
1. the global food demand boom;
2. our clean, green, safe image and reputation;
3. our proximity to Asian demand;
4. our experience, knowledge and skills; and
5. our capacity for innovation.
On the flip-side is:
1. our limited natural resources and our changing climate;
2. relatively high cost structures and cheap import competition;
3. a too often uneven international playing field;
4. too often old or under-developed supply chain infrastructure; and
5. a shortage of investment capital.
Our threats come in many forms – pests and disease, dumping, and an unanticipated return to global protectionism are amongst them.
Maybe more worrying: complacency and a lack of collaboration – between governments and also between governments, industry and investors.
But identifying the strategic environment is one thing. How you turn that knowledge into strategic guidance is a far more complex challenge.
This is the real work of a White Paper.
The National Farmers Federation had a pretty good go at it last year with its Blueprint for Australian Agriculture.
Prior to that, Labor’s National Food Plan and the Asia Century White Paper had set the ball rolling.
It’s past time we took the next steps towards a comprehensive high-level agriculture policy.
Just as government ministers must decide what our Defence posture should look like and how much money should be spent where – so too must those who lead Agriculture in government.
And just like in the Defence space, it will take the coordinated efforts of many Ministers in different but relevant portfolios – Treasury, the Environment, Trade and Transport to name a few.
Of course it’s the private sector not government which creates wealth.
The role for government should be to provide high-level strategic guidance backed by market-based incentive pathways which send the right signals to investors.
Australia has limited natural resources and limited domestic capital. We need to ensure that those limited natural resources are directed to the areas which produce the greatest return for investors and that investors clearly understand the government’s priorities and therefore, where it stands ready to provide the greatest level of encouragement.
Remember, in the years immediately ahead, government spending will be constrained by the global economic environment.
But government has the capacity to attract investment to areas where we need it most, and where the nation secures the greatest return.
It must be able to tell investors first: “we are open for business” and second: “we have a long-term strategic plan which both helps you make a quid while at the same time enriches our nation”.
Now some of you will be thinking: “that all sounds fine but it’s all motherhood”.
I accept that.
So let me make two points.
First, I ask you to turn you attention to New Zealand where successive governments have set down for themselves key objectives and goals, and are making significant investments in research and development and creating national industry champions.
Second, and some distance out from an election, let me set down what should be the key foundations for the development of an agriculture policy guidance document.
I submit five pillars from which to build an agriculture policy.
The first is human capital – the people and skills we will need to succeed.
The second is financial capital – the money we need to fulfil our ambitions.
The third is natural resource capital – managing our limited natural resources in a productive and sustainable way.
The fourth is physical capital – the infrastructure we need.
The fifth is intellectual capital – the product of science and our research and development extension efforts.
Between now and the election I will have more to say on these five pillars.
In the meantime, I look forward to working with you and other stakeholders.
Collaboration, strategic thinking and the setting of realistic goals - that’s what will make Northern Australia great.