The Abbott Government’s Agriculture White Paper has disappeared without a trace.  People everywhere have been left with an empty feeling.

There was no big picture, no vision and no strategic plan.  No objectives, no goals.

It’s no wonder agriculture industry leaders often say to me privately that we only secure real reform in the sector when Labor is in power. 

It’s true.  It’s true largely because unlike the Liberal and National coalition, we don’t dance to the tune of populism. 

Let me remind you of some examples of those Labor reforms.

• We undertook the hard economic reforms which removed the subsidies and protections in agriculture which were holding the sector back – no one would now advocate the return to those practices – today, our international competiveness would otherwise be non-existent’.

• We reformed all our Statutory Marketing Authorities, increased their funding, and put them on a sustainable trajectory.

• We established the research and development corporation model and established the Rural Industries RDC.  Our R&D model is still considered world’s best.

• We took the hard but necessary decisions in dairy - rendering the sector much better placed to capitalise on the opportunities in Asia today.

• We established fisheries management plans for all Commonwealth and joint fisheries.

• We created Farmsafe and established rural counselling services.

• We created one national uniform system for the regulation of farm chemicals and created the new national regulator – the APVMA.

• We established the Bureau of Rural Science.

• We signed major agriculture cooperation agreements with China and the USSR.

• We strongly backed the Cairns Group on freer agricultural trade.

• We set up Royal Commission into Grain handling, transport and storage.

• We introduced Landcare.

More recently in Government we:

• Cleaned up after John Howard’s “wheat-for-weapons” debacle and further reformed the sector;

• Provided farmers with the opportunity to participate in the carbon market to their great advantage;

• Funded research into new technologies and practices for land managers;

• Established Caring for Our Country;

• Expanded the Rural Financial Counselling service;

• Provided grants for farmers seeking to be more energy efficient;

• Established the world best live animal export assurance system, ESCAS;

• Established Reef Rescue - helping famers reduce their impact on our iconic Great Barrier Reef; and,

• Produced the National Food Plan, the Asia Century White Paper and the Feeding the Future reports – beginning the process of readying us for the Asia “dining boom”.

While in regional policy we:

• Appointed the first Regional Australia Minister;

• Established Regional Development Australia and its local RDA’s;

• Established the Regional Australia Institute;

• Established Infrastructure Australia;

• Created a new partnership with regional and rural councils;

• Spent more money on regional roads than ever before and laid the path for initiatives like the Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail project; and,

• Began to close the digital divide by building the National Broadband Network.

Despite all the talk of opportunities with a “dining boom”, Australia’s agriculture sector is losing global market share and productivity is in decline.  We need high level strategic guidance that sets market based pricing laws, key goals and objectives so we know where we are headed and are certain of the Government’s priorities.

Furthermore, the Abbott Government has no credible plan to deal with changing climatic condition and natural resource depletion.  All the evidence suggests that innovation adoption is in decline.  Our efforts on traceability – key to protecting our reputation as a provider of clean, green, safe and high quality product – is still stuck in the twentieth century.

I said post the last election that I wanted to take agriculture out of the short electoral cycle and give it some long term planning.  But when the Government lacks strategic vision and shies away from tackling reform it is very hard to maintain that bipartisan approach. 

It is my job as the Shadow to hold the Abbott Government to account, to criticise where criticism is justified, which unfortunately I have had to do in number of policy areas. But I am hopeful that tomorrow is another day and that it might bring something different.  I have indicated in the past that if the Government wants to work with the Opposition we have the runs on the board, and are keen to improve this White Paper and to turn it into a strategic document which is what the sector needs and was expecting.

This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday, 24 August 2015.

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