The following op-ed first appeared on Farm Online on 6 May, 2020:
Regional Australia is well placed to be the engine that powers Australia’s COVID-19 recovery. The bush has done this before, with strong exports helping keep recession at bay during the Global Financial Crisis.
And, after a challenging period of drought, bushfires and floods, widespread rainfall has seen the fortunes of farmers begin to improve. Agriculture is ready and raring to grow.
As we dare to cast an eye to the world post-COVID-19, now is the opportune time to consider the changes agriculture and regional Australia needs to best contribute to the recovery task.
As our nation faces the most challenging economic conditions in decades, there isn’t time to waste. It’s time for pragmatic impactful interventions to get agriculture purring once again. It is time to stop talking about significant reform and simply get on with it.
Environmental regulation is one example. Short-sighted legislation which has for years impeded sustainable land management must make way for a system which rewards farmers for positive environmental outcomes linked to profitability and productivity.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan must be fixed. Governments must act on the series of reviews and recommendations which have been so far been tossed to the ‘too hard basket’.
Red tape which continues to stifle the competitiveness of our freight lines could be removed with the press of a button, injecting billions of lost GDP back into an anemic economy.
We must do more to unlock labour sources. Agriculture draws on a combination of local and foreign workers. However, even with the two cohorts, many farmers say their productivity growth is constrained by a lack of workers. A situation that can’t continue when millions of Aussies now find themselves unemployed.
These reforms and others would without a doubt turbo charge Australia’s COVID-19 recovery. Each dollar agriculture generates, multiplies as it permeates through regional economies and our cities.
As farmers continue their own recovery process from for many, what was an incredibly tough few years, they need cash in the pockets to invest in the season ahead. For this reason, Federal Government must to ensure the stimulus is reaching farm businesses as a priority.
The COVID-19 National Cabinet could play an important role in advocating reforms which have been ignored for decades, and which has seen rural and regional Australia suffer as a result.
An obvious opportunity is the better coordination of the regional growth agenda between federal, state, and local governments.
The NFF supports the Federal Government’s Regional Deals program – taking a bottom-up approach to capitalise on the unique strength’s particular regions. It needs bona-fide commitment and leadership from all tiers of Government.
Of course, as an industry that exports about two-thirds of what we produce, our reform agenda must extend to aiding activities outside our borders. Australian farmers compete in a global market which is fundamentally unfair. Recent analysis by AgriFutures found that the subsidises foreign governments extended their farmers costs our farmers 15 per cent a year in lost earnings, or 29 per cent of our export dollars.
The Australian Government must take the opportunity when negotiating trade deals with the European Union, the United Kingdom and others to address trade distortions.
The National Farmers’ Federation has a goal for Australia to achieve $100 billion in annual farm income by 2030 – about a 60 per cent increase on today.
It’s always been an ambitious target – it’s considerably more so now.
Regardless, we’re sticking to it. There’s arguably never been a more important time for agriculture to realise its growth potential.
Fiona Simson is President of the National Farmers Federation and farmer from the NSW Liverpool Plains.