Speech by Ms Fiona Simson, President, National Farmers’ Federation
National Press Club, Canberra
14 July 2020
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Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be here in PERSON!
It is my first significant trip away from our family’s property near Premer on the Liverpool Plains in four months. I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people.
I would also like to acknowledge:
- National Press Club President, Sabra Lane.
- National Press Club Directors
- Club CEO Maurice Reily
- NFF CEO Tony Mahar.
- Ladies and gentlemen.
The last time I stood at this lectern was in August 2018. I think it’s fair to say there was a degree of positivity in the air. The NFF was about to launch our bold vision for agriculture’s long-term growth. A plan for the sector to become Australia’s next $100 billion industry.
Our plan, the 2030 Roadmap and the priorities within, earned the support of the Prime Minister and Government; the Opposition, farmers and industry. If only …. we’d had a crystal ball to see what was ahead of us. Unprecedented drought – the worst in living memory; devastating floods in central Queensland and then ….. then a summer of bushfires, the horror of which will be etched in the memory of all Australians for a lifetime.
Many described the events as biblical. There were in fact locust plagues in Western NSW. And, who could have predicted what would happen next? Almost in sync with the beginning of what were for many, drought-breaking rains, came COVID-19.
A global health pandemic with economic repercussions so deep, that we’re yet to fully realise their true impact.
In the very early days of the nation’s response, agriculture and its supply chain were deemed an ‘essential service’. The NFF and our members, by working with Government and through the National Cabinet, ensured abbatoirs, saleyards, wool auctions, shearing sheds and packing plants remained in operation.
The Federal Government agreed to extend the visas of foreign workers already in the country and the movement of agricultural transport across state borders was permitted. The urgency with which these measures were put in place to shield agriculture from the COVID-19 shutdown demonstrated the value of our industry to Australia.
It was one of the many positive outcomes of National Cabinet and an example of what can be achieved when the States and Commonwealth work together in a bona fide collegiate and collaborative manner. There was a recognition from the Prime Minister down, of the importance of food and fibre production to our nation’s overall prosperity.
With so many industries brought to their knees – tourism, hospitality, retail – agriculture was one industry that could and must keep on keeping on. Today, we are emerging from the challenges of drought, floods and bushfires poised for growth.
It is always fraught to say agriculture overall is doing well. Across this vast brown land, there remain areas challenged by drought – parts of central Queensland, SA’s pastoral regions, and just south of here, the Monaro I know remain desperately dry. Parts of the WA wheatbelt are still waiting for adequate opening rains.
But in many regions winter crops are emerging with vigour and sheep and cattle once again have their heads down in plentiful pastures. Compared to our position in January, arguably as an industry we are in better shape.
AN EYE TO RECOVERY
The situation in Victoria remains worrying. We are certainly not done with this pandemic. But, as we dare to contemplate better times, agriculture is ready to put the foot down and accelerate a return to the economic prosperity we as Australians have become so accustomed to.
Agriculture’s $100 billion vision is now not only fundamental to the improved fortunes of farmers – it is at the heart of Australia’s recovery. The goal for 2030 remains, but we can’t wait that long.
The plan for agriculture’s growth, that I outlined here in August 2018, has taken on a monumental new level of importance and urgency.
The NFF has put the microscope over our priorities and identified the policy levers, the investments and the innovations which will deliver the highest impact – not just for agriculture but for the country as whole. Put simply: when farmers do well, Australia does well.
These priorities are outlined in NFF’s Get Australia Growing plan, that I launch here today. The key point here is the ideas are achievable and will genuinely stimulate new activity and employment in our sector. Any smart government plan to grow the economy must address these priorities. If ever there was an impetus to supercharge agriculture and regional Australia’s growth – it is now.
At the heart of any plan for growth needs to be our people and communities. Like so many Australians, COVID-19 rendered me home-bound and opened my eyes to a new way of working (and doing TV interviews) from the home office, from the kitchen bench, from my veranda.
The wonders of technologies like Zoom, a reliable internet connection and a good set of headphones has demonstrated that business really can be done from almost anywhere … and for many has put that dream of a tree change in reach.
More and more families and businesses can attest to the financial and lifestyle benefits of regional living – especially as our capital cities become less attractive due to congestion and costs of living.
Businesses like Pointer Remote Roles based near Wagga, founded by AgriFutures Rural Women of the Year Jo Palmer. Jo matches country-based professionals with work-from-home roles.
And who can forget the juggernaut Buy from The Bush movement that delivered straight to our Instagram feed savvy businesses (mostly all run by women, might I add) all with their heart and base in rural Australia.
According to the Regional Australia Institute, the latest census, in 2016, found the bush attracted 65,204 more people than it lost to our capital cities. Between 2011 and 2016, more than 1.2 million people either moved to regional Australia or moved around regional Australia from one location to another.
We must not squander this momentum to go much further on Australia’s ‘regionalisation’ journey. For too long regional Australians have been victim of empty promises and a lack of commitment from our governments.
There remains a “strategy vacuum” around the public and private investment needed to get our regions humming. The NFF backs the intent behind the Federal Government’s Regional Deals program as the platform to do just this. In fact, I celebrated its announcement on this very platform back in 2018.
But to date, the Program has been disappointing.
Capitalising on environmental and infrastructure advantages, communities must be included in identifying new and nurturing already established industries. Crucially, we must not be blinked by geographic or jurisdictional boundaries.
Best results will be achieved when investments are guided by synergies and opportunities for scale. Like the Canberra Regional Joint Cluster, that takes in 10 local governments spanning the mountains, the sea and the tablelands, with the aim of sharing priorities and collaborating on major projects in the interests of delivering better outcomes for communities.
If the National Cabinet has proven one thing, it’s what can be achieved across borders when there is a shared goal and the requisite will. Today, we set a challenge for the Government: Get the design and delivery of Regional Deals right.
Once this is done, chart a course for a multi-million dollar investment in the delivery of 20 Deals by 2030.
We’re not in the business of picking winners – but regions that come to mind are: the Mid-west and Goldfields in the West; the Limestone Coast in South Australia, Victoria’s Mallee, the Riverina of NSW, the Darling Downs and magnificent central Queensland.
A focus on a renaissance of regional manufacturing must form part of ‘regionalisation’, Regional Deals and the Government’s plan for recovery. COVID-19 brought into sharp focus the risks of our reliance on goods produced overseas – whether it’s face masks, ventilators or crop protection products.
For a long time now, the business case for value adding and processing at home hasn’t stacked up. Late last month, multinational NuFarm, announced the closure of its fungicides and insecticides manufacturing plant in Laverton, struggling with the cost of energy and labour, amongst other things. The herbicide operations are also under serious threat.
Here is an example of what will continue to happen if we don’t take steps to allow businesses to remain competitive. Manufacturing assets commissioned decades ago need updating. These assets produce products that go to the heart of our ability to produce food.
Modern plants are more energy efficient, higher yielding and automated. Capital investment is required to keep these assets in Australia.
To get this right business needs incentives and support to combat unfair and targeted competition from overseas manufacturers and remain in Australia long-term.
Make no mistake – this is not about subsidies it’s about a genuine partnership between all levels of government and business to strengthen our supply chain, build communities and grow the economy in a competitive and market driven approach.
Many Australian-owned, regionally based food factories are using out of date technology that is labour, water and energy intensive. The tide is changing – slowly. New automated technologies and smarter approaches to energy are emerging.
But, an injection of public and private capital to fund the adoption of advanced technology is needed to put viable large-scale manufacturing within reach. This is especially true for the energy sector where plans for technology and innovation need to only to be developed, but to be implemented
True to the entrepreneurial spirit of our farmers, many are already dipping their toe in the water – some have jumped right in! Like Natural Evolution Foods in North Queensland, where banana growers Krista and Rob Watkins, were fed up with the wastage of out-of-spec fruit.
Krista’s idea to turn green bananas into flour for baking and powder for smoothies has put their value- added products on the shelves of Woolworths and through their online platform, Natural Evolution now has customers across the world.
The Watkins took a leap of faith and installed the world’s first and only pharmaceutical grade banana flour plant – on their farm, right alongside where the bananas are grown.
They’ve since added banana ointment to their product range and are turning what would be other wasted products, such as broccoli, into flour. They also distil sweet potato vodka!
They now employ 10 locals. We need more of this. With the COVID-19 hospitality shutdowns, the Watkins were contacted by growers from across Australia, looking for a new purpose for their surplus produce.
And how about Little Big Dairy in Dubbo, from my neck of the woods, where the Chesworth family’s Holstein cows produce 8 million litres of milk each year. This single source milk is processed and bottled on farm and shipped to supermarkets, cafes and even direct to homes across NSW and the ACT.
I always feel a sense of pride when my Canberra coffee is made on Little Big Dairy milk. Just last week, our partner Coles, provided a business acceleration grant to Albury-based business, Plastic Forest who produce fence posts from, of all things – silage wrap and other agricultural plastic waste.
These fence posts are now forming part of the bushfire recovery effort! There is great potential for smart regional specialisation and a dynamic future Australian agrifood industry based on value adding.
Government across all tiers can play a key role in creating more favourable conditions for this investment.
The resilience and self-sufficiency of the agrifood sector hinges on taking a whole of system approach – suppliers of inputs, freight providers, growers, and processors, must all work together with government to chart the way forward.
A properly resourced plan to improve the competitive environment for local manufacturers – particularly in regional Australia – must form part of our COVID recovery.
Another key area of concern in the ag sector and rural and regional Australia is labour availability. Research shows that more than 40% of farmers experience labour shortages during peak times such as harvest.
COVID-19 has heightened the angst for growers, many who depend on foreign workers – in particular backpackers, to get the job done
The complexity of the Australian industrial relations systems is one of the chief reasons the cost of labour for Australian farmers is among the highest in the world.
Wages account for more than 60% of total production costs, farmers and farm workers need an industrial relations system which is both fair and easy to implement.
The NFF is pleased to be a part of one of 5 working groups led by the Attorney General, designed to streamline and simplify Australia’s IR systems.
The impact of IR reform as an COVID-19 economic stimulus can’t be underestimated and what farmers are demanding of Government today is the simplifying and streamlining Australia’s industrial relations system.
This disruption to our economy must be seen as a chance to drive reform and allow business to be competitive on a global stage.
The link to a global stage is critical for agriculture. As a sector that is and always will be reliant on global demand for our food and fibre – we remain proud that Australia’s commodity exports helped stave off a recession during the Global Financial Crisis.
So too will our exports be key to Australia’s COVID-19 recovery.
As an industry that exports 75% of what we produce, material growth in agriculture will always require an expansion of international trade. COVID-19 has presented challenges – borne by geo-politics and the plain logistics of getting produce to market.
More than $389 million is estimated to have been wiped off the bottom line of our luxury seafood exports to China in the opening weeks of the pandemic.
The recently burgeoning wool market, is today at a three-year low. During such uncertain times, it’s normal to look inward, and protect those things closest to us.
But this should not be confused with, nor morph into, protectionism.
We must remain being a strong global citizen and at the same time grow our international relationships with China and other countries to overcome inevitable differences that occur in the geo-political arena.
We’re looking forward to realising the fruits of the newly-minted Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
Just last month, farmers welcomed the beginning of negotiations towards a UK-Australia FTA and in particular Minister Birmingham’s singling out of agriculture as a key priority. We expect Government to pursue an ambitious EU-AUS trade deal that provides meaningful access for Australian agricultural products.
Farmers manage 51% of the Australian landscape – every day we create positive environmental outcomes on behalf of all Australians.
But for too long draconian and complex environmental regulation has shackled farm businesses.
Farmers tell us, as does the Craik Review of the EPBC Act, that there needs to be a transformation of the interaction between food and fibre production and biodiversity management.
The NFF wants to see farmers financially rewarded and incentivised for best practice stewardship, Dr Craik recommended that a $1 billion fund would be a good start.
Australian farmers are already leading the world in reducing carbon emissions. Our red meat sector has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. To measure agriculture’s impact and that of other industries, we call on the Government to be inclusive and transparent with the data used to set national emissions reduction targets.
And we need better baseline information on climate change, our $100B Roadmap seeks industry trajectories by 2025.
We have an aspiration to be trending toward carbon neutrality by 2030 and we are working with a range of research providers to coordinate a synthesised set of methodologies for all sectors to help achieve this.
Agriculture is part of the solution and NFF is committed to represent farmers in this debate.
– Murray Darling Basin
Let me move to another contentious issue farmers are dealing with – More than half of Australia’s irrigated agriculture is in the Murray Darling Basin.
Right now, farmers and communities up and down the Basin are hurting – hurt perpetuated by a lack of leadership from Basin Governments.
My message here today is clear and strong – Ministers must put politics aside, stop stalling and implement a swathe of recommended changes to ensure the Plan delivers for farmers, communities and the environment.
The monumental failure to date, on this shows contempt for the people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy river system and a high-functioning Plan.
I simply can’t stand here and talk about growing rural and regional Australia while sitting by and watch families, businesses and communities be torn apart by Government inaction.
Enough is enough – no more reports, no more inquiries – governments need to stop pointing the finger at each other and fix the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Ladies and gentlemen, farmers are experts at working at home.
We’ve been getting on with the job, producing the food Australians rely on, keeping regional Aussies in jobs and batting above our average in terms of economic contribution.
We’re no stranger to digging in late in the innings when the chips are down. But, to continue the cricket analogy, we’re not content to be the night watchman.
We don’t need permission to hit it out of the park, but we do need the right policy settings and private and public investments, to help us do it. The Get Australia Growing document outlines the farm sector’s plan for an accelerated recovery.
These opportunities have been chosen for their capacity to provide a rapid boost to a farm sector recovering from drought, fires and flood, as well as the impacts of COVID-19.
Australia is the envy of the world in how we managed the COVID-19 health crisis, and we’re well placed to lead the world in the economic recovery also.
And, this recovery must start in the bush. Thank you for your time today.
Community & Engagement Officer
(02) 6269 5656