19 Dec 2013

Comment on Coalition Agriculture White Paper

by Karen Evans-Cullen, Adam Foreman

The release of the terms of reference for an Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper comes at an interesting time for the sector.

The Minister for Agriculture, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, announced last week the terms of reference for an Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper. The goal of the paper is stated to be to "generate jobs, impact farmgate returns, investment and economic growth" in agriculture.

The paper, to be released in late 2014, will provide the Government with an opportunity to engage and consult with agricultural industries and outline its own policy for the development of this sector. Agricultural exports have been identified by the Liberal Party as one of the pillars of its so-called "5-Pillar economy" policy intended to diversify the Australian economy away from its reliance on mining exports.

However, the announcement has been very much overshadowed by the Government's rejection of Archer Daniel Midland's proposed acquisition of Graincorp on 2 December as being contrary to the national interest.

That rejection highlighted for many the tension between the Government's objective, highlighted in these terms of reference, of encouraging investment in the industry to drive innovation and competitiveness and the resistance within some parts of the community to foreign investment in this industry and the structural changes required to create a more efficient market structure.

The Government would no doubt like to use this opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to welcoming foreign investment in this industry and to demonstrate that, despite the rejection of the Graincorp acquisition, Australia really is "open for business". But it may also provide a voice for many to express their concerns through the public consultation process and only serve to highlight the divisions within the community around some of these issues.

Interestingly, the terms of reference cover much of the same ground as the Labor Government's comprehensive National Food Plan released earlier this year. That paper undertook an extensive review of all elements of food production, supply education and marketing. One of the goals which that paper outlined was to increase agricultural productivity by 30% by 2025, including by actively encouraging both domestic and foreign investment in the food industry.

Evidence before a Senate Estimates hearing last month suggest that the initiatives arising out of the National Food Plan are on hold pending the development of the Government's own Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper.

It would be a shame if the actions arising out of that paper are ultimately not pursued at a time where it appears most commentators agree that there are enormous opportunities for agribusiness with the right policy settings and direction.

While consultation with industry is generally to be welcomed, there are now a number of State and Territory food and agribusiness policies being developed, in addition to the National Food Plan and the Government's own "2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia".

It seems there is now a need to pull together these different policies as quickly and efficiently as possible into concrete policies and actions so that positive steps can be taken to take advantage of the opportunities in this sector before they pass.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.