Supercharge ag and avoid recession with 'achievable' policy tweaks: National Farmers Federation

DOABLE: Fiona Simson said the policy tweaks and priorities NFF put forward were all achievable, and would genuinely stimulate both the ag sector and the national economy.
DOABLE: Fiona Simson said the policy tweaks and priorities NFF put forward were all achievable, and would genuinely stimulate both the ag sector and the national economy.

AUSTRALIA can stave off a recession by supercharging its agriculture sector with a few "achievable" priorities and policy tweaks, the National Farmers' Federation says.

The peak agricultural body revealed its vision to start the COVID-19 economic recovery in the bush, with a focus on cutting red tape for farm businesses, increasing regional manufacturing, acting on environmental reforms and fixing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP).

NFF president Fiona Simson said the priorities and policy changes her organisation was pushing for would benefit not just agriculture, but the country as a whole.

"Put simply, when farmers do well, Australia does well," Ms Simson said, in a National Press Club address.

"The key point here is the ideas are achievable and will genuinely stimulate new activity and employment in our sector."

The cost and scarcity of labour has become a barrier for many farm businesses, and NFF called for a programs to attract workers displaced by COVID into farm work and establish a dedicated agricultural visa.

"COVID-19 has heightened the angst for growers, many who depend on foreign workers - in particular backpackers, to get the job done," Ms Simson said.

"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 per cent of total production costs, farmers and farm workers need an industrial relations system which is both fair and easy to implement."

The NFF is also lobbying for a "renaissance of regional manufacturing", after the pandemic highlighted the nation's reliance on goods produced overseas.

Ms Simson pointed to NuFarm closing its fungicides and insecticides manufacturing plant in Laverton last month, after struggling with the cost of energy and labour.

"Here is an example of what will continue to happen if we don't take steps to allow businesses to remain competitive," she said.

"Capital investment is required to keep these assets in Australia."

Ms Simson said a properly resourced plan to improve the competitive environment for local manufacturers - particularly in regional Australia - must form part of the COVID recovery.

"To get this right business needs incentives and support to combat unfair competition from overseas formulators and remain in Australia long-term," she said.

"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."

Another hurdle the ag sector faced were the "draconian and complex environmental regulation", which had "shackled farm businesses". Ms Simson said government action to reform the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was long overdue.

"Farmers manage 51 per cent of the Australian landscape - every day we create positive environmental outcomes on behalf of all Australians," she said.

"The NFF wants to see farmers financially rewarded and incentivised for best practice stewardship - Dr Craik recommended that a $1 billion [biodiversity stewardship] fund would be a good start."

Ms Simson said the government's inaction on the MDBP was tearing apart families, businesses and communities

"Enough is enough - no more reports, no more inquiries - governments need to stop pointing the finger at each other and fix the MDBP," she said.

"Right now, farmers and communities up and down the Basin are hurting - hurt perpetuated by a lack of leadership from Basin governments.

"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."

NFF said cutting red tape for farm businesses would have an immediate impact and specifically mentioned reducing the cost burden of export certification, expanding heavy-vehicle freight routes and making drought freight exemptions permanent.

It also called for the growth and protection of overseas markets, including securing a United Kingdom free-trade agreement (FTA) and ensuring the European Union FTA is a good deal - one that doesn't include restrictions surrounding geographical indicators, that would impact products like feta cheese.

The NFF challenged the government to design and delivery 20 Regional Deals - an overarching framework that aligns a whole region's transport, manufacturing, telecommunications, energy generation, education, labour, health and social amenities.

Ms Simson said the agriculture sector was used to "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," she said. "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."

This story Supercharge ag and avoid recession with 'achievable' policy tweaks first appeared on Farm Online.