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Farmers seeing red over red tape

Red tape is often the topic of political chest beating, but rarely do we see apolitical efforts to understand the detail of an industry’s regulatory woes.

That’s why the farm sector was chuffed when the Treasurer directed the Productivity Commission to undertake an inquiry into ‘regulation of the Australian agricultural sector’ in 2015.

After much anticipation, the fruits of that inquiry were released this week: 717 pages detailing (in their words) the ‘vast and complex array’ of regulations each farm business is expected to comply with.

We weren’t surprised by the finding that regulation amounts to a ‘substantial burden’ on farm businesses and the broader supply chain, but we still shake our head at some of the specifics – like dust limits which are lower than the ambient dust levels in the bush; or environmental laws which focus on single trees at the expense of entire landscapes.

Every farmer you speak to can provide you with a handful of these anecdotes. Rules invented by someone probably with the right intention but with no practical grasp of life on the land – aiming to please someone in the inner city, without even an afterthought for the impact on farmers in Renmark or Roma.

All but a small portion of farm businesses are still family held, which creates huge social, environmental and economic benefits. But the smaller scale of businesses means that compliance costs weigh more heavily, compared with industries where company sizes are larger and room for overheads more generous.

Our members consistently say they are spending more and more time in the office, and less time out in the paddock actually getting on with the business of food and fibre production. The repercussions of this at a business level are tangible, and it’s a growing source of frustration.

With it becoming increasingly clear that farming is a big part of Australia’s economic future, it couldn’t be a better time to let us get on with it
Tony Mahar, Chief Executive, National Farmers' Federation

Australia’s agricultural exports are becoming hot property globally – pushing farm incomes to 20 year highs, and industry earnings to a record $60 billion. This is part of a trend which will see agriculture continue to grow to become our next $100 billion industry, cementing it further as a key plank of the Australian economy.

If there was ever a time for government to get out of agriculture’s way, it’s now. But as with all industries, this growth story can be too easily curtailed by government interference, particularly in the form of inconsistent and unnecessary red tape.

That’s why it is so important that all governments sit up and take note of the Productivity Commission’s advice. The report provides a playbook for a sector badly in need of less intervention, and there are elements to be enacted by all three tiers of government.

Chief among the recommendations is the need for a more sensible approach to native vegetation and biodiversity regulation. Farmers are the most important asset we have in protecting our environment, yet for too many years they’ve been sidelined by complex, overlapping and illogical (or is it ideological?) regulation. Just this week we’ve been highlighting a plan by the Wilderness Society to spy on farmers’ homes and businesses in an attempt to paint them as environmental vandals. This is made possible by an uneven playing field where farmers are regulated to the wall, while activists can seemingly do as they please.

The Commission also nails heavy vehicle regulation. Too many cooks in the regulatory kitchen have been steadily closing down access to more and more rural roads for heavy vehicles – with a perverse and inefficient outcome of having a multitude of light truck movements (unsuccessfully) taking their place. Without some consistency and evidence-based decision making this will only get worse.

Nowhere has reason been abandoned more pointedly than in the regulation of farm chemicals and genetic technologies. The Commission is scathing of states which continue to place moratoria on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), despite the Australian Gene Technology Regulator deeming them safe. It also said the Commonwealth should be making better use of overseas data for chemical approvals, rather than having companies repeat the whole process here.

Agriculture is a technology-hungry industry, and we can’t have political expedience place a handbrake on the advances we need to feed a growing global population.

As is always the way, there are elements where the Commission has come in a bit strong – calling for new  animal welfare bureaucracies and abandonment of industry marketing structures – but overall, a government looking to show it has a plan to grow the economy (particularly one that is primed to take a huge leap forward and by the way is also based outside the major capitals) could do much worse than to pick up this checklist and make a start.

With it becoming increasingly clear that farming is a big part of Australia’s economic future, it couldn’t be a better time to let us get on with it.

An except of this blog was published in the Australian Financial Review on 31 March 2017.

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    Finally the truth of the micro management that farmers are having to put up with from government department regulators. So much wasted time and money on crap. Many wasted hours by farm groups trying to get moderised regulations to no avail. The divide between government/their departments and the agriculture sector is an endless black hole.

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