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2016: farm policy in review

The year of 2016 has served up a mixed bag for Australian agriculture. Drought to flooding rains, an ongoing dairy price crisis, disappointing results for wheat and boom prices for beef, wool, pulses and other commodities.

All this during the hurly burly of a Federal Election. To round out 2016 the National Farmers' Federation looks back at the highs and the lows of the year and the issues to watch in 2017.

The Highs

 1. Triple trade somersault

The NFF played a key role in providing the policy grunt for the government to successfully free trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Korea and Japan.  The end result was big gains across the board for agriculture.

2. Fair play in business – the ‘Effects Test’

The NFF helped lead the campaign to have an ‘effects test’ included in Section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 - a critical reform that will give large corporations pause when developing market strategies designed to crimp the margins of Australian farm businesses.

3. A free (and fair) range definition

The NSW Farmers Association, State and Federal Consumer Affairs Ministers and the NFF agreed to a clear definition of free range eggs to provide transparency and certainty to farmers, retailers and consumers.

4.     Foreign Investment Screening Thresholds amended

Amended thresholds, $15 million (cumulative) for agricultural land and $55 million for agribusiness were secured to provide greater scrutiny of inbound investment in the sector.

The NFF also advocated for changes to the Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land.  From 2017, foreign owned water rights will now also need to be registered.  

5.     Drought deal

A new deal secured by the NFF extends the benefit of concessional loans to irrigation businesses and farms in areas where official rainfall records are limited.

6.     A climate of incremental change

While 2017 will be the year of Climate Policy Review, 2016 saw some big steps towards universal recognition of the NFF’s policy agenda.

  • The Climate Change Authority – the independent statutory authority that advises the Government – reflected the NFF’s priorities in its review of climate policies.  
  • Following a concerted effort by the Australian Forest Products Association –with the support of NFF – it looks very likely that in 2017 carbon sequestration in timber plantations will finally be able to participate in the Emissions Reduction Fund.

7.     Murray-Darling Basin Plan progress

The implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan remains a hard grind, despite the following clear wins for the farming sector.

  • Basin Governments committed to extending the time to develop projects that would reduce the volume of water required to be recovered from production for the environment.
  • The NFF negotiated changes that mean that the MDBA will be required to clearly monitor and report on the social and economic impacts of implementing the plan.
  • In its Northern Basin Review, the MDBA for the first time, acknowledged that water recovery has had devastating impacts on many irrigation dependent towns.
  • The NFF, our members and other stakeholder groups have banded together to deliver the #MoreThanFlow campaign.  Our united message is clear – enough is enough.

The Lows

1. The ‘backpacker tax’ political football

There is no denying the Government kicked a plum own-goal when it proposed a 32.5% tax on working holiday makers. The NFF and its members always said backpackers should pay some tax but argued that a fairer, less-deterring amount should be imposed. The 32.5% proposal mobilised the NFF and its members to demonstrate the damage such a tax would inflict. After months of horse trading and political backflips – at the eleventh hour, in the last sitting week, a reduced rate of 15% passed through both houses. The backpacker tax issue was an embarrassing episode in Australian politics. On a positive note it reminded Australian agriculture how we can rally together to achieve change – and how much easier this is to do when we work together as one voice.

2.     The TPP – oh so close

The NFF was integral to negotiating significant benefits for Australia’s food and fibre exports in the final TPP deal. However following the result of the US election the future of the TPP is now in real peril with President-elect Donald Trump vowing to stifle its progress. This being so, the NFF’s attention in 2017 will shift to other negotiations such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the next round of World Trade Organisation’s negotiations.

3.     APVMA goes bush

Minister Joyce ignored industry to push ahead with plans to send the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale. This promise was made without a cost benefit analysis seeing the light of day and when one was released, it highlighted a potential catastrophe for the sector. Nonetheless the relocation looks all but certain to proceed in 2017.

4.     Fuel tax credits – fighting the razor gang

Fuel tax credits are not a subsidy but are based on sound taxation principles designed to ensure business inputs are not taxed.  The NFF is part of the Fuel Tax Credit Coalition, an alliance of multiple industry groups dedicated to busting the myth that fuel tax credits are a subsidy to the industry, but this is a constant uphill battle against those who seek to politicise this commonsense policy.

5.     The fight for truckies – the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal dud deal

It is tough enough being a hard-working, small-business truckie, tougher still when a highly unionised Tribunal tries to whiteant your ability to earn a decent living by announcing minimum rates of pay that would threaten to push you out of business. To combat the move the NFF joined with the Australian Rural Livestock Transporters Association and the Council of Small Business of Australia to campaign for the abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Pitted against militant unions and the Tribunal gone-rogue, not only was the decision canned but the government agreed to abolish the Tribunal. While the outcome could be described as a 'win' for farmers and truckies - the fact the fight occurred in the first place was a low point for public policy.

6.     Seasonal workers program – still stifled by red tape

The NFF was instrumental in the Government’s decision to expand the Seasonal Worker Program to all agricultural industries this year.  The Program is growing at pace, but there are some real red tape issues still standing in the way of success – including huge upfront costs for farmers.

Ones to watch in 2017

1.     Ending the data drought

Mobile phone coverage and internet connectivity in the bush remains one of the most significant issues affecting farmers and rural, regional and remote communities. The NFF is part of a new Coalition of 15 organisations which will, in 2017, continue to highlight the collective concerns of families, businesses and communities in rural and regional Australia about the lack of equitable access to reliable and quality telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote Australia.

2.     Energy system reform

The National Electricity Market (NEM) is not working for Australian farmers and needs serious reform. A modern, high-performing energy system is key to the productivity, efficiency and international competitiveness of Australian farming businesses. In 2017 we will be working to see steps taken to modernise the NEM and get the best possible balance for farmers when it comes to reliability and affordability.

3.     Workplace relations reform

2016 turned out to be a year of thinking about workplace relations reform – despite a long list of recommendations from the Productivity Commission the Government largely stayed silent on this vital area of economic policy. Watch out for more action in this space in 2017 as confidence in government grows now that the Registered Organisations and ABCC bills have passed through the Parliament.


What were your standout moments from 2016? Log in and drop us a comment below!

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