This Wednesday, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud and Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Joel Fitzgibbon went head-to-head at the National Press Club to discuss the big issues for Australian agriculture.
The very public job interview was broadcast across the nation and featured loaded questions from Australia’s leading agricultural journalists and entertained heated rebuttals and back and forth banter between the two leaders.
Minister Littleproud won the toss and kicked off the debate by pointing out two young farmers in the room, Carolina Merriman and Cam Parker.
“This election is about them and the future of their industry. It’s time to bring young people home,” he said
Straight out of the blocks Minister Littleproud tackled the big issues of live export, animal activists, the Murray Darling Basin Plan and the dairy industry.
Mr Fitzgibbon began by also highlighting the challenges facing the agricultural sector, with a focus on managing the environment “we won’t fix the problems in ag until we acknowledge them and be open to change.”
“The Government needs to show leadership: improve sustainability, grow investment by increasing confidence, pursue fairer market access, build new infrastructure and grow productivity.”
Agriculture’s headline issues
Looking after the land
The first question from the Press[ covered the topic of native vegetation laws and land stewardship.
When questioned on land clearing laws, Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor was happy to put 10 years of carbon wars behind them.
“We have a very robust climate policy where we have excluded the agricultural sector.”
Mr Fitzgibbon outlined how the Labor Government had committed $40 million to creating methodologies so farmers can earn revenue out of the carbon market.
“The best defence to drought and building a resilient sector is through the carbon market.”
Minister Littleproud claimed Labor had not done the homework to present the Australian public with a sound vegetation management policy.
“If you’re going to impose national vegetation laws you’re potentially locking up the potential of agriculture by taking away a farmer’s right of the stewardship over their land,” Minister Littleproud said.
Managing a changing climate
Minister Littleproud questioned the sums behind Labor’s 45% emissions reduction target.
“They haven’t modelled their policy to know how much carbon they’ll abate from this, how much money they will be taking out of farmers’ pockets and putting into theirs. They haven’t done the sums,” the Minister said.
Mr Fitzgibbon rebutted, saying the Labor Government would provide farmers the methodologies to improve the carbon content of their soil and to benefit fiscally by doing so.
“Our 45 per cent benchmark is more than reasonable. Taking action will be a good thing for farmers both on the mitigation and adaptation side, it will improve their productivity on farm and potentially secure new revenues.”
The National Farmers’ Federation’s (NFF) Climate Policy confirms the agriculture sector’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that the economy is well placed to handle it.
Mr Fitzgibbon said, to his mind, labour shortages were the second biggest problem after climate change, facing agriculture.
When asked about Labor’s support for a dedicated agricultural visa, Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor was determined to work towards a solution for the sector, but he stopped short of committing.
Minister Littleproud when questioned about the prospects of an Ag Visa said the Prime Minister was on a ‘journey’, despite having committed to the policy at NFF’s National Congress in 2018.
“You don’t rush into these things and not consider the unintended consequences on immigration policies.
“We will get it once we have an understanding of where the pressure points are in agriculture… we are finding them in a calm and methodical way,” he said.
According to the NFF’s Ag Visa policy, Australian farmers are victims of a policy stalemate and the sector have been calling for a tailored solution to the sector’s labour shortages for some time.
Murray Darling Basin Plan
Mr Fitzgibbon said Australians are right to be concerned about the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“The river systems can’t keep giving. Labor will act and we will act decisively so everyone benefits.”
Minister Littleproud said he want to take the politics out of the Plan and “stop the yelling”. He also voiced his opposition to further water buybacks.
“Our responsibility is to give these farmers certainty and get it right… You’re going to have a worse plan if you blow it up.
“This is about leadership not politics.”
Both Minister Littleproud and Mr Fitzgibbon agreed the Basin needs bipartisanship.
The business of taxes
On the topic of how each party’s tax plans are going to affect farming families of Australia Mr Fitzgibbon said the Labor Government’s tax plan was taking money out of the pocket of wealthier people by closing tax loop holes to help our lower to middle income families.
“We are also taking that money to invest in hospitals, education, telecommunications and access to medical services.
“Everything we are doing is good news for the agricultural sector.”
Minister Littleproud came back stating that the Opposition will undermine the trust structures that many farm businesses operate under.
“We (the Coalition Government) have our first surplus in 12 years and we are going to pay a dividend out of that back to the Australian people,” he said.
The future of Australia’s dairy farmers
To coincide with the debate, Minister Littleproud announced $10 million to support dairy farmers investing in more energy efficient equipment, $8.1 million to extend the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s agriculture unit and $3 million in grants to assist farmer groups to establish farm cooperatives.
Mr Fitzgibbon promised, if elected, the Labor Government would introduce a floor price for the dairy industry stating “we need to do something about the dairy industry, it needs government intervention and structural reform.”
Mr Fitzgibbon speculated that, the supermarkets may well re-introduce $1 per little milk
Minister Littleproud dismissed idea of a milk floor price.
“The floor price will take away Australia’s trade agreements, there is no silver bullet,” Minister Littleproud said.