The White Paper on Agriculture has been a long time coming. Its gestation would not have been helped by departmental changes. Barnaby Joyce fired the Department head he inherited, Andrew Metcalf, who had no experience in the portfolio prior to his appointment in 2013.
Barnaby unaccountably acquiesced in or was forced to accept as the new Departmental Secretary Paul Grimes, who also had no experience in the portfolio. Presumably someone thought Mr Grimes, as a former head of the Department of Sustainability and What Not, might be an ideal leader for a department that fosters rather than combats production.
Other matters that delayed the White Paper were the aspirations of rural socialists for favours to the salt-of-the-earth patriots who farm the land. And there is a great confected anger directed against the food chains who have been obtaining an increasing share of the food dollar leaving farmers a correspondingly smaller share. The fact this progression has been underway for the past millennium has not deterred those who say it must be due to unfair and collusive monopolistic prices on the part of Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and a dozen other purchasers!
One unfortunate bone thrown to this vocal group comprises additional powers and resources given to the ACCC to roam all over the industry. According to the White Paper, in a few sentences that are pregnant with a massive accretion of new regulation,
‘For markets to operate efficiently, some regulation is necessary. This is particularly the case where there is an imbalance of power in markets, including where there are a limited number of suppliers or buyers’!!
There are tax and depreciation changes that were much promoted by Robert Hadler in this morning’s AFR and boosterism (“Attack on barriers helps farmers”) of the policy vacuum by ambitious back bencher Dan Tehan on Monday. But most of the White Paper’s action is business-as-usual involving seeking better access to markets and offering advice to farmers
Other than that there is much regurgitation of goals, including incongruously in view of the ACCC initiative, reduction of Red Tape. The White Paper references a parallel process the National Review of Environmental Regulation which identifies 34 priority areas. “Streamlining”, “contradictory and incompatible regulation” “harmonise” “simplification” are all words placed in the mix. But the major action on this is recognised as being in the state government domain with environmental legislation. There is nothing concrete on how to unlock the vast areas of Australia that are excluded from agriculture as a result of environmental and native title issues that impede land use and water diversion programmes. However, for the umpteenth time in 35 years the government is going to do something to accelerate approvals of agricultural and veterinary chemicals.
Perhaps the major illustration of the impotency of government is in another parallel review, an “Expert Panel” into the Water Act 2007. This is supposed to advise on how to loosen the chains of the egregious Murray Darling Plan. I have written about this here. At present the Plan is legislated to take 2,750 gigalitres of the 7,000 assured for agriculture from the 24,000 gigalitres that enters the system in an area where, due to irrigation, one per cent of Australia’s land mass supplies 28 per cent of the nation’s agricultural output. The Government wants to pare back the sterilisation of water use from agricultural production to 1,500 gigalitres. But all the expert panel can discuss is machinery issues to facilitate trading of water, timing of reviews and the like. Don’t hold your breath for the final report due in December.
There are so many of these reviews underway. Will any of them provide a platform for reform? Again, don’t hold your breath!