Following Federal Budget week, it is worth reflecting on the future of the agricultural sector and the importance of its success to our major political parties. As potentially the final Budget before the next federal election, the sector expected some certainty about its position as an economic pillar to be reflected in government priorities going forward. So how did we fare?
The government made some promising funding announcements for agricultural exports to protect and create new international markets making it more efficient to transport produce from paddock to plates worldwide. It also included an overdue biosecurity boost to strengthen the national biosecurity system. Queensland farmers will be hoping that much of this will be spent in Australia’s frontline biosecurity state, which has experienced five major biosecurity incursions in five years. And on the taxation front, farmers will welcome the continuation of the small business asset write-off, despite it only being a short-term commitment. Overall, $224 million in new funding.
On the other side of the aisle, the sector received a much lower focus. While the Opposition Budget response is not expected to be detailed, agriculture only managed one mention last Thursday: “our commitment to agriculture, science and research”. A better articulation of Labor’s priority spend across the sector was needed to provide more comfort that there is a commitment to the sector.
Labelled an election Budget, the ‘tax cut competition’ was not unexpected, unlike the relatively modest (Government) and virtually non-existent (Opposition) funding commitments for agriculture. With many initiatives from the $4 billion Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper now implemented, we should be seeing greater evidence that future Australian Governments have a continued vision for agriculture. There is real need for long term orientation and investment to drive a more competitive and sustainable system.
It is often said that civilisation sprang from farming, thus our future depends on getting it right in agriculture. Yet, feeding, clothing and growing amenity for the world is a shared responsibility. Farmers in this country are among the world’s best at growing quality food and fibre for our nation and many more, feeding about 60 million people every year.
It is a sobering thought that the world will need to produce more food over the next four decades than it has over the last 8,000 years combined, but it should prompt some longer term thinking in government about the future of agriculture. Investment in the sector would not only allow farmers to continue to feed and clothe the world, but also increase domestic jobs on top of the 1.6 million Australians already employed by agriculture in jobs like retail, logistics, technology and science.
A lot will be asked of agriculture in the future. Not only will it have to produce a reliable supply of high quality, affordable food and clothing, but also provide inputs for energy and industry, manage the environment, protect biodiversity and contribute to economically viable rural development.
Government investment in agriculture delivers high economic, environmental and social returns for relatively low risk. In tight fiscal environments the competition for tax payer dollars can be fierce. Encouragingly, the sector’s unique ability to simultaneously deliver food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity make it a compelling and appropriate investment.