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Rebuilding rural and regional Australia: the Budget

Federal Primary Industries Minister and National Party Deputy Leader John Anderson, said the 1997-98 Budget would help consolidate the foundations of rural and regional Australia, with particular emphasis given to sustainable natural resource management and quarantine.

"Despite continuing constraints on Government spending, this Budget shows we are strongly committed to rebuilding Australia's primary industries and the rural and regional communities they support," he said.

"The Government is very conscious of the serious difficulties experienced by the farm sector during the past decade and is determined to put in place a policy framework that is better suited to managing the risks inherent in primary production in this country, particularly due to its extreme climatic variability and its dependence on often unpredictable overseas markets."

Mr Anderson said the need for sustainable resource management was being addressed comprehensively by the Commonwealth, with record total funding of $166.5 million made available for 1997-98, reflecting the substantial boost in funding coming via the Natural Heritage Trust.

"We have also taken very seriously the Nairn Committee's report on improving our quarantine arrangements because we recognise it is essential that we preserve the tremendous competitive advantage we have as a result of the nation's favourable animal and plant health status."

Mr Anderson said that, in addition to the funding boost for quarantine, the Government had embarked on major reforms to the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service's (AQIS) meat inspection program.

"The meat inspection reforms will greatly enhance food safety in the meat processing industry, while at the same time boosting its efficiency and competitiveness," he said.

Mr Anderson said the Government had achieved significant reform in the farm sector during the past 12 months, particularly in industries such as livestock, wool and wheat.

"We have done this by working with these industries to reduce Government intervention and to allow them to take more responsibility for determining their own futures."

He said the Government's next step in restoring the economic and social foundations of rural and regional areas would be the release of an integrated rural policy package later this year.

"The package, which I will develop in consultation with the States, Territories and farmer organisations, will address rural adjustment, farm family welfare, risk management, drought, skills development and rural communities."

He said the package would be the Government's response to the series of rural policy reviews which had been conducted since the Coalition was elected last year.

Mr Anderson said the highlights in the Budget for his portfolio included:

. $166.5 million for natural resource management in 1997-98, including $87.4m for landcare. Of this, $94.8 million comes from the Natural Heritage Trust;

. $76 million over four years to enhance the quarantine system;

. $44.3 million over four years to reform AQIS export meat inspection;

. $198.9 million over four years for an Integrated Rural Policy Package, details of which will be announced later in 1997, but including $2.8 million to continue CreditCare, the highly successful rural financial service program; and

. $1.21 million under the Supermarket to Asia Program to promote Australia's quality food image in Asia and improve Australian producers' understanding of the requirements of Asian food markets.

Media contact:

Robert Haynes, Minister's office, 06 277 7520; 0419 493 511

AUSTRALIAN QUARANTINE AND INSPECTION SERVICE

Meat Inspection

$44.3 million will be made available over the next four years, commencing 1997-98, to reform AQIS's meat inspection program. The reform process will involve the trialing of Government-supervised Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) based quality assurance (QA) systems; reform of employment conditions for meat inspectors using the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act; and introduction of more efficient use of resources and lower overhead costs. AQIS will be restructured to provide a focus for and allow concentration on the delivery of the reform agenda. The Meat Inspection Service will be separated from the other AQIS quarantine and export certification programs to form a new Division.

The reforms will greatly enhance food safety in the meat processing industry in Australia while at the same time reducing the cost of inspection services. The changes will improve the competitive position of Australian meat producers who will have a greater demonstrated capacity to trade on Australia's wholesome food production image.

The Government's decision reflects the recommendations of both the Nairn Committee and a Government/industry steering committee on reforming AQIS meat inspection services. The steering committee's recommendations have been accepted in full and include:

. implementing trials of Government-supervised, QA-based company meat inspection with AQIS veterinary supervision (Project 2);

. negotiating new employment Awards for meat inspectors and on-plant veterinarians to allow more flexible service delivery;

. refocussing AQIS's core activities in export meat inspection. AQIS will cease providing domestic meat inspection services in NSW, ACT and NT after July 1997;

. streamlining the management of meat inspection staffing numbers to better match industry requirements;

. identifying of unnecessary meat inspection functions and negotiating with overseas authorities to reach agreement on their discontinuation;

. identifying cost savings at the individual site level to be completed jointly by company management and AQIS; and

. reducing overhead costs through organisational reform.

Much of this reform process has already commenced and the five trial sites for Government-supervised QA-based inspection, all of them export registered meat establishments - are well advanced in the development of their HACCP systems.

The system involves the implementation of full QA systems which incorporate company inspectors in addition to full-time Government veterinary inspection, supervision and control. The proposed model is a superior system for the production of safe meat for human consumption. The project is a central component of Australia's joint Government/industry strategy for enhancing food safety in the meat industry and meets Australia's obligations under the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement of the World Trade Organisation.

Each of the trial plants is responsible for the development, implementation and operation of its own HACCP-based QA system including the development of a plant specific QA manual. Once the QA system is audited and approved by AQIS, the company and each of its workers formally commit to play their part in maintaining the necessary hygiene standards and in meeting the legal requirements of the Export Control Act 1982. Company employees are made aware of their specific job responsibilities, particularly as they affect food safety, and are trained accordingly.

The proposed integrated system is a far more scientifically-rigorous and structured approach to meat processing operations and control, and is being trialed with the prime objective of achieving enhanced meat safety. The system demands stringent standards with companies having to meet more onerous requirements such as in the training of all workers, detailed sanitation and process controls, and laboratory testing and verification. Each plant will employ laboratory technicians, QA personnel and fully trained meat inspectors. Importantly, the system will continue to be subject to continuous AQIS veterinary inspection, supervision and certification, and regular comprehensive system audits.

The trial design comprises a comparative analysis of objective data collected under traditional inspection arrangements and the proposed system. The trial data will be statistically analysed and the results published to help promote the international acceptance of integrated quality and inspection systems.

NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST

The Government has committed $1.25 billion over six years through the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) for conservation and natural resource management in Australia.

For the first time, environmental issues, natural resource management and sustainable agriculture will be addressed in an integrated way. The Trust will support a comprehensive range of initiatives that will enable communities to implement effective, on-ground activities that identify and overcome local and regional environmental problems.

The Trust will provide support for partnerships between the community, industry and all levels of government to address issues such as land and water degradation, the loss of native vegetation and better management of Australia's coasts and marine areas.

Funding will be directed at capital projects aimed at maintaining, protecting and replenishing Australia's natural environmental capital. Project assessment for most NHT programs is through a 'One-Stop-Shop' process and community based assessment panels. The project assessment process is well under way and announcements of funding can be expected in early 1997-98.

Expenditure from the NHT is decided jointly by the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy and the Minister for the Environment. In 1997-98, the Trust will provide funding of $94.8 million for DPIE programs. Additional funding will be provided from the Trust to programs managed by Environment Australia.

The DPIE component of NHT funding will be allocated to the following programs: the National Landcare Program, Advanced Property Management Planning, the Murray-Darling 2001 Initiative, the National Rivercare Initiative, the Land and Water Resources Audit, the National Feral Animal Control Strategy, the National Weeds Strategy, the Farm Forestry Program, and the Fisheries Action Program (see accompanying material from the Minister for Resources).

National Landcare Program

The National Landcare Program (NLP) will receive $87.4 million in 1997-98 - its highest ever level of funding. Of this some $35 million will come from the Natural Heritage Trust. Total funding for the NLP represents an increase of $26 million over the previous year's allocation.

Project assessment will be through the Natural Heritage Trust 'One-Stop Shop'. Announcements of funding can be expected in early 1997-98.

The funding will support a significant number of new projects, as well as meeting commitments to existing projects. Community group activities, and the services needed to support them, will receive substantially increased funding.

Funding for Property Management Planning to improve the natural resource and business management skills of farmers will be significantly enhanced, as will funding for the development and implementation of integrated management plans that address priority problems at the catchment and regional levels.

Support will also be provided to help implement regional and catchment conservation strategies. Funding will be increased for infrastructure projects, for floodplain management and water services and treatment in rural areas.

The increased funding this year takes the NLP into a new phase. It will be better linked to related initiatives such as the Murray-Darling 2001 Program, the National Rivercare Initiative and the National Vegetation Initiative, ensuring an integrated approach to natural resource management.

Murray-Darling 2001

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's single most important agricultural region containing 26 per cent of all Australian agricultural land and almost 75 per cent of irrigated land. The value of its agricultural production exceeds $8.5 billion a year (some 40 per cent of the value of Australia's total).

The Government has therefore committed $163 million over six years to Murray-Darling 2001, subject to matching funding by the other Murray Darling Basin Initiative partners.

$29.5 million will be provided in 1997-98 to accelerate activities which address high priority land and water degradation issues in the Basin, and strike a better balance between natural resource use and environmental requirements.

These projects include improving the health of key river systems, encouraging economically and ecologically sustainable land and water management, reducing salt and nutrient levels in river systems and restoring riparian land systems, wetlands and floodplains.

National Rivercare Initiative

The health of Australia's rivers and waterways is declining for many reasons. This decline has resulted in a range of problems including poor water quality, rising water tables, increasingly saline groundwater and toxic algae.

The Government has committed $97 million over six years to the National Rivercare Initiative (NRI) to address river management issues.

$12.4 million will be provided in 1997-98 for the sustainable management, rehabilitation and conservation of rivers outside the Murray-Darling Basin. Together with the Murray-Darling 2001 Initiative, the National Rivercare Initiative will ensure degradation issues affecting Australia's river systems throughout the nation are comprehensively addressed.

The NRI will build on and complement programs such as Waterwatch Australia and the National River Health Program, which have already made an important contribution to the health of our rivers. Improved links will be established with other NHT programs and existing State initiatives to ensure Australia's river systems are managed in a coordinated and integrated manner.

Activities under the National Rivercare Initiative will include:

. community education, awareness-raising and monitoring of river problems;

. implementing local community river action plans;

. projects which address major barriers to improved water quality within a catchment or regional context (eg low cost sewage and re-use projects);

. initiatives for priority river systems which implement key national strategies, (Council of Australian Governments water reforms and National Water Quality Management Strategy); and

. national river health assessment and developing a decision support system for environmental flows.

National Land and Water Audit

$37 million is being made available over six years for an independent, objective and nationwide assessment of Australia's natural resource base.

The National Land and Water Audit will examine some 20 key types of land and water degradation and provide an economic analysis of each problem. Complementary action on the development of national indicators and inventories will also be funded. Some $7.45 million will be provided for the initiative in 1997-98 ($7.01 million to DPIE, $0.44 million to DEST).

Despite the acknowledged seriousness of land and water degradation in Australia, there has never been a truly national assessment of the extent of the problems or agreement on the priorities for action.

Land and water degradation is a major issue for Australian agriculture and other users of our natural resource base. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics reports that 60 per cent of the farmers it has surveyed have a significant land degradation problem.

A specific component of the Audit will be the National Water Resources Assessment. It will focus on the extent, supply capabilities and demand for water. This will be a first step in carefully balancing important agricultural and environmental considerations.

State and Territory Governments have agreed to participate in the Audit and will assist in the gathering and assessing of data.

National Feral Animal Control Strategy

The Government is providing $16 million over six years through the NHT, $6.45 million from DPIE and $9.55 million from Environment Australia, to develop the National Feral Animal Control Strategy (NFACS).

A total of $3.71 million will be spent on the Strategy in 1997-98.

State, Territory and Local Governments will also be involved in the development and implementation of NFACS.

The Strategy will help reduce the damage feral animals cause to agriculture and the environment by encouraging more efficient and better coordinated control practices. The long-term benefits of the Strategy include improved farm productivity and more sustainable land management practices.

Effective and efficient control of feral animals requires management of the problem at the regional level as well as a commitment from all landholders. NFACS will encourage cooperative, regional strategies.

NFACS will coordinate information on strategic feral animal management practices, publish the results and encourage landholders to implement these practices.

The Strategy will also provide support to the National Rabbit Calicivirus Disease Monitoring and Surveillance Program to help determine the most effective way of using RCD for rabbit control in Australia.

National Weeds Strategy

$24 million is being provided over six years through the NHT to implement the National Weeds Strategy (NWS).

In 1997-98, $3.08 million will be provided by DPIE for the NWS, while $1.87 million will be provided through Environment Australia.

Weeds are among the most serious threats to Australia's primary production and natural environment. They reduce farm and forest productivity, displace native species and contribute significantly to land degradation. The cost of weeds to agricultural industries alone has been estimated at over $3.3 billion a year.

The National Weeds Strategy has been endorsed by the State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments and will help reduce the impact of weeds on Australia's primary production and natural ecosystems.

Prime responsibility for weed control will remain with landholders and State and local governments. NHT funding will be made available only in relation to weeds deemed to be 'nationally significant'. A list of these weeds is being prepared in consultation with the States, scientists and other stakeholders.

Under the NWS, a control plan will be prepared for each nationally significant weed species. NWS funds may be used for on-ground control activity, research, control plan preparation and coordination activities.

Plantation And Farm Forestry

Under the Natural Heritage Trust the Government will commit an additional $22 million between 1997-98 and 2001-02 to supplement existing commitments for commercial farm forestry under the Farm Forestry Program of the Wood and Paper Industry Strategy (WAPIS).

In 1997-98, NHT funding for farm forestry will total $1.6 million.

Plantation and farm forestry will play an expanding role in both timber production and revegetation. Farm forestry can also provide substantial greenhouse, biodiversity, landcare, regional development and employment benefits.

The aim of the Farm Forestry Program is to encourage the incorporation of commercial tree growing and management into farming systems for the purpose of wood and non-wood production, increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable natural resource management.

The Commonwealth is working in partnership with the States, local government, industry, and landcare and community groups. Funds will be provided to support extension, demonstration, education and training, information gathering and dissemination, planning and coordination, and practical research and development activities aimed at enhancing the uptake of farm forestry.

Continued implementation of the Wood and Paper Industry Strategy ($5.96 million in 1997-98), boosted by additional funding under the NHT, will enhance development of plantation and farm forestry resources, thus providing increased economic and employment opportunities for regional areas.

Significant community benefits are expected from improved land and water management practices, and income diversification for farmers. There will also be an improved research effort in the areas of sustainable growth and utilisation of fast-grown regrowth and plantation trees and in value added processing. Work on sustainability indicators will enable Australia to monitor the quality of management and overall health of Australian forests.

LIVESTOCK

Tuberculosis Freedom Assurance Program

Under the Tuberculosis Freedom Assurance Program (TFAP) up to $3.06 million will be made available over the next four years to detect and remedy any breakdown in Australia's bovine tuberculosis (TB) free status. This is in anticipation of Australia declaring itself free from bovine TB by 31 December 1997.

A program to eradicate bovine brucellosis and TB (the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign) began in 1970, and in 1989 Australia became the first nation in the world with an endemic bovine brucellosis problem to achieve eradication.

It is now on track to make a similar achievement with bovine TB, with the final success dependent on the identification of residual pockets of the disease which have been missed by on-going herd testing.

The State and Territory Governments will be responsible for administration and field activities relating to the eradication of bovine TB breakdowns, and industry will meet the costs of financial assistance provided to affected producers. Responsibility for the national management of TFAP will be assumed by the Australian Animal Health Council Ltd.

RURAL FINANCE

CreditCare

$2.8 million will be provided for rural financial services under CreditCare for a further three years.

A two-year CreditCare pilot project, funded until 30 June 1997, has been well received by rural communities affected by reduced access to financial services and facilities.

The project aims to maintain financial services infrastructure in rural and remote Australia and consists of several field staff and a small management team working with rural and remote communities to facilitate the development of financial services. The project is a joint venture with Credit Union Services Corporation (Australia) Limited.

Under the pilot project to 16 April 1997, CreditCare has contacted 85 communities around Australia and facilitated the development of 29 new establishments, with a further 23 communities developing business plans.

SUPERMARKET TO ASIA

The Supermarket to Asia strategy is the cornerstone of efforts to achieve the Government's vision of a competitive agri-food industry which is able to become a significant global supplier of food - especially to the burgeoning markets of Asia. Funding of $11.8 million has been allocated for the three years from 1996-97, including $1.21 million in new funding for 1997-98.

The Delicatessen

In 1997-98, the Government is providing $1 million under a program to be known as the Delicatessen, to assist Australian food producers to better appreciate the specific requirements of Asian customers and enable them to capture export opportunities for high value, niche market foodstuffs.

Recent assessments of the opportunities for increasing exports of Australian food in Asia have identified a need for greater customer orientation by Australian suppliers. There is a need to be attuned to customer requirements rather than offering what has traditionally been produced. This may mean producing new (for Australia) products or different varieties, utilising currently ignored by-products or changing the characteristics and presentation of traditional products to effectively meet specific Asian market requirements.

If this is done, there are opportunities to increase export returns by achieving higher value for what we produce. While small by total Asian market standards, these niche markets would be of significant value to Australia.

The program will assist with the identification of opportunities for increased exports of high value, specialist products to Asia, evaluate the scope for Australia to competitively provide those products in the form required, and ensure that the opportunities are made known to Australian farmers.

The program will result in better awareness by farmers of the opportunities for new premium products in niche markets in Asia. This, in turn, will contribute to increased volume and variety of exports of high value products from rural and regional areas.

Quality Food Australia

The Budget provides an additional $210,000 to the Prime Minister's Supermarket to Asia Council's Asian Working Group to develop the Quality Food Australia proposal during 1997.

The Council's Asian Marketing Working Group, under the Chairmanship of Mr Reg Clairs, Group Managing Director of Woolworths Ltd, is developing a Quality Food Australia program which will have three broad elements:

. undertaking coordinated retail and food service promotions in Asian countries with Australian food companies;

. promoting a Quality Food Australia logo as a quality certification mark which would be available as an umbrella brand for Australian food in Asian markets; and

. establishing a network of contacts throughout Asia which will assist current and new exporters with the development of their businesses.

A total of $600,000 is being made available as seed funding to assist in the start-up of promotional activities in Asia during 1997, with industry to be responsible for the program and its funding from the beginning of 1998.

Through the program, Australian food companies will engage in coordinated export promotion activities. Quality will be a major element of the promotion. Developing the logo as a quality certification mark will be a means of encouraging industry to adopt the quality management strategies essential for international competitiveness.