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How does rural Australia rate in the election debate? Address to the Rural Press Club, Brisbane, 1 November 2001



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How does rural Australia rate in the election debate ?

Address by Ian Donges, NFF President

Rural Press Club, Brisbane, Qld

November 1, 2001

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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thankyou for the invitation t o speak to you today.

It's always a pleasure to speak to journalists during an election campaign because they only ever ask one question - who do I think is going to win????

All the focus on commodity prices, drought, exceptional circumstances or protectionist regimes disappears as microphones are thrust forward and loud voices scream: "Is the NFF supporting Beazley or Howard?"

The reality is the NFF is a non-party political lobby organisation. That means we are in the business of assessing policy, not political parties or party leaders. And that's what I am here to do today - to assess where we are at with policy that affects rural and regional Australia.

We are in the midst of an election campaign like no other in recent history. Rural Australia - or the so-called backlash from the bush - has been a major focus of the majority of state and federal elections in the past few years.

You only have to look at the result of the last Victorian election, when we saw rural Victoria largely responsible for unseating the Kennett Government, to see the power of the disenchanted rural voter.

The One Nation protest vote in Queensland at the last federal election, the state elections in Queensland and Western Australia and the end of 26 years of conservative rule in the Northern Territory - there's no doubt the rural sector has played a major role in these outcomes.

In the past, politicians have been regularly photographed travelling to remote areas to kiss and cuddle babies and shake farmers' hands in a bid to ensure they come across as "listening".

They have planted trees, inspected rural roads, attended livestock sales, visited country schools, wandered through regional hospitals and descended on small rural towns for a couple of hours to win a few votes. But the current federal election campaign is a little different. While Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson has been busy travelling from one country town to another, we are yet to see either Prime Minister John Howard or Opposition Leader Kim Beazley stray too far from the capital cities.

Mr Beazley's first visit to regional Australia was last Saturday when he launched Labor's regional strategy in Ballarat.

I have just travelled more than 1500km in two days through Victoria to attend public election meetings in the townships of Shepparton, Wangaratta, Colac and Hamilton. None of these farmers or candidates had seen a federal political leader in their towns since John Howard called the election on Friday, October 5.

So, why is rural Australia not dominating the political agenda in this campaign as much as it has previously? Why is the bush vote no longer as prominent or important to the two major parties?

First, we should analyse the marginal seats. The Coalition has 22 seats with a margin of less than three per cent and 13 of these are in rural areas. The Labor party has 13 seats with a margin of less than three per cent.

But more importantly, 10 of the Coalition's seats are held by less than one per cent and six of these are in the bush.

So why aren't the politicians focusing on the rural vote? Both the AC Nielsen poll and the Newspoll continue to show a very close contest with only four percentage points between Mr Howard and Mr Beazley. But despite this closeness, I believe there are a number of reasons why rural Australia has been thrust in the backseat of the campaign.

The first is that there is a perception that things have been "one the improve" in the bush. Commodity prices have been stronger, although we are now seeing weakening prices in response to slower world growth, the low Australian dollar has boosted the value of exports and farmers are again starting to talk up the rural industries - which is fantastic to see.

Although commodity prices have dropped in the past month, especially for beef where we've seen the impact of BSE in Japan and slower demand from the US, and wool, where the market dropped another 4.5 per cent last week, prices are up to 30 per cent higher now than at the same time last year.

Another reason for the bush not being a major focus in this election campaign is, ironically, the success achieved by the National Farmers' Federation and its state farm organisations earlier this year when we scored a quadrella of policy wins on tax.

We saw the indexation on fuel scrapped, the uncompensated effect of the GST on fuel addressed, the complex and time-consuming Business Activity Statement simplified, the Pay as You Go tax system simplified and the government abandon proposed legislation that would have altered the way trusts are taxed.

We've also had significant wins in terms of telecommunications, industrial relations and social policy, such as extra places in regional universities and more nurses for regional areas.

And, as Mr Anderson reminds us, the Coalition has invested $28.5 billion over the past five years in more than 300 regional programs, as well as the $100 million over four years Sustainable Regions program.

But today is about looking to the future. While we are the first to admit that during the past five and a half years th e Coalition has implemented new and altered policy to boost the social and economic viability of the bush, there are still areas that are hurting.

In this election campaign, NFF has taken its priorities back to the basics to ensure that farmers can continue to do their job of feeding and clothing the nation and remain some of the most efficient farmers in the world.

In the past 11 years, Australian agricultural exports have doubled from $14 billion to $28 billion. The last financial year saw a growth of 22 per cent from the previous financial year.

And in terms of manufacturing, the processing agricultural sector employs 170,000 people - the biggest single industry employer in the manufacturing sector. The note of caution I would like to leave you with in regards to our performance in this vital sector is that our share of the world market has declined from just under four per cent in 1994 to 2.7 per cent in 1999-2000.

This is one of our greatest challenges in a globalised and increasingly competitive market place to secure an increased share. It is vitally important that a secure domestic framework is established to ensure all Australian farmers can continue and expand the core business of agriculture.

As you are aware, the environment - or more specifically property rights - is rural Australia's number one issue for this federal election. Any farmer who is told he or she can no longer farm their land in the way that they are used to because of a community expectation on environmental management must be compensated.

We've already had significant success in gaining policy commitments from the Coalition, the Labor Party and the Democrats in terms of committing to this fundamental principle.

John Anderson recently made very strong comments about property rights and compensation, saying: "If the community, to meet its environmental expectations, requires management changes that devalue farm assets or reduce the productive capacity of those assets, then the whole community must share the cost involved".

And only yesterday Mr Anderson gave the first indication that a Coalition Government would overhaul the fundamentally flawed Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act - or EPBC Act - which NFF and its state member organisations, particularly AgForce, have been pushing for.

And Kim Beazley has also said: "Labor explicitly recognises the right of landholders to be compensated when society's environmental expectations affect their property rights".

We want to make sure that these commitments are kept and that NFF is formally included in consultations after the election as the government of the day works to meet these commitments.

NFF has repeatedly called for Australia-wide recognition of and respect for secure water property rights, for water users to get the maximum degree of security about the nature of the property right so they are able to form a reasonable expectation of the benefits provided by the right, and that compensation is paid where the value or security of water rights is eroded by government actions in order to attain public good outcome.

Also, in recognition of the seriousness of this issue, the National Farmers' Federation established a special Water Taskforce in June earlier this year.

That taskforce has just finalised a report and it is my pleasure today to present some of its preliminary findings.

The report says: "It is the National Farmers' Federation's view that the CoAG water reform agreements have not been implemented to deliver on promised water property rights. It also found that there are six fundamental characteristics of a water property right:

  • DURATION - a continuous period measured in years that the property right is held;
  • FLEXIBILITY - modification or alteration to account for recognised constraints on the availa bility of water resources;
  • EXCLUSIVITY - an entity holds the water property right exclusively so that it can be traded in a market place;
  • QUALITY OF TITLE - secured to the extent that removal or impairment is compensated and the rights are adequately reg istered to facilitate financing and transfer;
  • TRANSFERABILITY - easy transfer of water property rights on a permanent or temporary basis; and
  • DIVISIBILITY - capable of being shared or subdivided.

Importantly, these characteristics are not mutually exclu sive. They must all be present for a true property right to be acknowledged and no alteration to one characteristic ought to be able to erode any of the other five.

The report also says that it is now becoming obvious that one of the key steps in the original CoAG Agreement was the establishment of property rights, with respect to water once water was separated from land title.

This has not been carried out, with the resulting situation that in financial negotiations, the level of security about asset values previously enjoyed by licence holders has been seriously eroded.

Another serious challenge that we face is in regards to the Prime Minister's National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, which he announced on October 10 last year. The state and federal governments committed $1.4 billion over seven years to combat salinity in 22 pre-determined priority or 'hot spot' regions across Australia.

I should stress here, it is my belief that we do have the time and the technology to address the growing problem of salinity - but we must begin the program immediately.

NFF is disappointed that the spending announced last November for the National Action Plan on Salinity has not hit the ground.

$1.4 billion was allocated but to date hardly a dollar has actually found its way to improving land degradation. Recently South Australia and Victoria signed up to the program but it seems that we have wasted a year in bureaucratic buck-passing and procrastination.

We urge whoever wins on November 10 to take charge of this important area and get the money out there.

A joint report prepared by the National Farmers' Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation called Repairing the Country revealed that land degradation and salinity were costing the nation about $2 billion a year. Based on current research, NFF believes this figure will rise to $6 billion a year if nothing is done.

This report also showed that degradation through salinity cost Australians $270 million a year, degradation through acid soils cost $300 million a year, erosion cost us $80 million and water quality problems were costing all of us $450 million each year.

That's why we must tackle this problem now and every Australian must ensure our natural resource base is protected for future generations.

The Prime Minister today announced in Melbourne, as part of the Coalition's Environment Policy, $350 million from the Natural Heritage Trust would be allocated towards water quality and salinity, which will assist in addressing this vital and growing problem.

In terms of other rural policy, NFF's election priorities are rural health, education, taxation and infrastructure. We are also focussed on quarantine and veterinary services, telecommunications, industrial relations, National Competition Policy, the concentration of buying power and trade.

We are now more than half way through the 33-day campaign and already we've seen a number of polices launched that affect rural and regional Australia.

While we strongly oppose Labor's plan to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements and its push to ratify the Kyoto agreement, we supported its moves to further simplify the BAS.

The Coalition's regional policy launched last Monday contained some positive initiatives such as policies to address the important issue of buyer dominance for farm products through a review of the Trade Practices Act. The policy launch also featured new funding for roads through the black spot program, funding for rural television and $100 million for aged care in country Australia.

The Coalition's launch followed Kim Beazley's regional policy launch last Saturday week.

The NFF welcomed Labor's commitment to strengthen the public interest test in National Competition Policy to reflect community concerns. We were pleased to see Mr Beazley's commitment that fuel taxes would not rise.

But we have serious concerns about the ALP's plan for Enterprise Zones and its impact on rural Australia. Under their approach, there is a serious risk that resources are sucked into the zones at the expense of areas outside the zones. Thus rural townships could dwindle while regional centres are strengthened.

We are not convinced that this sort of approach actually benefits rural Australia as opposed to regional Australia.

We are also concerned about the method of identifying these zones. When we read the Labor Party's infrastructure policy we were initially encouraged by the emphasis in the text to infrastructure investment and the acknowledgement of the need to improve Australia's freight transport.

But the policy is unclear about how this will be achieved and when you look at the spending table in the policy in fact there is a dearth of new spending on road and rail.

Last Wednesday evening in Sydney, Mark Vaile launched the Coalition's trade policy. We were interested in the Coalition's intentions to establish an Office of Trade Negotiations in DFAT.

With the hopeful launch of a new WTO round, Australia's interests can only be enhanced by such an increased focus on trade negotiations in DFAT.

NFF welcomes the Coalition's plans to increase resources to encourage trade success in rural Australia through a significant expansion to the TradeStart program.

The Coalition has foreshadowed an increase in funding for the Export Market Development Grants Scheme but Labor has outbid them so far with its intention to spend an extra $15 million on EMDG in 2002-03. And we are expecting details on Labor's trade policy this afternoon.

Both major parties have released education policies and NFF is working with the Isolated Children's Parents' Association to analyse these in terms of their impact on rural Australia.

NFF is preparing a comprehensive report card analysing all polices from all political parties that affect rural Australia. This will be released in the week before the election.

But at this stage I would have to say that the majority of NFF's priority issues are being taken seriously by the major parties. We are looking forward to working closely with the government of the day - who ever that may be - to improve the social and economic viability of rural Australia.

Thanks again for the invitation to speak to you today.

Copyright © 2001 National Farmers’ Federation. All Rights Reserved.