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Speech to the Rural Women's Summit, Canberra.

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The Hon. Tony Burke MP Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Tony Burke - Rural Women's Summit

27 June 2008 DAFF08/019tb

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Tony Burke Rural Women’s Summit Crowne Plaza Hotel Canberra

Kirsten Livermore, Tania Plibersek, Trish Crossan, Claire Moore, Ruth Webber, Kay Hull and Janelle Saffin, first of all, are all here. But most importantly welcome to the eighty women who have come from all around Australia to be part of the event today.

I understand the trade show last night went very well, from the comments that I’ve heard, and what I want to do this morning is just say a few brief words. Now that you’ve been told there’s a hot breakfast the moment I sit down, I know the comments there’ll be if it becomes a long speech.

But a few words that deal with that part of this summit that deals with women in agriculture, because obviously rural women goes to many issues beyond that as well.

The key sources of advice that come to me as a Minister through an extraordinary number of boards. And six or seven months into the job I’m quite sure I’ve still not seen and met with, in fact I probably still don’t know about, every board that is technically out there as an advisory board to me. I do have a very, very strong belief that those boards, if I’m going to go and get the best advice, have to be boards that are chosen on merit and are filled with the best people.

When boards keep appearing before me with about 20 - 25% female representation, I find it really hard to believe that the selection has been done purely on merit. I am not interested in imposing formal quotas on selection committees, but at the same time, I’ve got to say, it’s time - and I want to take the opportunity with you this morning, what I’ve done privately in letters to each of the selection committees - that selection on merit simply cannot be occurring when women are so consistently and so blatantly underrepresented on almost every single board that is meant to be advising me. It just can’t be right.

We’ve been working through what are the ways of trying to fix this. It’s involved some rather animated moments of frustration on my part, which fortunately people haven’t commented on too widely, but there is no easy fix. At the same time my expectations of the roles of organisations like Women in Agriculture in selection panels for themselves is something that will be a change you will start to see almost immediately. You will also start to find a greater involvement from my Department at a number of the gatherings that take place around the country.

I am very pleased this morning to announce that as part of Australia’s Farming Future I am able to inform you that we have set aside $500,000 every year, which will now be able to be used for community capacity-building and what that essentially means is the gatherings that already take place around the country through women in agriculture - the Australian Government now wants to be a direct sponsor of events at that, and we want to be able to start talking to you through those gatherings on a state- by-state basis so that my officials can provide more direct assistance, we can provide more direct assistance and there is now, as of the next financial year, which is within three or four days, half a million dollars will be dedicated to that particular purpose.

I also want to let you know about some of the reviews in policy where a lot of the organisational work that you are already involved with, whether it be in a professional capacity with a large number of you who are yourselves farmers, and also in the extraordinary amount of voluntary work that is done across the board by the people in this room. In reviewing drought policy we have been faced with the terrible problem of: how do you get this right? How do you get right policy where we are dealing with a climate that is making everything hard.

The first review which I have explained on many occasions is by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. Now that review of drought policy is just trying to deal with what would happen if we change nothing. If we changed none of our policy settings, what would actually happen. Because I don’t think anybody believes that when we do come out of this drought we’ll be waiting 20 to 25 years before we get to the next one. And yet that’s what our policy settings are currently meant to be aiming for.

With that in mind, in trying to review policy when I first asked for advice about how do we do this, a whole lot of people were saying to me, “Well, the Productivity Commission gives the best assessment of the economic analysis.” And that’s right, and now we’re doing that.

But we have got - and you know better than me - some of the toughest mental health outcomes, some of the toughest community-building problems in parts of the country where you all live. And that’s why I’d say it’s so important to have a very direct engagement in the social policy, and making sure that we could have a solid look at how we can get the social policies that affect communities during times of drought right.

I’m pleased that looking at my own table here, whether it be the CWA, whether it be through academic involvement, we have people here at my table who have a direct role, an absolutely direct role, in being members of that panel. And I want to thank them for doing that, and I want to ask all of you, please engage with the social policy review on drought policy as much as you engage in the economic policy review of the Productivity Commission.

If there’s any part of my policy work that is going to be difficult, it’s this one. And I was pleased to see in the Parliament the other day, we’ve actually now got indications of bipartisan support in this review. We don’t want to play politics, what we want to do is get the policy right. And the climate has demanded that we change the way the policy is. So we want to make sure we have every level of involvement, and there will be so many problems that you will see in policy that won’t have occurred to the rest of us.

I remember, one of the most useful meetings I’ve had since I got this job was when I took a 12 metre walk from my office to my conference room where I met with representatives from around the country that were in agriculture. In the course of about 45 minutes there were no fewer that three quite specific policy directions that changed as a result of that meeting. I do have a very direct understanding - and this is based on pure selfishness - I make better policy when you’re part of it. It’s as simple as that. And there is no agenda beyond that in the different changes whether it be board membership, whether it be engagement at gatherings, whether it be involvement in social policy and within policy review.

I want to make sure we get it right. We get it right when the people who are best able to contribute are directly involved. And from everything I’ve seen, whether it be in the forums I’ve mentioned, whether it be at 2020, wherever it’s occurred, I make better policy when the people in this room are involved in formulating it. I want to see that strengthened, and strengthened to a level that has not previously happened in the course of this portfolio throughout its history in this country. And I don’t want to do it for any reason other than that it’s better policy when you’re involved.

Thanks for being part of it this week, and there’s a whole lot of people relying on us to get it right, and I’m very pleased to have the involvement, the talent and that depth of commitment and passion that this room is full of. Thank you.