BY COLIN BETTLES
12 Feb, 2012
THE federal opposition started the new parliamentary year this week by accusing the Labor government of abandoning agriculture.
Shadow Agriculture Minister John Cobb was highly critical of a new mission statement developed by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), accusing it of lacking direction.
In a letter to industry stakeholders in December last year, the Department outlined its new mission statement which said: "We work to sustain the way of life and prosperity of all Australians".
But Mr Cobb said the new mission statement failed to mention agriculture specifically or give any direction or accountability about the Department values.
"The Government’s mission is to focus on the Australian way of life," he said.
"Surely the agricultural department’s role is to promote the needs of Australian agriculture."
Mr Cobb said under the previous Coalition government the Department’s mission was: "Increasing the profitability, competitiveness and sustainability of Australia’s agricultural, fisheries and forestry industries and enhancing the natural resource base to achieve greater national wealth and stronger rural and regional communities".
He said the Labor government’s new vision was to "blind" the Department’s primary purpose to create an environment for investment and productivity growth in the farm sector.
"My fear is this latest winding down of purpose and ambition in DAFF’s deliverables for farmers makes a mockery of any pretence that this government or its Department understands the farm sector, its needs or the people in it," Mr Cobb said.
Mr Cobb said DAFF had to focus on food security challenges and gearing the nation’s agricultural industries to meet them.
NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash was also scathing of the government’s treatment of agriculture in her start to the 2012 parliamentary year.
Ms Nash questioned Labor’s commitment to agriculture saying it had a track record of neglecting the sector.
On Tuesday, she said Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan failed to mention agriculture as being amongst those industries significant to the national economy but currently facing challenges.
During a doorstop interview, Mr Swan said the government’s number one concern was jobs and although the economy had a low unemployment rate of 5.2 per cent, stresses and strains existed in the economy due to the higher Australian dollar.
"So we’ve got stresses in the auto industry, we’ve got challenges in the tourism industry, we’ve got challenges in the education export industry. All of those things can happen at the same time in an economy which is growing at trend but which is experiencing growing pains in other parts of the economy - our task is to deal with both of those things," Mr Swan said.
Ms Nash said the agriculture sector didn’t rate a mention, despite generating $155 billion-a-year in production and underpinning 12pc of GDP.
Ms Nash also panned the Department’s new mission statement saying it was "weak and directionless".
She said other examples of the government’s neglect of agriculture included mismanaging and delaying water reform in Murray-Darling Basin communities, introducing a carbon tax that will increase farming costs and failing to hold talks with Middle Eastern countries about export accreditation changes for live exports in the lead up to the deadline.
Ms Nash also pointed to a ten-fold increase in foreign investment under Labor in the last three years, a failure to spend one cent of the $1.5 million allocated to the management and control of the damaging Myrtle Rust disease and also failure to adequately respond to grower concerns about New Zealand apple import protocols.
"2012 is the Australian Year of the Farmer," she said.
"The Labor government must start taking agriculture seriously - it’s the least our farmers deserve."
A Department spokesperson said DAFF continued to support the work and competitiveness of the agricultural sector.
The statement said DAFF was continuing the tradition almost 90 years after its predecessor - the Department of Markets and Migration - was created in 1925, as the first federal agency dedicated to agriculture.
"The new strategic statement reinforces the government’s commitment to ensure agriculture, forestry and fisheries policies are relevant to all Australians.
"The Department’s strategic statement focuses on the productivity, competitiveness and sustainability of all portfolio industries, including agriculture," the spokesperson said.
Federal Nationals Leader Warren Truss said the government was "out of ideas, out of excuses and fast running out of time", with a leadership challenge on the horizon unless the situation improved.
"You get the sense it’s just a matter of time before they take another stab at a leadership coup."
"We need champions for our farmer sector, both within Federal Cabinet and in DAFF, to unashamedly advance farmers’ needs and interests in producing more from finite resources," Mr Cobb said.
"But this mob have simply given up.
"At the height of the global financial crisis, it was our farm economy that kept this nation out of recession, recording double-digit growth while other sectors languished in negative territory.
"The only mission this Government has is to systematically undermine the Australian farm sector."