National Farmers Federation’s blueprint for agriculture-led recovery

Article by Richard Ferguson courtesy of the Australian.

Australia’s farmers want industrial relations rules simplified, export fees waived, cuts to green tape and millions poured into regional infrastructure in order to spark a post-coronavirus economic recovery led by the agricultural sector.

National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson will tell the National Press Club on Tuesday that agriculture can lead Australians back to prosperity if federal and state governments invest more heavily in the regions.

After years of being hammered by bushfires, drought and floods, agricultural businesses have performed relatively strongly throughout the coronavirus pandemic as the regions avoided the worst of the virus spread.

The NFF’s report into economic reform in a post-COVID Australia will be released on Tuesday, to coincide with Ms Simson’s press club address, and includes a number of recommendations on environmental laws, tax reforms and changes to workplace rules.

Ms Simson’s address will focus on the need to reform the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and call for farmers to play a bigger role in setting carbon targets, plus seek a $1bn fund to incentivise farmers to meet biodiversity targets.

The interim findings of an independent review of the EPBC Act are due to be released in the next fortnight. “Farmers manage 51 per cent of the Australian landscape — every day we create positive environmental outcomes on behalf of all Australians,” Ms Simson will tell the National Press Club.

“But for too long draconian and complex environmental regulation has shackled farm businesses. Australian farmers are already leading the world in reducing carbon emissions. Our red meat sector has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“To measure agriculture’s impact and that of other industries, we call on the government to be inclusive and transparent with the data used to set national emissions reduction targets.”

The NFF’s report, called Get Australia Growing, said all export fees and charges should be waived for farmers for the next two years as they search for alternative trade routes, amid warnings red tape was holding farmers back in key overseas markets. Ms Simson will also call for 20 new multi-million-dollar regional development deals for rural towns, which will build infrastructure and provide special tax incentives for those areas.

“If the national cabinet has proven one thing, it’s what can be achieved across borders when there is a shared goal,” Ms Simson will say. “We’re not in the business of picking winners but regions that come to mind are: the Midwest and Goldfields in the West; the Limestone Coast in South Australia, Victoria’s Mallee, the Riverina of NSW, the Darling Downs and magnificent central Queensland.”

The report said the Fair Work Act must be streamlined and suggested a review of unfair dismissal laws, an increase in flexible individual arrangements with workers and a probe into annualised salary rules. “The complexity of the industrial relations system is exacerbated by distinctive features of the farm sector such as remoteness, massive workforce fluctuations and turnover, and reliance on labour hire,” the report says.

“Consideration should be given to streamlining the Fair Work system so rights and obligations are easy to understand.”

The NFF’s report is backed by farmers, who say they are in a better financial position now than back in January when they were hammered by natural disasters.

Queensland farmer Krista Watkins and her husband Rob’s company Natural Evolution was the first to manufacture and export banana flour, which have they turned into health and beauty products. Her company has grown during the pandemic. “We’ve even been able to add staff. We had problems exporting to China early in the pandemic, so we made sure we had a plan and a product that would sell in the Australian market,” Ms Watkins said.

“At Natural Evolution, we use our own products and food waste from other farmers and find use for it – we’re putting that produce to use in manufacturing.

“Everyone is always saying we need to rebuild our manufacturing and agriculture can lead that, the regions can lead that. Government needs to provide more support to get that happening – special tax offsets, the sort of subsidies we see going into green energy.”

Little Big Dairy co-founder Erika Chesworth said her business had grown during the pandemic due to home deliveries, and nominated payroll tax and internet access as areas needing reform.

“The NBN is a joke and we flick between that and 3G. It’s holding us back,” she said.

“The NSW government is very generous to businesses starting out but payroll tax makes it very difficult to grow.’’

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