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Federal Budget ’09 must offer more than a short-term fix

19 January 2009

WITH the Australian Government’s Federal Budget focus on injecting economic stimulus – and Australian agriculture vital in keeping the national accounts from falling into the red – the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is urging the Government to invest in long-term development and growth to sustain Australians through the global financial crisis.

“If done right, the Government can provide the spending necessary to shore-up the economy now, while also ensuring that investment generates long-term growth,” NFF President David Crombie explained. “The NFF’s Federal Budget Submission 2009 (released today) illustrates that Australia and the international community confront two major and immediate challenges – the global financial crisis and the world food shortage.

“Both have short- and long-term ramifications. Each threatens to change world economic prospects and the standard of living that Australians have come to expect. Both will also have far-reaching social impacts here at home and to communities in developed and developing countries.

“In fact, the most recent national account figures show agriculture (with 14.9% growth) is keeping the Australian economy from slipping into negative territory. With 1.6 million Australian jobs hinging on farm production, our sector’s ability to keep driving the economy is contingent on building productivity.

“The Federal Budget imperative will undoubtedly be to inject immediate economic stimulus. While the Government is right to focus on the boiling-over global financial crisis, by investing in agriculture it can simultaneously stimulate the economy and address the worsening global food situation.

“It is in this context that we have identified initiatives where a fiscal shot-in-the-arm can not only bolster current economic activity but also generate lasting and self-perpetuating national prosperity. This must be the Government’s ultimate budgetary goal.”

The NFF’s Federal Budget Submission 2009, therefore, covers 10 priority areas:

Drought Reform

The NFF seeks significant funding to support the development of a new drought policy model, one that focuses on drought management and preparedness, risk management tools, environmental sustainability and recovery from drought. These measures should be available to all farmers, not just those in an Exceptional Circumstance-declared area.

Research & Development

Shockingly, Australia’s research intensity in agriculture today has slumped to 1970 levels. As a result, Australian farmers’ leading productivity growth of 2.8% per year over the past 20 years is petering out. Meanwhile, developing countries are outstripping our agricultural research spending. The Government must turnaround this disturbing decline and boost core infrastructure and research capacity.

Further, the Government must recognise that the threat of a changing climate is a ‘new’ research need, requiring a new funding stream. The Government must not ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ by siphoning funding from legitimate and essential productivity research to fund its climate change agenda.

Data & Information Services

Under the 2008 Federal Budget the Rudd Government slashed funding for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) by $22 million. With accurate, relevant and reliable information being paramount for all industries, not least of all agriculture, the Government must return the ABS to, at least, 2007-08 funding levels.

Water

The Australian Government must ensure – and do so with haste – that on-farm water efficiency projects under its ‘Water for the Future’ program are actually implemented. Despite accelerating water buy-back, the corresponding infrastructure component to achieve water-use efficiency is still yet to materialise.

Further, while the newly-formed Murray-Darling Basin Authority is required to report on the social and economic consequences of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, there is no requirement, and little or no resourcing, to actually undertake studies to determine these consequences. The Government should undertake a Social and Economic Impacts assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Environment

In light of the overwhelming success of, and support for, the Environmental Stewardship program, the NFF is calling for its rapid expansion to target all ecological communities and species protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Further, given the ever-increasing listing of new species and ecological communities protected under the EPBC Act, the NFF recommends funds to better communicate with and advise farmers as to EPBC Act obligations, particularly when a change in farming practices may contravene the Act.

Taxation

The NFF asserts there are significant and long-standing biases against regional living. These are likely to be compounded by the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, increasing the costs of fuel and energy... costs that see regional individuals, families and entire communities disproportionately exposed. To correct the existing, and likely future, biases, the NFF contends that the Tax Zone Rebate Scheme for individuals be reviewed and that a study be undertaken to assess its effectiveness and the potential for expanding it, including for businesses.

Social Security

The NFF asserts that the five-year waiting period applied only to retiring farmers – that is, those who gift the family farm to their children – before being allowed to access the age pension, is unfair and should be abolished. Such a move would expedite sensible succession planning across the Australian farm sector.

Education

In the face of inherent disadvantages for rural and regional students, the NFF says a major boost to regional universities and education services is long overdue. Such an investment would establish a world-class agricultural university, see more students retained in regional areas and attract metropolitan students to regional campuses with many opting to remain in regional communities after graduating.

Further, the NFF is also recommending the Government continue funding – and, thereby, retain – the Star Rating Scheme and Trade Teacher of the Year Awards under the purview of the Institute for Trade Skills Excellence.

Infrastructure

The Government must ensure that its nation-building pledge under the 2008 Federal Budget, via the Building Australia Fund, be honoured in full. Specifically, the concern is that to-date only $12.6 billion has been allocated to the $20 billion Fund.

Further, rural Australians eagerly await the Government’s response to the Regional Telecommunications Review and expect the pledged $400 million initial commitment to be delivered under the 2009 Federal Budget. As part of this response, the Government must clearly articulate how its proposed National Broadband Network will ‘revolutionise’ the availability and quality of telecommunications services in rural Australia – both now and over time as technology and service need changes. The Government must address the uncertainty over how future upgrades will be funded, on a guaranteed basis, given it has abolished the $2 billion Communications Fund.

Quarantine

The Government must inject substantial funding into Australia’s quarantine and biosecurity regime, as per the recommendations of the recent Beale Quarantine and Biosecurity Review.

[ENDS]

Media Enquiries: Brett Heffernan on (02) 6273 3855 or 0408 448 250.

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