Senator Anne Ruston addresses conference

Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Senator Anne Ruston, addressed the 2016 National Conference, with attendees encouraged by her clear support of the nursery industry and the importance of industry associations.

The full text of her speech follows:160310 Anne Ruston

Thank you very much for the invitation to address your conference.

My path to being a Senator and now the Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources was not designed – in fact I am somewhat of an accidental politician.

After a short stint in the mid-nineties as an adviser to the SA Government, I have spent the majority of my working life associated with irrigated horticulture and viticulture.

I’ve worked in Government, I’ve worked in the private sector, I’ve worked for others and I’ve owned my own business, I’ve been involved in industries that are flying high and I’ve spent time in those that are doing it tough.

I like to think that this combination of experiences stands me in good stead to understand the issues, opportunities and challenges of my portfolio responsibilities.

I have specific and dedicated responsibility for forestry, fisheries, horticulture, wine and the Murray Darling Basin Plan implementation.

I can’t think of a better combination of portfolios cause if you think about it – if some great disaster befell us and the only things left were my portfolios we’d all be fine. Sitting under a tree, drinking wine, munching on seafood and fresh fruit with a majestic river flowing past – what more does one need!

To pick up on the theme of your conference, SHARE THE VISION, THE ROAD AHEAD, what I intend to do today is to give you an insight into how I see the future of agriculture in Australia.

Most importantly I believe that there is a distinct role of Government to play – our actions, policies and directions have the capacity to hugely impact on the your ability to be successful or not, if we get it wrong.

There are a number of things we can do but first and foremost I believe we should get out of your way.

Right now the role we play in your lives is way too intrusive. But, to a large degree, you as industry need to take responsibility for allowing this to happen. And it is you as a united industry that has the power to take back that control.

I am firmly of the view that industry should be able to do whatever it likes with grower contributions.  As long as the Peak Industry Body can demonstrate it is truly representative of its industry and it has the necessary governance procedures in place then it should be the PIB that informs this process.

An inability to do this merely leaves it to government to make these decisions – and I can promise you there is no-one in Government who is as well placed to make decisions about your industry as you are.

But to be truly representative you need to know who your levy payers are – and here in lies the challenge for your industry given the point at which your levies are collected.

I know I’m probably preaching to the converted because if you have bothered to be part of this conference you are highly engaged with your industry.

What I will say is that I am a great supporter of industry associations and I’ve made it very clear that it will be the industry association through which I will be consulting over any Government policy initiatives.

Which brings me to the next most important thing Government can be doing to assist industry – Research and Development.

Investment in R&D has a 12-fold benefit so we believe it is an extremely good tool to stimulate economic growth.

The government and industry invest around $550 million annually through the rural agriculture R&D corporations, and new government initiatives in this space will increase this investment and provide more targeted results.

On top of that, and as part of our election commitment to do so, we are now contributing $200 million for the Rural R&D for Profit grants programme, until the year 2022.

These R&D programmes are fantastically complimented by the Government’s National Science and Innovation Agenda – a $1.1 billion campaign that encourages individual businesses to develop good ideas and embrace risk.

There are so many exiting R&D projects that will directly benefit farmers, for example, improving irrigation practices, developing biological control of weeds and pests, and using the latest imaging and robotic technologies to improve yield from some tree crops.

It is R&D, Innovation and technology that will ultimately decide our future in primary industries.

We are a country with a very high standard of living, with very high standards of environmental compliance and a very generous social welfare system.  All these things, however, come at a cost – a cost that almost all of our competitors face to a much lesser extent.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should move away from these standards – they are what makes Australia such a great country in which to live, work and do business.

What it does do though, is make us so much more reliant on being cleverer, more agile and more innovative because this is where our competitive advantage must come from.

It is for this reason the Australian Government has such a strong commitment to Research and Development.

We are equally committed to removing any unnecessary, inefficient and overly burdensome regulation.

The government has implemented a number of different measures to positively deregulate industry.

One of the deregulation actions that will interest your industry is amendments to the Biosecurity Act in 2015. This Act really does modernise our biosecurity laws, and is estimated to save at least $6.9 million a year in compliance costs for businesses. It does so without compromising our strict biosecurity protections.

Regulation can be good and regulation can be bad – we are committed to getting rid of the bad regulation.

Biosecurity is one area where Government has a major role to play and regulation isn’t a dirty word.  With the ever increasing mobility of people and increased ease of international trade movements never before has biosecurity been so high on our agenda.

I often get into trouble for arguing that biosecurity should trump free trade but if you have a look at some of the devastating impacts of incursions I doubt I would get much argument from any primary producer.

Without an effective biosecurity system, cropping and livestock farmers would lose 7-12 per cent of their profits.

One of the most devastating biosecurity threats to our citrus farmers for instance is citrus greening.  To put in a context that is easily comprehendible… if there were to be an outbreak of citrus greening, then almost half of Australia’s citrus markets would close.

This very example is the reason why we have committed $200 million to improve Australia’s ability to understand, detect and respond to any disease or pest that could hurt our productivity.

The Federal Government has provided over $1 million to state governments and industry to assist them respond to incursions, including browsing ant and cucumber green mottle mosaic virus in the Northern Territory, Panama disease in Northern Queensland, and the red imported fire ant at Port Botany.

You’d be hard pressed not to support a robust and precautionary approach to biosecurity after seeing the devastation of these incursions.

Can I also acknowledge the challenges your industry faces because of water.  Your total reliance on a reliable water supply means the availability and cost of water has a huge impact on your profitability.

Having lived through the millennium drought as an irrigator on the Murray River I can sympathise.  But as it turned out, some good came of this adversity. When we bought the property in 2002, water usage per hectare was about 15000ML. We now use less than 6000ml per hectare.  So it forced us into action to address our watering inefficiency – a problem I don’t think we even realised we had until the drought brought it to our attention.

Our Government understands that a secure and reliable water supply is fundamentally important to many of our primary industry sectors.

I can say with a great deal of pride that the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund is open for business.

We have $500 million on the table to support the construction of dams, pipelines, weirs and managed aquifer recharge projects that generate new water for economic and regional development, including for new and expanded agriculture.

Water is a key limiting factor to Australia’s agricultural future. If we want to grow our agricultural sector and exports, we need to ensure that we have the appropriate water infrastructure. It is crucial to the future profitability and productivity of Australian agriculture.

It is not what we say that will be important – it’s what we do.

For too long Governments have had a habit of making big broad policy announcements – likely Australia to become the ‘Food bowl of Asia’. What does that mean if the policy rhetoric is not backed with the policy settings to deliver it?

The delivery of the Government’s Agriculture White Paper is our demonstration that we are prepared to ‘put our money where our mouth is’ when it comes to agriculture.

In conclusion, can I say if there was ever a statement of the importance this Government places on agriculture, it was the decision by Barnaby Joyce to retain the Agriculture and Water Resources portfolio when he was elected Deputy Prime Minister.

Like Barnaby, I am a great believer that it will be, and has always been, agriculture that underpins our economy.

It has been a great pleasure to be here today and I wish you all the best with the conference.