AUSTRALIA has awoken to the importance of agriculture which is underpinning the nation’s security by providing food assurity during the COVID-19 crisis, according to Federal Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud.
Addressing an audience of 440 logged into this afternoon’s Rural Press Club of Queensland webinar, which replaced the club’s usual lunch function, Mr Littleproud said the coronavirus pandemic had led to a reconnection between agriculture and the wider Australian community.
“That is something that at times has been taken for granted, but what these extraordinary circumstances have highlighted is the important role agriculture plays, not just at the farm gate but through all those services that support it, whether that be a tyre mechanic or a vet, right through to the processing sector,” he said.
The Minister commended the agricultural sector for taking up the challenge of maintaining food production and supply chains.
“Industry has not waited for government. You have led from the front. While we have implemented a number of measures to support agriculture, the most heartening aspect is that industry didn’t wait to be asked,” he said.
“You were already ahead of the curve ensuring your businesses were protected and the continuity you provide to supply chains, supermarkets and export markets was already being put in place. The government simply had to put guide rails around it.”
In for long haul
Mr Littleproud said Australia had to adapt to the “new norm” and it was important not to raise expectations that the situation was going to change anytime soon.
“We have a long road to hoe. The social distancing in place at the moment is making an impact, but we are not there yet, so we need to brace ourselves for the new norm,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean the world shuts down. It means we have to innovate around this.
“It will leave a significant financial burden that we will have to pay. It is important to understand that the building blocks for repaying that and rebuilding our nation’s economy will come from agriculture.”
Ensuring exports, imports
Mr Littleproud said the government was aware of the importance of keeping export markets and international supply chains open while the crisis unfolded.
“We are cogniscent of the fact that agricultural inputs will be required for the winter cropping season. We are working with our international embassies, particularly in Asia, to ensure there is continuity,” he said.
“We also ask producers not to get into a hoarding mentality. It is important you have faith and confidence in the supply chain. There is intelligence to suggest around 90 per cent of factories in China are back up and going, so we should see the continuity of supply continuing.”
But while the government was focused on managing the COVID-19 crisis, it hadn’t lost sight of the other ongoing challenges facing agriculture.
“The drought is not over. The drought future fund has now been tabled in parliament. $100 million a year has been finalised. There is still the rollout of the North Queensland floods and drought programs,” he said.
Research and development
Responding to a question about how research and development would be funded in future with the Federal budget coming under pressure from the coming COVID-19-induced deficit, Mr Littleproud said while funding wouldn’t be reduced, it was not going to increase.
“The reality is we don’t have any more to put into R&D, and I don’t think the levy payer has too much more to put in, particularly after drought,” he said.
“That is why the modernisation of our R&D is so important to commercialise what we have done. We have some structural reform that needs to take place.”
Despite the strain on the nation’s finances, Mr Littleproud said the $9.3 billion Inland Rail project would go ahead.
“Infrastructure is important for keeping the economy moving. In fact, we will probably expedite and bring forward a lot of infrastructure projects where we can. There are some issues with Inland Rail, particularly in this part of the world (crossing the Condamine floodplain), but it is important to get that right and the Inland Rail built,” he said.
Answering a question on what impact there would be on foreign investment, Mr Littleproud said that until the COVID-19 crisis was over, everything would be reviewed by the Treasurer and the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB).
“Foreign investment can still continue, but the national interest test will be looked at very closely and the Treasurer will be making determinations on any foreign investment with the Board. But he has the ultimate say on it,” he said.
Mr Littleproud assured businesses associated with agriculture and food security, such as processing plants and machinery dealerships, that they were classified as essential services and would quality for exemptions during lock downs to ensure they kept operating.
“You will be essential to us. We need to make sure we keep the continuity of the supply chain going. Don’t panic. The reality is we need you. The nation has awoken to the responsibility you bear and the importance you play,” he said.
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