Achieving higher farm-gate returns and fighting to keep families on the land must be at the core of agricultural policy in Australia, minister for agriculture Barnaby Joyce has told parliament in his maiden speech to the House of Representatives this morning.
The member for New England, deputy Nationals leader and former Senator for Queensland said a strong and vibrant agricultural sector was needed for the future of the nation.
Mr Joyce drew on life experiences including growing up on a family sheep and cattle property at Danglemah between Tamworth and Woolbrook in NSW’s New England, working as rural accountant, raising a family and his career as a politician to explain why he believes Australia must do more to return family farming operations to profitability.
His first memory of the New England, which he now serves as Federal member, was a laminated bench in the kitchen of Danglemah supported by two pieces of pipe drilled into a wall around which family life and discussions about farming and politics centred.
He described the happy times of a childhood working hard with his father and brothers mustering, drafting, shearing, fencing, dipping and sowing winter crops. Then there were the hour long drives to Sunday mass wearing clip-on bow ties and waiting for hours in the car afterwards while parents enjoyed weekly catch ups with friends from around the district.
“Life was simple but happy,” he recalled. “The work was hard at times because the hills meant a vast proportion was physical labour.
“Fencing with a crowbar and shovel to dig postholes on stoney ridges, splitting stringy bark posts with wedges, catching and lifting lambs at lamb marking time and putting them up through the window for dad to mark.” Life on the land was honest, he said. “Your endeavours feed and clothe people and it is based around the family. “Growing up on the soil gives a strong attachment to the country, and is integral to what the nation is.”
Mr Joyce said his beliefs were premised on the notion that people who work hard and live decent lives, producing a product has real worth, should be fairly paid and fairly dealt with.
Farming families had always been prepared to make sacrifices “because things will get better”. But better never seemed to happen.
He lamented the loss of many major businesses in the mining and agricultural sectors which were now ‘foreign owned and gone’, and said the family farm of the 1970s he knew as a child was generally unviable today.
“The deft hand of external conscience has crystalised so that farm management practices have to conform to a view whose religion is quasi alternate environmentalism of forms, of paperwork, of trees having obtained an anthropomorphic character.
“We have evolved to the ridiculous extent where animal rights are interchangeable with human rights.”
The Department of Agriculture had also been usurped in recent years to a point where it was now “a mere ambassador for agriculture”.
“Water and vegetation are with state and federal environment departments, (the) sale of many agricultural products and land is with trade and treasury, even determination of the use of agricultural products is held by independent authorities within the agricultural portfolio with no say of the minister.”
On that front he commended Prime Minister Tony Abbott for his announcement earlier this year to develop a white paper to investigate how Australia can deliver a better outcome for agriculture.
Australia’s future prosperity was dependent upon a strong and vibrant agricultural sector, he said.
“If we are solely reliant on mines, we will live in a boom bust cycle. If our future is only in services then we must contend with lower wages, one click away in the internet.
“Anything that can be done on a computer can be done somewhere else by someone else at a cheaper rate.”
Explaining his own interest in politics, Mr Joyce said that as a child he learned that most issues people were concerned about had a connection to politics. If wharves were on strike and couldn’t move the wool, if roads hadn’t been graded, if chemicals to treat flystrike were removed from approved use, if overseas markets were shut down, if vegetation management rights were taken away, it all linked back to politics. If you couldn’t build a dam or fix a road because of a frog, that went beyond politics and to “verging on the barking mad”, he added.
As early as age 10, Mr Joyce said he had a desire to enter politics because he wanted to be a part of the solution, not merely “a venter of problems”.
Prior to entering parliament after winning a Senate seat for the Nationals in Queensland in 2004, Mr Joyce worked in the banking sector with the QIDC and then as a rural accountant running his own country firm at St George.
He said was deeply concerned to see the financial predicament Australia has been left in, and said the country had to return to a position of financial control.
“We must develop our capacity to get more which is of worth to a venue that is willing to pay for it on terms and conditions that are to our greatest advantage and has us as a nation negotiating that advantage from a position of strength.
“We must get a better return to the farmgate and fighting to keep families on the land must be the core of agricultural policy.”
On the issue of foreign investment Mr Joyce said he believed responsible foreign investment was essential.
However, citing examples such as ancient Rome conquering Egypt to take control of its wheat production, and Ireland exporting its grain to England during the famine while its own people starved at home, he said history had shown that political stability came from a public that was well fed.
He urged against relinquishing domestic control of food production.
"No one will tend the field of our future in the way that persons who will reap from it will. No other nation will look after us, in fact, they will play to our weaknesses.
"The basic rule remains the same – look after your own."
Mr Joyce said that from his observation, two things happened to politicians when they arrived in Canberra: “You gain weight, and you lose touch.”
“The passion of the issues from the laminated kitchen bench from where you started become a memory and then an excuse.
“You get embroiled in the machismo of the debate in the chamber, which may collect the interest of your peers but not the respect of the public. It becomes a perverse form of mud wrestling in a suit.”
He said the most important thing for politicians was to always ‘stay in touch with those who’s beliefs gave you the chance to represent them’.