Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Australia Fund clarification”

19 September 2014

Earlier this month I co-sponsored a motion with Queensland Palmer United Party Senator Glen Lazarus to establish a Joint Select Committee of the Federal Parliament to consider the establishment of an initiative called the Australia Fund.

While there was strong media reportage of the announcement at the time, I feel there is still much misunderstanding about what the inquiry aims to do and the genuine opportunity it provides for a national conversation about economic resilience in rural communities.

In fact, my parliamentary colleagues in the PUP party have similarly been frustrated by some attempts to explain the intent of Australia fund inquiry, with Clive Palmer issuing a press release within 72 hours of the inquiry’s announcement stating he was “disappointed by media coverage.”

Palmer attempted to clarify his position by stating the purpose of the Australia fund would be to provide quicker and more effective natural disaster relief during times of drought, bushfires, cyclones, floods etc.

So let me from the outset state that I do not support the establishment of an Australia Fund.

It is a matter of public record the Australia Fund motion was agreed to between the Abbott government and the Palmer United Party as part of a suite of arrangements associated with the passage of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Repeal Bill.

Lazarus’ motion was drafted before I partnered into the initiative and, from the outset, I am on the record as saying that while the concept is well-intentioned, I think some of its objectives are destined to fail.

The fund contemplates all sorts of incredulous things including loans and or loan guarantees to financially distressed rural and manufacturing businesses through to outright capitalization of the failing enterprises, the waiving of their interest obligations and indeed, the outright control of the business by the fund for an unspecified period of time.

Many of these concepts will never win support among parliamentarians. Almost every element of these sections of the motion offends the view of the economic rational free marketeers sitting in our current parliament.

It is also against one of the Coalition’s principal statements relating to ending the “age of entitlement”.

The establishment of an inquiry does not in any way guarantee the adoption of any ensuing recommendations that the Select Committee might make.

Indeed some inquiries are philosophically doomed before they even begin. However, I do not believe this inquiry will be one of them.

I have thrown my support behind the inquiry because there is an urgent need for a national conversation about the future economic resilience of our rural and regional communities.

I believe this inquiry provides an opportunity to re-examine drought and debt public policy with crucial contributions from our city-based politicians.

In the seven months that I have been a Senator, I have spoken countless times in the chamber and in the media about the need for substantial structural review and, as will often be necessary, reform, across agriculture and its allied industries to ensure we are not our own worst enemies when seeking to expand market opportunities in the coming decades.

This review and reform process will take different forms for different sectors within agriculture.

However, we should all agree that a fundamental component that all farmers and graziers share is exposure to the variances of the seasons.

Drought was last this bad about a century ago, during the so-called ‘Federation Drought’. These years had a devastating effect on stock numbers in Queensland, with sheep numbers falling from 91 million to 54 million, and cattle from 11.8 million to 7 million.

The Federation Drought was characterised – like countless other droughts – by plagues of rabbits and dingoes and also saw much land degradation due to overstocking.

The damage caused by this natural disaster led to the building of catchment storage and distribution facilities that would enable farmers to enhance the productivity of the land, protect their interests from drought and support regional development and settlement.

It also led to calls for the government action to manage the waters of the Murray River.

But what will be the major lessons learnt from this current drought?

I believe the Australia Fund inquiry has the potential to start a conversation on this important subject.

It is time for Australians to make up their minds about what type of agricultural and primary production sector we want for ourselves and, more importantly, on what terms that might be achieved.

While some have already dismissed this inquiry, I believe it provides an opportunity of significant scale.

We should avoid becoming distracted with the wording of the proposal. Instead, we should concentrate on the motion’s ‘intent’ or the ‘spirit.’

I look forward to reporting its activities as we proceed.