Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Farm debt limiting our future”

16 May 2014

The view from my kitchen window is of the Toowoomba range. On any given morning, I can make myself a cup of coffee and look out my window to see the endless procession of trucks carting Queensland produce down the mountain towards the global marketplace.

As I sip a mouthful of my brew and prepare for the day’s work, the iconic highway that neighbours my home carts almost 60 per cent of all the goods that will eventually depart from the Port of Brisbane.

From the cotton that will clothe the Chinese to the beef that will feed the Japanese, the Toowoomba range is a microcosm of our agriculture sector’s international momentum.

We are increasingly being told that a vibrant, innovative and competitive agricultural sector will be one of the pillars essential to underpinning a diverse, world class Australian economy.

But if we are to truly capitalise on the increasing food and fibre demands in this ‘Asian century’ then our government must work with private enterprise to address the structural concerns underpinning sector confidence.

I stood on the Federal Senate chamber floor recently and spoke out against the inaction of the banking sector in providing relevant and accurate data detailing the true extent of farm debt across Australia, particularly our northern regions.

I believe this information shortfall hampers the ability of governments to formulate relevant public policy for the rural sector.

It also limits the ability of not for profit organisations, such as social and financial counsellors, to accurately allocate resources across rural regions.

I would argue that making farm debt more flexible and manageable and increasing farm gate profitability are among the biggest structural challenges confronting the rural sector as its prominence increases on the national agenda.

The federal government is working towards improving farm gate profitability through the development of the white papers for agricultural competitiveness and northern development. The Queensland government has committed to doubling agriculture output by 2040.

But the nation’s overlying debt challenges remain the elephant in the room. Just as individual farms must reduce over-reliance on credit, so too must the nation.

Households all across the Australia are waking up with the stark reality that all the benefits to our standard of living from more than two decades of unprecedented economic growth are at risk if we do not take action to address our nation’s bottom line.

Australia exports more than half its agricultural output and cannot afford to lose its momentum nor competitive edge due to national complacency on debt.

We must make the necessary savings so we can dedicate more funding towards nation building infrastructure.

In my home state, freight volumes are expected to increase from 871 million tonnes in 2010-11 to a projected 1741 million tonnes by 2026.

To give some perspective, that will be the annual equivalent of 21.7 million more truck trips on our roads or 174,000 more freight train trips on our state network.

The world wants our product.

We have got to start building the infrastructure that is going to lift productivity across an economy that has been finding it tough over the last few years.

Whilst no one doubts there is a plenitude of burgeoning opportunities, we first must confront the government’s tough fiscal situation so that we can restore stability and increase business’ ability to plan.

Whether it is moving a mountain or eating an elephant, difficult obstacles have to be tackled one step at a time.

Federal funding for the second Toowoomba range crossing was among the major project announcements from Joe Hockey on Tuesday night.

Once completed, trucks will likely travel this alternative route as they continue their path from the farms of Western Queensland to the Port of Brisbane and beyond.

It will significantly change the morning view from my kitchen window – and will prove a clear vision for agriculture’s future is in the frame.