Address to the ABARES Outlook 2023 Conference – Canberra

7 March 2023


It’s a pleasure to be here with you at the opening of this year's ABARES Outlook Conference. And of course, it's a particular pleasure to be here for the very first time as your Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

I'd - of course - like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we're gathering on today, Ngunnawal People, and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. Thank you very much, Wally, for that fabulous Welcome to Country. We're also fortunate to be able to share in the lessons and the learnings of the oldest living civilization on earth. So we thank you for welcoming us to your Country.

This year, of course, we will all have the chance to not just acknowledge our First Peoples, but to recognise them in our Constitution by providing them with a Voice to Parliament; a voice, not a veto, on the issues that impact them. And I think that's a really exciting opportunity for our country. And whether we're a traditional owner of these lands, a 6th generation farmer, a farm worker, a consumer, an RDC or an official at the Agriculture Department, we all have a stake in the future of Australia's agriculture industry.

And this annual event provides a terrific opportunity to engage in thought-provoking conversation about the emerging trends that will shape agriculture in this country. And I also want to acknowledge the Departmental Secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, Jared Greenville from ABARES and all the other leaders from industry and government that we have joining us here today.

I've said before that I consider myself very fortunate to be Australia's Agriculture Minister at a time when overall conditions for the sector are pretty good. The country has witnessed good rainfall in most regions - a bit too much in some - but that good rainfall, combined with high commodity prices and diversified trade, has all added to a pretty positive story for agriculture in our country. And today's ABARES data reflects that. Today's data tells us that Australian agriculture is now a $90 billion industry, an all-time record. Times are overall very, very good. And I congratulate every farmer, every processor, every worker and supply chain member for this achievement. The work that all of you do really benefits our whole country and it's also translating to strong incomes for farmers. The snapshot of Australian agriculture that's been released by ABARES this morning shows that Australian broadacre and dairy farms received record farm cash incomes in the past two financial years.

Now that's not to say that this sector is not without its challenges, but good conditions make this the ideal time to build a new cooperative approach between government, farmers and the wider industry to tackle those challenges. I think it's really important that together we look ahead, we identify emerging trends, and we take action to shape their consequences. As the Prime Minister likes to say, you can either shape the future or the future will shape you, it's a choice. And in partnership with industry and others, our government wants to shape the future of agriculture in this country by facing up to the challenges and embracing the opportunities that come before us. I think that sort of honest, forward-looking, collaborative approach is a refreshing change for agriculture policy in this country because it's clear to me that Australian agriculture is often forced to confront issues months or sometimes years before the rest of the nation. That's why we need to be forward-looking.

Unfortunately, we've seen what happens when we don't plan ahead, and we don't have government leadership to deal with some of those emerging challenges. Ad hoc temporary injections of funding have left us exposed to a growing risk of biosecurity outbreaks. Chronic underinvestment in training and a failure to undertake workforce planning have produced skill shortages in agriculture and every industry. Denial of climate change has left farmers vulnerable to extreme weather and left our international markets asking tough questions about our production standards. And running down our manufacturing industry has left us reliant on expensive inputs like fertiliser coming in from overseas.

Now all of these are problems that we could have seen coming and we could have prepared for. And with a new, honest, forward-looking, collaborative approach - which I think are already hallmarks of our Government - we intend to do just that. And in doing so, what that will mean is that we can connect agriculture to our Government's key economic, international and sustainability agendas. You can see that already in our trade negotiations with the UK, the EU and India, those are being developed in partnership with industry. You can see that in our international engagement around tariff reform and food security. Again, it's not just government working on these things, it's government in partnership with industry and other stakeholders. You can see it through our rapid response to the threat of foot and mouth disease that we saw last year on our doorstep – again, done in partnership with industry. And you can see it through our supportive climate policies, which help the ag sector deal with the impacts of climate change.

I believe that our role as Government is to engage with and unify industry, regional communities, the workforce and First Nations peoples to form an inclusive, collaborative and forward-looking view of Australia's agriculture sector. That's how we will ensure that agriculture policy is a core agenda for the Government and also for our nation. That's how we will shape the agriculture sector for the future, while also addressing some immediate priorities. And there have been a few of those, like the years of workforce shortages that are affecting every sector of agriculture. Every time I'm on a farm, every time I'm in a meat processing shed, every time I'm talking with a supply chain representative, workforce shortages come up. But our Government hasn't wasted a minute in addressing what is a very long-standing issue in this sector. And importantly, we've done it through collaboration. As you probably be aware, we established a tripartite working group comprising representatives from government, from employer groups in the industry and from unions across agriculture and meat processing to explore opportunities to attract, retain and protect workers in the sector. And that collaborative approach is already producing results.

We've achieved a record high number of workers under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, with an additional 37,000 workers pre-screened as suitable to come here as well. Our Government is also prioritising training for locals;  funding over 13,000 new fee free TAFE places in agriculture courses across the country. But as always, there's still a lot more to be done. And this year we'll continue to work collaboratively, cooperatively with industry and unions to advance further ideas to tackle that workforce shortage. Likewise we're working very closely with industry and state and territory governments to ensure better management of Australia's biosecurity system. The National Biosecurity Strategy released last year provided a collaborative framework for governments, along with industry stakeholders, to secure the country's primary industries well into the future. As a shared responsibility, it's critical for all Australians to play their part in safeguarding the country's biosecurity status, whether that be governments, farmers, public servants, RDC representatives, travellers, importers and more. It's important to remember that Australia - because of these efforts - does remain free of foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease. But unfortunately, there are a number of other diseases that have got through the net and this shows that there's no room for complacency in our biosecurity efforts. Our Government has allocated dedicated funding in the current Budget to strengthen our proactive approach towards safeguarding Australia from those threats. But as you all know, biosecurity risks are growing all the time and that is putting a burden on our biosecurity system. And that's why right now we are looking carefully at delivering an ongoing sustainable funding model for Australian biosecurity. And we're doing that in collaboration with industry. I'll have a lot more to say about that over the course of this year. But just as biosecurity is a shared responsibility, it does require a shared solution; government, industry and many others together.

Another challenge that will need collaboration is ensuring the environmental sustainability of our agriculture sector. As you know, Australian farmers work in some of the harshest and most variable environments on Earth. They are stewards for our environment through droughts and flooding rains and these disasters that we've been seeing over the last year or two are by no means new to our country. But what is new is their severity and their frequency as the climate warms around us. And that is having already an impact on farmers. ABARES research shows that the average farm profit in Australia has fallen by 23 percent over the last 20 years due to changing seasons and changing weather conditions. And I noticed that today's ABARES data also highlights the impact that extreme weather has had on crop production and incomes in certain parts of the country. Now, as I've mentioned before, prioritising climate change and sustainability, along with biosecurity and workforce shortages, are now key focus areas of the agriculture portfolio in the Albanese Government. And as Jared, ABARES Executive Director, noted in today's Financial Review - in a piece I highly recommend you read - adapting to climate change is the key to this industry's future. Fortunately, the ag sector has already made great strides to become sustainable, more sustainable, and I take every opportunity to remind people that the industry has already been doing a lot of work in this space. It gave me great pleasure to inform our trading partners of this when I was in London and Berlin with Andrew Metcalfe and Fiona Simson and number of other people earlier this year.

But despite the improvements that have occurred, our industry must ensure that we continue to maximise the returns from our natural resources through ever improved land management practises. And I'm pleased to say that in the Albanese Government our farmers have a willing partner. There is a clear role for government here and we are already stepping up. That's why we're investing another $1.1 billion in the Natural Heritage Trust, which includes $302 million just for sustainable agriculture initiatives. We're also implementing Australia's national soil strategy - I could see Penny Wensley over there in the audience - and that strategy is designed to improve soil health. We're also, of course preparing for drought right now because while we have been getting a lot of rain over the last couple of years, we know that that won't go on forever. And already ABARES is highlighting the changing conditions and the impact that will have on the sector. And of course, the best time to start preparing for drought is when we're not in drought. And that's why we had more funding in the Budget to do that drought preparation work when we released the Budget in October.

I think that continuing to develop our sustainable credentials is vital to the future of Australian agriculture for many reasons, but not least to secure and grow changing international markets for our exports. In Europe and other regions, there is a growing trend of attempting to enforce local sustainability practices as universal standards. I had many discussions with European agriculture ministers and others when I was over there about the need to remember that it's not a one size fits all approach that will work here. We do all aspire to high environmental sustainability standards, but of course the way that Australia needs to tackle these is going to be very different to the way they're tackled in a place like Europe. It's a little bit warmer here to start with. Carbon and environmental footprints are becoming more significant factors for capital markets when deciding where to invest or to provide loans. And meanwhile, Australian consumers are increasingly interested in the origin and environmental impact of the food and fibre they buy. Now, we've been told in the past that we should resist these trends - we should just fight back and tell other people to bugger off and we'll just do what we want. But all that sort of approach does is deny Australian producers the markets that they need and the incomes they deserve. The approach our Government wants to take is to work with industry, to be honest, to be forward-looking, and to be collaborative, to acknowledge these changing expectations and proactively anticipate them. Adjusting how we do things due to the impacts of climate change can be a massive opportunity for the agriculture sector. And a collaborative approach between government and industry is key to our success.

The final area I want to mention in which we can collaborate for mutual gain is by increasing the value-adding that we see in the agriculture sector. And in doing that, we can tackle one of the major challenges facing our farmers: rising input costs - something that was certainly on the agenda yesterday when I caught up with the Grain Growers who are in town. Today’s ABARES Agricultural Overview for December shows that prices of imported ag inputs have risen sharply since early 2020 and in particular, the price of fertiliser has more than doubled in that time, putting intense strain on farming businesses to balance the books despite those good prices. Now there is a piece of legislation before the Parliament right now that can help alleviate this particular cost. The $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund - a key election commitment from our Government - has a $500 million portion sectioned out for investment in local manufacturing and value adding to support agriculture. Now a great example of something that fits in that category that we should be making here in Australia is fertiliser. We've got the raw materials here that we export to other countries. So why shouldn't we be making fertiliser and other inputs right here in Australia? And why shouldn't government support industry to get that happening? And that's what our National Reconstruction Fund, that's the kind of thing that it would be available to do. To co-invest with industry, to boost value adding, whether it be around fertiliser or bringing more efficient manufacturing techniques to other forms of processing. It's absolutely vital that the legislation to create the National Reconstruction Fund passes both the House and the Senate, not just because of the benefits to input costs and trade in the ag sector, but also because of the extra jobs we can create right here in Australia. Unfortunately, for the moment, the Opposition has said that they're not going to support that legislation and the Greens have yet to decide what their position is going to be. So, putting aside politics for a moment, I just ask all of you to lobby your members and Senators, no matter what party they come from, to really get behind this legislation as a really key way to lift value adding in this sector.

In conclusion, I'm really proud of the achievements and the headway that together we are making in agriculture, despite some very tough years that we've recently faced as a nation. The record production that we're now seeing out of our farms is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of our farmers, our farm workers and everyone in the agriculture supply chain. There's no doubt that Australian agriculture does face many challenges, both globally and at home, and they will continue to impact the way that farmers and processors do business. We do need to be smart and innovative. We do need to be forward-looking. We do need to be honest about the future. But most importantly, we need to work together. And through engagement from industry, industry groups, farmers, companies, workers, First Nations people, regional communities and government, we need to bring together all the players in our agriculture system to connect and collaborate about those shared challenges.

Looking towards the future, my outlook for this industry is extremely positive. I do think that we can keep setting new records year on year. Australia is in an exciting position, a really excellent position to adapt and to improve in response to both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

I know you're going to hear a lot more about those opportunities and challenges over the course of the day, and I look forward to hearing some of the outcomes. I'll be back for dinner tonight to hear a bit more about what you've learned today. Thanks for your time and I look forward to working with you on those things.