Address to Australian Institute of International Affairs – Queensland Branch Annual Dinner

BRISBANE 
THURSDAY, 5 OCTOBER 2023

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Good evening everyone.

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we’re gathered and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. 

And I reiterate my support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a Voice to Parliament.

Because I think all of us here would agree, that you get better outcomes when you listen to people and that’s what the Voice is really about. Listening, to get better results.  

I’d also like to acknowledge:  

  • AIIA Queensland Branch President, Paul Lucas 
  • Queensland Director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Melissa O’Rourke 
  • Members of the Consular Corps 
  • My new Secretary of the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Adam Fennessy 
  • Director-General of the Qld Department of Agriculture, Chris Sarra 
  • And the sponsors of tonight’s event, Palladium and the University of Queensland.  

Can I also thank the AIIA, which plays such an important thought leadership role in Australian foreign policy and continues to foster valuable discussion, as it will at tomorrow’s Australia-Korea Policy Forum. 

It’s certainly an honour to speak with you tonight in my capacity as Australia’s Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. 

It wasn’t too long ago I worked in this building as a State MP and Assistant Minister to Paul.

Very good training for the role I hold today!

This job takes you to some incredibly interesting and diverse places around the world.

From cotton farms in Emerald, to kelp farms off the coast of Tasmania, from London meat markets and the halls of Westminster, to the produce markets of Mumbai. 

But everywhere I go, the message is the same. 

Australia’s agriculture industry is world class and something everyone across our vast country should be proud of. 

Australia is well known for supplying some of the highest quality food and fibre to the world. 

But in order to take advantage of those opportunities, we need to have strong relationships with our overseas counterparts. 

Unfortunately, the previous government was willing to undermine international relationships to score political points, which made challenging circumstances even harder to navigate.

One of the many reasons to manage our international engagement carefully is the trade exposure of our agriculture sector and the many thousands of jobs that depend on it. 

Renewing our closest relationships and restoring trust has therefore been an early priority of the Albanese Government.

Tonight, I want to share with you the progress we’ve made on that front, why our government sees food and agriculture as a key element of our national power and how we can better use agriculture overseas to advance our national interests.  

RESTORING AUSTRALIA’S PLACE IN THE WORLD  

A lot has changed since the election of the Albanese Labor Government, less than 18 months ago.

Rising global pressures including climate change, geostrategic competition, and international economic uncertainties are reshaping our region.

Our region is changing and so too is our approach.

Our government is helping shape the world for the better, because it's in our national interest, and our region’s interests.

We are listening and building genuine partnerships based on respect.

We are assisting others to become more economically resilient.

To shore up our own security, and so we can advance our shared vision for the region - together.  

Even our most ardent opponents must acknowledge the enormous, positive improvement in Australia’s international reputation, since the change of government.

From being consigned to the naughty corner with other climate sceptic nations, we’re now welcomed as a valued partner at international gatherings, from the UN, to the G20, ASEAN, NATO and APEC.

This is not an accident.

Literally from our first days in office, our government - led by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Penny Wong - has made a concerted effort to restore Australia’s place in the world.

It started with the PM’s lightning dash to the Quad meeting in Tokyo, straight after the election.

It’s continued with Minister Wong visiting every member of the Pacific Island Forum and every member of ASEAN except Myanmar within first twelve months of taking office.

And has been backed in by Trade Minister Don Farrell, myself and almost every other Minister.

To give one example, no fewer than 13 Government Ministers, including me, have visited India this year.

Of course, it’s not just about visits.

Under the Albanese Government, we’ve seen significant policy shifts that matter internationally, like:  

  • Legislating real emissions reduction targets and signing the Global Methane Pledge,
  • Instituting a new development policy and starting to rebuild our development program budget,
  • Advocating for gender equality on the global stage and many more.

WHY BETTER RELATIONSHIPS MATTER

This isn’t just about giving us a warm, inner glow.  

Repairing our international relationships and restoring our global reputation matters. It delivers tangible benefits for Australians.  

All of you will be aware of our government’s work to stabilise our relationship with our biggest trading partner, China.

Our approach has been to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.

Over the last few months, China has removed trade impediments on our exports of barley, timber, horticulture, cotton and, most recently, hay. Restoring those markets is worth well over $1 billion per year.

This progress affirms the calm and consistent approach that the Albanese Government has taken.

The respectful relationships we’ve forged helped progress the ratification of free trade agreements with countries like the UK and India.

As a result, last month we saw tariff-free raw sugar from Queensland arrive in the UK – the first shipment in 50 years.

And Aussie avocados, wine, seafood and sheep meat are now on sale in upscale Indian supermarkets, with huge potential to grow.

Good relationships also matter when things go off track. 

You’d be aware our friends in Indonesia have been dealing with outbreaks of Lumpy Skin Disease and Foot and Mouth Disease.  

As good neighbours, we’ve provided Indonesia with vaccines, technical expertise and diagnostic capability to assist them control their outbreaks. 

This helps protect our own livestock industry too - if we had an outbreak here it would cost us up to $80 billion over a ten-year period.

So when Indonesia imposed various trade restrictions on Australian live cattle exports, the depth and breadth of our relationships meant we could resolve our differences in a calm, considered and transparent manner.

From the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and me—to our biosecurity officials, diplomats and industry leaders—we all worked with our counterparts to underscore our disease-free status and address Indonesia’s concerns.  

Something that was only possible because of the mature, respectful relationships that had been built between us. 

It was the best of Team Australia at work, at all levels – Ministers, officials, industry.  

And it got the outcome we needed, with restrictions lifted relatively quickly.  

Of course, the benefits of good international relationships go well beyond agriculture.

They assist when pursuing our broader national security and other foreign policy objectives.

But to flip it around, our food and agriculture sectors do and can help us build even better relationships overseas. 

AGRICULTURE: A KEY ELEMENT OF OUR NATIONAL POWER  

Understandably, most Australians think of our agriculture sector as an important source of food, nutrition, export dollars and jobs, especially in rural Australia.   

And that’s all true.

But what I want to encourage you, our ag sector and all Australians to consider, is the important extra role that Australia’s agriculture sector can play, in establishing our place in the world.  

Because under the Albanese Labor Government, we also see agriculture as a key element of Australia’s national power. Particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, but also further abroad. 

Many of you will have seen the Foreign Minister’s address to the National Press Club earlier this year, where she talked about the need for coordinated statecraft; for us to harness all elements of our national power to advance our interests in an ever-more competitive world.

In addition to helping supply our region’s nutritional needs, our agriculture sector influences the world’s view of us and gives us leverage overseas.

This is especially important at this moment in history. 

It’s impossible to overstate how big an issue food security is, across the world right now. 

Because the global food security crisis is increasingly grave.

More than 800 million people go to bed hungry worldwide, while 345 million people face acute food insecurity.   

This is a growing scale of human suffering that threatens global stability.

This topic has long been an item of discussion at international gatherings of trade and agriculture leaders.  

But more frequent droughts, floods and other extreme weather, and the ongoing disruptions to food supply chains arising from COVID and the war in Ukraine, have elevated the issue.

Global food security is now on the agenda of almost every gathering of the world’s Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers.

One of the key outcomes of this year’s G20 meetings in India was the Deccan High Level Principles on Food Security and Nutrition.

This year’s ASEAN Summit in Indonesia adopted a Leaders’ Declaration on Strengthening Food Security and Nutrition in Response to Crises.

And pretty much every major international leaders’ summit deals with the food security consequences of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.   

Australia is incredibly well positioned to influence this debate.  

Our position as a reliable source of high-quality food and fibre wins us plaudits all over the world.

Our reputation as a global leader on biosecurity and sustainable food production has seen many countries seek to learn from us and adopt our farming practices and research. 

Our leadership on open and free agricultural trade - best personified through Australia’s spearheading the formation of the Cairns Group - is appreciated by many nations, in both the developed and developing world.  

This all makes agriculture an important instrument in Australia’s diplomatic tool kit.

WHAT WE ARE DOING  

And the Albanese Government is taking it up with gusto, including through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).  

ACIAR projects are assisting a range of developing countries in Asia, the Pacific and Africa with agricultural capacity building, lifting crop and livestock productivity, strengthening biosecurity protections, and raising environmental standards.

Their focus is predominantly in the Indo-Pacific region, where agriculture forms a large proportion of regional economies and employment. 

In doing so, we help lift food security, nutrition and the GDP and income levels of some of our poorest neighbours, building enormous goodwill. 

For the period from 1982 to 2022, ACIAR-supported research helped deliver $14.7 billion of additional value realised in Indonesia, $11.5 billion in Vietnam, $4.8 billion in the Philippines and $1.7 billion in Thailand.  

More broadly, we have built and revived a number of forms of international agricultural cooperation. 

In particular, we have reactivated our joint agricultural meetings with Chinese counterparts. 

Senior officials from DAFF met with their Chinese counterparts from China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) for the 14th Joint Agricultural Commission (JAC) in Canberra in April this year. 

This was the first JAC meeting since 2017. 

The talks reaffirmed the longstanding tradition of agricultural cooperation between China and Australia and covered a range of mutually beneficial topics including food security and agriculture production; sustainability and climate smart agriculture; trade and biosecurity; and cooperation in multilateral fora. 

I also met my Chinese counterpart, Minister Tang of China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA), for the first time, on the sidelines of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Conference in Rome in June.  

My meeting with Minister Tang built on the outcomes of the JAC discussions and identified a number of new areas of potential cooperation, reflecting the importance of rebuilding trust through face-to-face engagement. 

Australia also continues to be a strong advocate for free, fair, and open markets and the role of trade in addressing global challenges, such as food security and climate change.  

In a range of international forums, we continue to argue that removing inefficient subsidies and other trade distortions is a key step to producing food where it is most efficient to do so, and to supply it to where it is most needed. 

Removing or repurposing agricultural subsidies is also an important step towards removing environmentally harmful farming practices. 

World-leading analysis by ABARES continues to inform this global conversation, and we are making this argument through several international engagements on fora including through the World Bank, OECD and FAO.

Australia also plays an active role to support climate action in the agriculture sector, including through the UN Framework to Combat Climate Change and as a partner of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. 

Of course, we’re also backing the human element of agriculture - the many foreign workers that over the generations have supplied much of the labour for our ag workforce.   

We have expanded the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, which allows eligible Australian businesses to hire workers from 9 Pacific islands and Timor-Leste, when there are not enough local workers available.

Since coming to office, we have worked with our neighbours to engage the highest number of PALM scheme workers Australia has ever seen. 

Providing essential labour for our horticulture and meat processing industries, and vital remittances for thousands of families in our region. 

This is another aspect of agriculture that is a positive tool of diplomacy, building relationships at the family and community level.

It means we’re drawing on Australia’s natural advantages to help Pacific communities build their resilience and yield skills dividends.

SOUTHEAST ASIA ECONOMIC STRATEGY  

Beyond individual programs, we are also incorporating agriculture as an explicit part of our international engagement.  

For a recent example, take a look at Australia’s new Southeast Asia Economic Strategy, developed by former Macquarie Bank CEO Nicholas Moore AO and launched by the Prime Minister in Jakarta last month.

Southeast Asia is not just a close neighbour, it’s a booming economic market, an opportunity for trade diversification and an important strategic partner.  

Despite this, the region was neglected by the previous Federal Government, for a decade.  

Our government is determined to change that, through this new strategy, delivering a significant upgrade in Australia’s economic engagement with the region. 

Ten sectors have been identified as priority areas in the strategy, and importantly, agriculture and food is one of them.

The trade benefits are clear, given agricultural exports to Southeast Asia reached a record $17.6 billion in 2022.  

And while the strategy certainly sets a path to increase this trade, it also maps opportunities to assist with the region’s food security challenge and to deepen our relationship with the region through further agricultural cooperation.

CONCLUSION  

I trust you can see we have a big agenda in international affairs.

We’ve worked hard to repair damaged relationships and this is now bearing fruit – literally – for our agriculture sector, but also for Australia’s broader foreign policy goals.

Every time we engage in agricultural trade, development projects, research exchange or other cooperation, we create wealth for Australians. And we also take another step towards achieving those broader goals, from national security, to reducing the impact of climate change, and empowering women and girls.  

And at a time when food security is a key global issue, it makes sense to harness our strong reputation in the agriculture space to advance those broader goals.

We can help meet the world’s food needs, while also fostering the relationships and supporting the development projects and research exchanges that will help us achieve our national interest, and advance our region’s interests.

I think we’ve achieved a fair bit in less than 18 months. And I look forward to working with you all, as we achieve even more.