INLAND rail construction and digital infrastructure services are two core priorities driving the National Farmers’ Federation’s 2017 lobbying agenda, says President Fiona Simson.
Ms Simson is embarking on her first full year in the top job and told Fairfax Agricultural Media transport costs were gouging farmers’ profits, making the $10 billion inland a critical policy priority.
She said delivering a reformed Universal Service Obligation (USO) was critical to overcoming a digital drought in farming communities that would also play a pivotal role in bolstering agricultural profits and value.
“The inland rail has been on the table for a long time but we still haven’t got it funded yet, so we need to talk about when that’s happening,” she said.
“The inland rail still has a lot of question marks about it.
“We know the government is acquiring land now but there’s still a lot of discussion and debate about where intermodal hubs are to be located and still that route is yet to be finalised and we also have questions about that actual inland rail system.”
Ms Simson said farmers wanted in inland rail system that was “fit for the future”.
“We want it funded and we want it built and certainly we’ll be making some strong representations around that this year,” she said.
“The reason why we’re so focussed on having an inland rail link all the way from Melbourne to Brisbane is because at the moment infrastructure and freight is very costly, for farmers.
“It’s really eating into our profits and if we’re serious about delivering better returns to farmers then we need to address the high input and transport costs.”
Ms Simson said setting up a “really good” USO, to deliver guaranteed voice and data services to farmers and regional communities, was top of the NFF’s list of demands.
She said achieving that outcome would represent “a huge win for the bush”.
“We’ve seen the government step up with the mobile blackspots program in recent years and things like that but this whole discussion now about the USO and transparency is vitally important,” she said.
“I think at the moment most regional communities would say access to voice and data is critical for their families and businesses and that’s not just something that’s farmer specific or regional community specific.
“With Australian agriculture approaching $60 billion and going towards being a $100b industry by 2030 - which seems like an achievable aim now - we need really good digital infrastructure to actually achieve that goal.”
Ms Simson said the election of US President Donald Trump and his immediate withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership last month had “questioned the whole trade agenda” but the federal government could not afford to relax, despite the protectionist trend.
“Trade is a huge issue for Australian farmers because we produce so much more product than we can sell domestically so it’s critical we have really good competitive markets in place,” she said.
Ms Simson said the overriding principles of the NFF’s policy agenda this year involved an operating environment that backed the Agriculture Minister’s belief that Australian agriculture was in for a “golden era”.
“That’s true in some ways but still there are a number of issues we need to address politically and in a regulatory sense to ensure we’re operating competitively to make sure we can benefit from any value created in the supply chain, for grass roots farmers on the ground,” she said.
“We need to become more efficient at what we do and encourage growth for our industry.
“They are our overriding principles for the policy topics we’ll be addressing this year and none of them are really surprising like trade, competition policy – the effects test – and energy costs which one of the biggest headaches for farmers these days.
“It’s critical we have a secure and sustainable and affordable supply.”