PRIMARY Industries Minister Clare Scriven has staunchly defended her government's decreased spending on the Primary Industries and Regional Development portfolio, saying there had been record investments in services "underpinning" the sector, including regional health and education.
The spend on SA's primary industries and regional development portfolio is projected to drop from $199m in 2021-22 to $164.9m in 2022-23.
The 2021-22 spend had been projected at $180m but storm damage, fruit fly outbreaks and additional funding for the dog fence rebuild forced the previous government to dig deeper into its pockets.
Budget papers have attributed the decrease to that extra spending, the completion and winding down of existing time-limited programs and the need to find modest savings across all departments to decrease growing debt.
The Primary Industries spend amounted to $119.9m (down from $152.3m), while the regional development spend fell from $46.74m to $44.9m.
However, there were significant new investments in regional health and regional roads, with $306m splashed on new beds and hospital upgrades across regional SA and close to $340m announced for new work on regional roads as part of the projected $7.83 billion spend on the state's roads over the next four years.
While Ms Scriven conceded some "modest savings" and "streamlinings" needed to be made in the Primary Industries and Regional Development department, primary producers and the sector at large could still be excited by the government's financial plan.
"This is an investment of an additional $1.49 billion into regional SA," she said.
"That is incredibly important for all our regional towns and cities and that includes the primary industries sector.
"Services like health, education and skills are underpinning services needed to support the primary industries sector and they have seen record investment in budget."
Ms Scriven defended the projected decrease in spending in her department.
"A lot of funding is project-based funding sometimes coming in from the federal government and sometimes in partnership with tertiary institutions so sometimes we need to look closer at what figures are giving that impression (of decreases to primary industries funding)," she said.
"We've maintained things like the regional growth fund, got additional investment into farm firefighting units, forestry and pastoral lands. We've also got the $100m economic recovery fund which will be available for regional and city businesses, and of course agribusinesses.
"Some programs will be finishing or winding down, but many are time-limited so that's natural. I'm sure the opposition will be claiming there are cuts, that's their job, but this is actually a huge investment in regional SA across the board."
Opposition spokesperson for Primary Industries Nicola Centofanti was strong in her criticism of the government's plan for the agriculture sector and regional areas, describing it as a "blow for the economy and to the regions".
"There has been a blow to the state's key agency responsible for the regions and primary industries - PIRSA, with its budget slashed by 9 per cent," she said
"Labor has a long history of neglecting the regions. Despite claims that this is a new, refreshed Labor government, we are seeing that the dark days of the past are here again with our regions and primary industries being ignored.
"The Minister for Primary Industries, Clare Scriven, has failed one of her first tasks as Minister by not shielding her department from these cuts.
"This budget places further risks to biosecurity, industry and economic growth and agricultural services."
Ms Centofanti said she would be "scrutinising" the budget in coming weeks, and in the meantime called for Ms Scriven "to stand up for the regions and primary producers - and reverse these cuts".
"These blows come at a time where costs pressures are hitting our primary industries and regions hard," she said.
"Increasing costs for fuel, freight, fertiliser, energy, labour shortages and other inputs are all placing pressure on delivering regional services."
Ms Scriven said she understood Ms Centofanti's job was "to criticise", but comments about dark days returning were "not well-founded at all".
She also hit back at Opposition claims that she had failed in shielding her department from cuts.
"That's what the opposition has to say," Ms Scriven said.
"There's modest savings targets across all departments apart from those that are frontline services such as health, education and skills.
"It's important that we change the state's debt trajectory - under the former government it was heading to unsustainable levels - and we've been able to do that without any new taxes so I think that's an important achievement and it's a positive budget for regional SA."
Ms Scriven also said that concerns about the government's biosecurity approach were unwarranted.
The government's forecasted spend on biosecurity has dropped from $68.16m to $41.57m, but Ms Scriven said more money could be made available if needed to deal with incursions like fruit fly.
Primary Producers delivered a measured response to the state budget, saying they welcomed the government's commitment to regional health and education, but voiced concerns biosecurity was not viewed as a "frontline service" exempt from savings targets.
Its concerns are centred around the risks associated with Foot and Mouth Disease and Lumpy Skin Disease which have been detected in Indonesia.
PPSA also said PIRSA would face challenges in meeting its budget targets.
PPSA chair Simon Maddocks said the advocacy body would work hard to ensure critical services and programs were not compromised, as PIRSA tried to meet those budget savings.
Despite those concerns, Prof Maddocks said it was pleasing to see a focus on regional development.
"The Government has recognised that primary industries are a key economic driver for the state, and we welcome the regional development focus, without the introduction of new taxation measures to rebound the economy," he said.
"To realise our sector's economic potential - and to ensure primary producers stay profitable and sustainable - PPSA believes we need policy and programs that respond to industry needs and that support the regional communities which sustain our workforce and underpin the state economy.
"Despite the pandemic, regional South Australia has continued to grow, contributing 26% of the State's gross product, supporting the growing interest of people living and working in the regions.
"We welcome this government's commitment to regional education and health, and the $5.8 billion in regional infrastructure projects set to be delivered."
PPSA welcomed an ongoing commitment to the Regional Growth Fund, and the continuation of programs aimed at productivity gains, including the Dog Fence rebuild.
An increase in funding to the pastoral board of $1m to support the timely completion of land condition assessments was also welcomed.
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