The State government says climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture, while the Opposition has warned against a Victorian Labor-Greens coalition threatening the sector’s social licence.
Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford and the opposition’s Agriculture spokesman Peter Walsh outlined their vision for the industry, at a Victorian Farmers Federation/Rural Press Club of Victoria candidates forum in Melbourne.
Ms Pulford told the forum her three priorities, for the next four years, were increasing exports, reducing farm fatalities and injuries and preparing the sector for climate change.
“I think climate policy is the certainly a real challenge, and the need for us to help the sector prepare for this greater volatility is really important,” Ms Pulford said.
“In a related way, it’s working with agriculture to minimise emissions, to protect it from - and prepare it for - that inevitable shift in focus that I think is coming.
“We’ve chosen to drive the national climate change and agricultural strategy.
‘We put that on the agenda, nationally. Happily, everyone agreed and it was also agreed Victoria would lead the way.”
She said the health and wellbeing of the workforce were paramount for the sector’s success.
She said, if re-elected, the government would retain its strong focus on farm safety.
The issue was a primary part of the recent $20 million Victorian agricultural skills statement.
Read more: Labor focuses on youth and training
“Farms need to be safe places to work, and currently, this is not the case,” Ms Pulford said.
“We don’t believe safety is negotiable.
Farms need to be safe places to work, and currently, this is not the case.
‘The number of injuries and deaths on Victorian farms is unacceptably high; agriculture is consistently placed in the top two occupational groups for workplace fatalities
“In 2017, 14 people died on Victoria’s farms, more than 50 per cent of the 27 workplace fatalities, across the state.”
She said agriculture represented three per cent of the workforce
“That is a completely unacceptable statistic,” she said.
‘We need to change the culture to that of being a safety culture, we recognise changing culture is very difficult, but it needs to be industry-led, and we need farmers to show the way.”
She agreed with Mr Walsh young people needed to be encouraged to see agriculture as a career.
That was the National Party leader’s top priority.
“I want to see more students, choosing agriculture as a career, whether it be at universities or our agricultural colleges,” Mr Walsh said.
‘”They can actually see it as a positive thing to do.”
He said he would also like to see a real reduction in red and green tape, “so our farmers can actually get on with doing what they do best.
“That’s growing food and fibre, rather than filling in paperwork and hassling with bureaucracies.
That’s growing food and fibre, rather than filling in paperwork and hassling with bureaucracies.
The third priority was improving freight systems and reducing the cost of shifting produce from the point of production to the point of consumption.
But Mr Walsh said the most significant challenge was agriculture’s social licence,to operate in the future
“Depending on where the politics falls, and where the Greens end up in the mix, post-election, there is a real issue around the perceived social licence of agriculture, whether that be around some of the animal industries, or the discussion about banning Roundup,” Mr Walsh said.
“If you take Glysophate out of our production systems that would have huge consequences for agriculture, in Victoria.”
He said any future agriculture minister must make sure the sector’s positives were sold, to make sure decisions makers understood the ramifications of what they did.
“If you look at the export figures, food and fibre exports are the single biggest export generator we have - overseas tourism is important, overseas education is important, but agriculture is the biggest single exporter.
“The first thing I want is to end up in Cabinet and the second is that we don’t end up with a Labor-Greens alliance, and a Greens minister for Water or Agriculture, who causes the sector some real challenges.”
He said he feared the Greens influence on policy, if the party formed a coalition with the Labor Party.
The claim of a Labor-Greens alliance was rejected by Ms Pulford, who said the opposition and Greens had a “cozy” alliance, in the Legislative Council.
“For the record, can I dispel any idea we have any interest, or any intent, or any circumstance where we enter into a coalition with the Greens,” Ms Pulford said.
“The Liberals and Nationals have a much better relationship with them in the Upper House, I have seen every week I’ve been in Parliament, for the past four years.”
Both Ms Pulford and Mr Walsh reiterated promises to hold an inquiry into council rates.
Mr Walsh said the rate cap had thrown up significant inequities.
“You see that cap is not being applied uniformly, across the categories, which drives the major inequities,” Mr Walsh said.
“We said we would start the rate review in the first 100 days, have an interim report, by the middle of next year and most definitely a final report by the end of the financial year.
“If you just have an open-ended inquiry, and you don’t put any timelines in there, and there is no imperative on councils to put submissions in and do something, it won’t have done any good.:”
He said the coalition’s policy to drive decentralisation would help councils.
“If you can get more population out there, you can get more economic activity into those regions, and you will actually increase the rate base and improve the viability of councils,” Mr Walsh said.
Ms Pulford said an inquiry would begin, “reasonably early in the New Year.
“It will need terms of reference, a sense of scope for the inquiry before we can set an end date,” Ms Pulford said.
“But it’s not something we can put off; it’s something we want to get onto, very quickly.
“When our farmers are placed under immense pressure because property values have caused rates to go up, its a pressure for which there is not an obvious solution.”