Did you pick up on the news last week that Malcolm Turnbull announced a strategy – backed by $3.8 billion in federal funding – to boost Australia’s international ranking as a global arms supplier?
It sounded a lot like another of Malcolm’s “thought bubbles”, along with his earlier “innovation agenda” that didn’t really mean anything, and his bizarre 2016 remark about it being an “exciting time” to be an Australian.
Exciting if you’re a newly elected (albeit only just) Prime Minister, perhaps, but not if you’re a cast-off car industry worker, a small business owner battling sky-high costs or an irrigator starved of water.
The last time Australia had a leading edge in weapons design and manufacture, I would suggest, was when our indigenous predecessors perfected the boomerang and the woomera. In modern times, it makes more sense for us to maintain our defence readiness by buying whatever hardware we need from one of the several Western countries that actually specialise – and indeed, excel - in this sort of thing.
Rather than grasping at rainbows, the government would surely be doing us all a favour if it did more to encourage and support those economic sectors such as agriculture, mining, tourism and education, where we enjoy a comparative advantage.
Of these, none is more deserving than agriculture and its related processing sector, not just because of the massive contribution they make to the economy and to exports, but because of the vital social and environmental roles they play in regional Australia.
On various fronts, however, agriculture is restrained from achieving its full potential as a result of failures by governments at all levels to provide an optimal operating environment. Instead, we have states at loggerheads over water sharing, soaring energy costs, labour shortages, over-regulation of day-to-day activities, over-prescriptive native vegetation laws and a long history of public infrastructure neglect, to cite just a few issues.
Tackling these, and other problems inhibiting agriculture would surely serve Australia’s long-term interests better than throwing taxpayers’ money at an industry sector where we will always be a comparative minnow.
Meanwhile, agriculture is set to become a Cabinet-room topic again soon for another reason, following reports that another beef industry mega-player, Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC), could be up for sale.
The private equity owner of the 16-station CPC, not to mention the putative selling agents, will no doubt cry blue murder, but most of us would probably agree with treasurer Scott Morrison’s new ruling that requires agricultural land to be “marketed widely” for at least 30 days to local buyers before being flogged to a foreign interest.
It’s just lucky for Morrison that CPC is no longer owned by the late Kerry Packer, or he might have had a real fight on his hands.
- Peter Austin