Abolishing agricultural regulation is not the answer | Opinion

Why abolishing agricultural regulation is not the answer


Regulation plays an important role in agriculture argues Tony Gleeson.

Regulation plays an important role in agriculture argues Tony Gleeson.

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Regulation plays an important role in agriculture argues Tony Gleeson.

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COMMENT: The most radical proposal from Daniel Wild, research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, in an opinion piece in Queensland Country Life on April 19, 2018 suggesting that the Commonwealth Government not be involved in agricultural regulation.

A simple way to demonstrate the impacts of such a move, should one be needed at all, is to look retrospectively at what would have been the implications for the beef industry had this proposition been adopted some decades ago.

We would not have eradicated brucellosis and tuberculosis, not developed Aus-Meat or AuctionsPlus, not have a national traceback mechanism or a national R&D program, not have a national meat inspection service or a national quarantine service, not have a Farm Management Deposit scheme for which the beef industry is a major contributor, not have export protocols so essential for market access and not have a national capability to limit and address disease outbreaks. 

Mr Wild is surely mistaken if he thinks these achievements are not fundamental to the prosperity of the beef industry or if he thinks there is not an on-going need to sustain and expand on these significant achievements. For those not identifying with the beef industry ask yourselves if the live sheep trade and the banking sector would be better deregulated?

The regulation so despised by Mr Wild is one of several tools used by government on behalf of the community to influence individual behaviour towards delivering public good. - Tony Gleeson

To propose that the Commonwealth Government not be involved in agricultural regulation is certainly attention grabbing. However, that is not where the real danger lies in Mr Wild’s thinking.

No, the problem in Mr Wild’s thinking is more insidious. It has its genesis in his failure to acknowledge the critical importance of institutions, our organisations, policies, programs, regulations and codes of practice, that guide individual behaviour.

But he is not alone. Even our Prime Minister falls into the same quagmire in his advocacy of an energy policy driven by markets and technology rather than by ideology.

Markets and technology, unless guided, are not knowing. They are agnostic. They have no belief. They are not value based. If they are to service our beliefs and values they need to be guided. They need to be guided by ideology. Ideology is a system of ideas and ideals which form the base for economic or political theory and policy. Ideology is or reflects our beliefs and values.

We need institutions that enable us to harness markets and technology to deliver what we believe and value, for instance by a need to address the causes of climate change, by a need to provide a safety net for the needy, by a need to protect biodiversity, by a need to limit pollution, by a need to have a national disability insurance scheme and by a need to avoid adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of neighbours and the community at large.

The regulation so despised by Mr Wild is one of several tools used by government on behalf of the community to influence individual behaviour towards delivering public good. Mr Wild also reduces respect for institutions by his denigration of those who have chosen public service as a career. He fortifies this attack with the unsustainable proposition that farmers, particularly those whose forbearers have farmed for generations, are the reservoir of all wisdom about land management. However we cannot reconcile the mantra of farmers being the true conservationists with the environmental damage resulting directly from agricultural practices, past and present. To improve land management farmers need to work with support personnel in the public, private and community sectors and we need policies and programs, including regulation, to fortify improved outcomes.

Mr Wild has the rather quaint idea that landowners are too busy ploughing and milking to attend to regulation. Even a modestly sized farm now engages several million dollars in capital and debt. This reality is recognised for instance in setting the asset cut off point for Farm Household Assistance at $2.5 million as compared to a cut off for the full age pension of less than one sixth of that figure. Farmers are men and women engaged in the business of agriculture. They are not or should not exclusively be tractor drivers and milkers with little time for managing a business. Managing a business includes ensuring compliance with relevant legislation.

To conclude on a positive note, Mr Wild is to be thanked for expressing his view for generally we are not well served by the lack of pro-active analysis of key policy issues. We are not well served by the lack of discourse from public intellectuals, academics and from political parties on matters affecting rural Australia. Rather, as happened with the recent Joyce saga, we are swamped with social and political commentary to the near total exclusion of assessments of policy positions and achievements. As business people operating farm businesses we need to be exposed to and engage with a diversity of views beyond those expressed by farm advocacy groups and by those who views are cemented in agricultural fundamentalism.

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