The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is merging two existing policies into one major new position statement to try to maintain relevance, but also drive agriculture’s position in the critically important national energy debate.
Last week the newly formed NFF Climate and Energy Taskforce chaired by Gerald Leach from the Victorian Farmers Federation met to discuss forming an energy policy by blending its revamped climate change policy, with the existing electricity policy.
NFF’s move comes amid the backdrop of Australian farmers being potentially caught in the cross-fire of the current escalating political debate in Canberra around the pivotal findings and outcomes of the Finkel review of the national energy market which aims to address the pricing crisis that’s also hitting farm-gate returns and food processing.
NFF CEO Tony Mahar said the peak farm lobby group‘s new energy policy would be underpinned by current data and fresh analysis of the current price impact of costly energy consumption, in producing various farm commodities.
Mr Mahar said some Research and Development Corporations and specific companies across the agricultural supply chain were already conducting analysis on energy costs.
He said the cotton and dairy industries were also focussed on assessing high energy costs and what it means to them and dealing with increases in some cases of up to 300 per cent.
“Having evidence and data to underpin all of our policy positions is absolutely critical,” he said.
The NFF’s move to formulate a fresh energy policy comes on the back of an internal restructuring process where 13 committees were cut down to six and two taskforces retained.
Mr Mahar said the restructure process had been in play since at least June when the NFF members’ council met and formally endorsed the new committee structure and then held elections for each of the new committees which have since met.
The six remaining committees are Economic Policy and Farm Business; Farming Systems; Sustainable Development; Telecommunications and Social Policy; Trade; and Workforce.
Water is the other remaining NFF Taskforce which carries a specific focus on the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Mr Mahar said as part of the change process, the NFF committees and taskforces would work towards the November members’ council to report on activities, like the new energy policy, where it could potentially be formally endorsed.
“On Friday the Energy and Climate Taskforce met and looked at our current positions on climate change policy and electricity policy and reviewed those to make sure that they’re a solid base to move forward on developing a broader and more comprehensive energy policy,” he said.
“The view was our energy policy would encompass a range of specific positions like electricity and we’d look at gas and all of the things associated with the current gas policy.
“But the overall objective of having that policy is to enable the NFF, as the peak body representing farmers throughout Australia, to remain in the discussion, to remain informed and to make sure agriculture has a voice in what’s a pretty critical issue; not only for the nation but it’s agricultural sector.”
Mr Mahar said he wasn’t really expecting any radical policy changes in the new policy – but stressed the move would give the NFF greater say in current discussions like the Finkel review’s calls for a Clean Energy Target that the Coalition is now weighing up.
“The whole principle we’re working with is that the new policy builds on existing policies,” Mr Mahar.
“What we did on Friday was confirm the two clear polices that have gone through the policy-making machine within the NFF and that’s climate change and electricity and we want to use those as a platform to get to a more comprehensive, broader energy policy.
“It’s a starting point for us and we’re looking towards staying in the debate and driving the debate with agriculture at the forefront of discussions.
“And that’s really important because the government is trying to develop policy on this and it’s vitally important agriculture has a leading voice in this debate.”
Mr Mahar said the NFF’s November members’ council meeting was a “milestone” date for the Energy and Climate Taskforce to potentially finalise the new policy but wasn’t set in stone.
He said the issue was “really complex” and while the next members’ council gathering was an agreed date to work towards, taskforce members we’re also conscious “we want to get the policy right”.
“If we can cover off on all things by then then that’s great, or before it, that’s good too,” he said.
“We recognise how complex this issue is and it’s an acknowledgement of the challenges that government and industry face when we’re dealing with the current energy market, in Australia.”
In November last year, under new President Fiona Simson, the NFF updated and modernised its climate policy to no longer question the legitimacy of climate change and its scientific basis.
“The NFF recognises that climate change poses a significant challenge for Australian farmers,” it now says.
“As a nation, we must act to ensure that our economy is well placed to cost efficiently reduce our national greenhouse gas emissions profile.
“Australian agriculture has always operated in a varied and challenging climate.
“The continued success of the Australian agriculture sector will depend on our ability to build on this foundation, and continue to innovate and adapt to best manage future climatic risks and to reduce the emissions intensity of our production systems.”
The NFF electricity policy says access to affordable and reliable electricity supplies for all users is “paramount” to maintaining the international competitiveness of Australian agriculture.
“The National Electricity Market is not working for Australian farmers and needs serious reform,” it says.
“The current regulatory regime is not serving the interests of users and this is particularly the case for Australian farmers.
“The regulatory regime needs to be updated to maintain ongoing relevance of the National Electricity Market (NEM) to consumers and to meet future challenges.
“We must move from a policy environment that is layered in policy distortions and subsidies to one that is market-based.
“The 2020 Renewable Energy Target (RET) has been legislated by and enjoys the bipartisan support of the Commonwealth Parliament.
“NFF recognises that the retention of the RET provides certainty to investors in renewable energy as we transition to a market mechanism.
“But this should not be used as an excuse for not transitioning to a market-based mechanism by 2020.”
A spokesperson for the Australian Food and Grocery Council said rising electricity and gas costs had “hampered” the competitiveness and profitability of the domestic food and grocery manufacturing industry in recent years, with “more pain” yet to come through increasing gas prices.
“We welcome the government’s commitment for gas market reform by increasing gas supplies, improving competition and increasing information about gas supply availability and pricing,” a spokesperson said.
“Gas export controls will also assist in prioritising Australian need to maintain energy supplies for domestic use.
“Australia faces several overlapping energy crises.
“We have lost our cost advantage, and energy is increasingly unaffordable for trade-exposed industry and households which will also have an impact on family budgets and consumer demand.
“Companies will only invest in Australia if they can see a stable policy framework for driving stable and effective power supply.”