There is plenty in the press about the role agriculture will play in the post mining boom era. “Asia’s foodbowl” and other such optimistic clichés get front page coverage.
I have been sitting in Armidale (NSW) for a few days, I have a bit of long term business up here, and I like the people, so come up fairly regularly, but the sense of optimism I normally find despite the difficulties is being squeezed by the realities:
- Communication. Armidale benefited from the presence of independent member Tony Windsor holding the balance of power in the last Parliament, it became one of the poster children of the NBN. It will eventually be a huge boon, but the implementation has a “pink batts” aura about it. A client lives 13 kilometres out of town, running a small property as an adjunct to other activities. She is unable to download a video from youtube, the NBN does not come out to her, she is on the end of the copper “pipe” and this will not change for many years. 13k, this is not the middle of the Simpson desert, it is almost an urban outskirt of a major regional centre. By contrast, a building in the CBD with a number of SME tenants of various types has been wired for the NBN, and the copper is about to he turned off. Problem is there is something wrong in the wiring, and the new stuff does not work for parts of the building, and fixing it seems to be a bit hard. Somebody wake me!
- Transport. We have vast distances in this country. To compete internationally and service those hungry mouths in Asia, we need to be able to cover the distances efficiently, and get our stuff onto boats and planes reliably, quickly and cost effectively. Road transport is dying, literally. The average age of truckies increasing, as young blokes find more financially rewarding and less physically challenging ways of earning a living. Those retiring are not being replaced even as the demand for freight providers increases. Rail is a joke. What is left of the regional rail network is unreliable, and deteriorating.
- Climate change. Nobody in Canberra, or any other cosy clime can do anything about the weather, but for heavens sake why can’t we recognise that there is change happening that will impact on our lifestyles and livelihoods over the next 200 years and recognise that politics and ideology have nothing to do with dealing with the problems in a logical and economically sustainable manner. The people in rural communities like Armidale are like the canaries in the mine, they see and feel the subtle changes as they occur way before the boffins in laboratories and caucus rooms are even aware of them. Listen.
- Immigration and human capital. This is a university town, as well as a centre of rural innovation. The diversity emerging is evident as you walk around the town, and particularly around the university. However, lets be fair dunkum about the capabilities we need for the long term and be sensible about scoring these items as components of the immigration intake. This bit is personal. My brother in law lives in Armidale, obviously with my sister. He is a globally experienced IT guru, and Pommie. His skills are in great demand, but we do not let him work, while we go through an extensive, detailed bureaucratic process projected to take another 6 months on top of the year to date, assuming all the crap necessitated by the form fillers turns up without delay from all the places in the world he has worked at advanced, leading edge IT applications. He is sitting on his hands as my sister tries to make ends meet, because they decided to settle here after 25 years of globetrotting. How many degree qualified hairdressers and chefs do we need on 457 visas? Armidale is a town that desperately needs his skills if the NBN (assuming it is rolled out successfully) is to deliver he economic benefits projected.
If we are to have the post mining agricultural boom, we need to work for it, not just hope if arrives by some osmotic process.