One feature of this government is that it doesn’t mind showing what, to adapt a Labor term, are its policy “internals”. This is notable, given its penchant for secrecy and control on other fronts.
So we knew that Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane differed from his colleagues on aid to the car industry and help for SPC Ardmona (and lost on both). We were aware of varying views on the foreign bid for GrainCorp. We know Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has a more benign opinion of the ABC than many in cabinet.
And now we are seeing Agriculture Minister and Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce using the media to try to leverage his case for help for drought-stricken farmers in Queensland and NSW.
That’s another feature of this government. The Nationals, collectively and individually, are willing to fight their battles on open ground. They are determined to show they won’t play second fiddle to the Liberals (especially the Liberal dries) in the name of the “team”.
Joyce is by nature an individualistic, high-profile political operator although as a minister he has mostly turned down the volume.
But on Monday, the dial went right up, with a headline in The Australian: “Joyce pushes for $7 bn in relief aid to farmers”. The opening paragraph said Joyce had vowed to wage “a mighty battle” in cabinet to convince colleagues “to sign off on a $7 billion bailout of ‘distressed’ farm loans and avert a ‘complete and utter financial meltdown’”.
The story followed Joyce’s tour of Queensland and NSW drought areas and was a deliberate attempt to exert public pressure.
But the report was overcooked. Joyce says he was not actually calling for a $7 billion package. His office said he’d come back full of ideas but was yet to work up a submission.
Later on the ABC’s Q&A he made it clear he was pressing most immediately for a more generous drought policy. But he also said he had “no philosophic objection” to a proposal being promoted by some farmers for a rural reconstruction and development bank to buy bad rural loans, although “I didn’t promise to push that idea”. He said that was more appropriately considered in the coming white paper on agriculture.
When the Australian story appeared Joyce had to do some explaining to colleagues, notably Treasurer Joe Hockey, although their conversation was described as cordial.
Coming while the government is under attack over failing to assist SPC Ardmona, Hockey didn’t relish a public argument about what is Joyce’s still-phantom package.
In response, the Treasurer sent out multiple messages.
He pointed out that drought-stricken farmers are already entitled to aid when the area is considered subject to exceptional circumstances, and that under arrangements announced by Labor this is set to be replaced on July 1 by another scheme (a form of the dole, a farm household allowance).
People legitimately had the right to expect the new government would look at better ways to enhance agricultural production – and it would, Hockey said. The Labor government “didn’t have a single farmer in its ranks”; “this government has a multitude of farmers” (he himself owns a cattle property in north Queensland).
But as for help with rural debt: interest rates were at all time lows and “if people are having problems coping with interest rates now, then there is a bigger systemic issue at play”.
Joyce would bring to cabinet a review of the aid on offer. “But if we are going to make Australia sustainable as an agricultural food bowl for Asia and particularly in a market that is changing enormously in relation to agriculture, then we’ve got to look at medium and long term challenges as well.”
More generally, Hockey declared that “everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting now. The age of entitlement is over. The age of personal responsibility has begun.
"We need to help those people who are most vulnerable in our community. That is our duty. We will do that, but we can only do that on a sustainable basis. It can only be done if everyone who has the capacity to lift, does indeed lift”.
Translated into policy terms, the logic of Hockey’s argument is that while farmers should get aid in times of severe drought and other natural disasters, there is not a case for the government to cushion unsustainable enterprises or to hold back necessary restructuring. Restructuring is happening in the farming sector just as it is in manufacturing (and in the process many “family farms” are being squeezed or forced out).
When it finally gets to cabinet, the shape and fate of Joyce’s submission will be a test for the minister, the Treasurer and the power of the Nationals.