Our staff can look back on their work in 2014–15 with a strong sense of satisfaction. This was a year of change in which we helped the new government deliver a number of initiatives and laid the groundwork to implement its broader agenda over coming years. We worked to cut red tape for our portfolio industries, in line with the government’s deregulation agenda, while improving our service delivery to make it easier for everyone to do business with us. We brought the department to a financially stable position after several years of operating deficits, while continuing to deliver on our day-to-day responsibilities.
Our staff are the key to our achievements and I would like to thank them for their professionalism and dedication to working on behalf of the Australian people.
Implementing the government’s agenda
We carried out significant work during 2014–15 to deliver a range of government initiatives. This included successfully implementing the first round of funding under the Rural Research and Development for Profit programme. Research and development has been shown to lead to better farm-gate returns, and this programme is an investment in the future of our portfolio industries.
We worked through the year to deliver the Drought Concessional Loans Scheme in the mainland states and the Northern Territory. In 2015, we implemented the minister’s announcement of further drought recovery assistance for farmers in Queensland and New South Wales who are facing unprecedented drought conditions. We also completed the transition to the Farm Household Allowance, which as at the end of 2014–15 was providing income support to more than 5000 recipients. Sustainable increases in agriculture need healthy farms and healthy communities and we will continue to help primary producers manage in the tough times.
We worked with the Department of the Environment to implement the National Landcare Programme. The 25th Anniversary Landcare Grants programme has provided more than $5 million in funding to address a range of natural resource management issues to benefit agriculture and the environment.
We rolled out the government’s package to help small exporters. This included approving more than 650 applications for rebates to small exporters in the dairy, egg, fish, grain, horticulture and meat sectors.
We also turned our attention to the government’s longer term agenda by contributing to the development of the white papers on agricultural competitiveness and on developing northern Australia. We were the lead agency supporting the Water Infrastructure Ministerial Working Group, which is working towards accelerating development and investment in water infrastructure.
The department had cause to celebrate in May 2015, when Parliament passed Australia’s new biosecurity legislation. The Biosecurity Act 2015 will replace the Quarantine Act 1908 with a new set of laws and powers to support Australia’s biosecurity system into the future, ready for advances in transport and technology. The passage of the legislation marked the culmination of six years’ work by a large number of staff, and the beginning of further work to make the transition to the new laws.
Another transition is already under way to a single, state-of-the-art post-entry quarantine facility. The first stage of operations at Mickleham in Victoria will commence in late 2015, but we began commissioning the new facility in February, with testing of the animal and plant compounds to ensure they meet our high standards for containing biosecurity risks.
In line with the government’s commitment, we progressed a review of national marine pest biosecurity to better manage the risks of invasive marine species to our aquaculture industry.
During the year, Australia achieved official recognition of being free of classical swine fever. This means Australia now has the highest possible status for all diseases officially recognised by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
Cutting red tape
By the end of 2014, the first year of the government’s deregulation agenda, decisions taken in the agriculture portfolio are estimated to be worth a net $24.5 million of compliance costs when implemented, while maintaining strong risk management safeguards.
Our close attention to framing regulatory requirements meant fewer than 10 regulatory changes introduced in the first year were found to introduce compliance requirements, and many reduced the cost of compliance. Overall, the new measures will reduce the total annual cost of complying with regulations by 4 per cent compared to 2013.
A key area of regulatory reform was access to agricultural and veterinary chemicals. Achievements during the year included working with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to streamline the process for simple variations to product registrations. This has provided greater certainty to industry for chemical registrations and enabled the authority to apply its resources to areas of higher risk. We also reformed registration requirements in the stock food and pet food sector, which will deliver an estimated reduction in compliance costs of $7.8 million each year.
Pursuing export opportunities
We had a significant year in agricultural exports, working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to implement the agriculture elements of Australia’s free trade agreements with the Republic of Korea, Japan and China.
To give some idea of the benefits of the free trade agreements, the Korea–Australia Free Trade Agreement eliminates tariffs across a range of commodities, including removing a 40 per cent beef tariff over the next 15 years. The elimination of a 24 per cent tariff on cherries under the Korea–Australia Free Trade Agreement saw the value of Tasmanian cherry exports to the Republic of Korea jump from $69 000 in 2014 to more than $3.5 million in 2014–15.
The Japan–Australia Economic Partnership Agreement delivered an immediate tariff cut in January 2015 and a second round of cuts in April 2015. As a result, beef tariffs are almost 20 per cent lower than those faced by the United States, and horticultural exports such as asparagus, mangoes and macadamias now face zero tariffs.
Once it is ratified and fully implemented, the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement will see 95 per cent of Australian agricultural commodities enter China duty-free.
We enjoyed successful outcomes in our ongoing work to negotiate technical arrangements with trading partners to open, maintain and improve access for hundreds of agricultural products into hundreds of markets. Among other markets, we reopened and increased access for live animal exports to a number of markets, providing increased opportunities for Australian livestock producers to compete in the international marketplace.
We continued work to improve Australia market access. This included a new protocol for wheat and barley exports to China, supporting trade worth more than $1.3 billion a year. After 10 years’ work, we opened the United States market for mango exports, with the first shipment of Australian mangoes delivered in February 2015.
Alongside our achievements, we continued to deliver our everyday work. During 2014–15, we cleared 17.9 million passengers and crew arriving through our international airports, and another 600 000 arriving by ship. We screened 146 million international mail articles, issued thousands of import permits and certified 328 000 export consignments and more than 3.5 million live animal exports.
We managed the flow of funds from producers to research and development corporations and industry owned bodies by collecting and distributing $488.8 million in levies.
Department staff were active in more than 160 locations across the country and around the world. We engaged our stakeholders to deliver better policies and programmes, and represented Australia’s interests to grow more sustainable and safe agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries.
We are always focused on doing business better. In 2014–15, our Service Delivery Modernisation programme had its first major achievement with the rollout of the Cargo Online Lodgement System, which is cutting the time and effort it takes for importers to lodge their permit documentation.
We equipped our field staff with mobile devices, so they can approve consignments on the spot, again saving money for our clients. We also streamlined our call centre arrangements, updated our website and introduced a new, single phone number (1800 900 090), to make it easier to contact us.
Building financial sustainability
Our focus on resourcing and efficiency enabled us to end the year with a balanced budget. This included completing the voluntary redundancy programme that began in 2013–14.
Reforming the cost-recovery arrangements that pay for our client services is another important step in our finance strategy. We have comprehensively reviewed the arrangements to create a funding model that better reflects the cost of services and is simpler, more equitable and more client-focused. We are continuing to consult stakeholders and aim to deliver our new cost-recovery framework in late 2015.
The year ahead
As 2014–15 was a year of review and planning the delivery of the government’s broader agenda for the agriculture portfolio, 2015–16 is the year of implementation.
It will mark the beginning of significant work for the department to implement the government’s White Paper on Agricultural Competitiveness and the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia.
The agricultural competitiveness white paper sets out a $4 billion investment in building a stronger, more productive, more profitable and more sustainable Australian agriculture sector. The white paper includes initiatives to deliver better regulation and a competitive market, build 21st century water, transport and communications infrastructure, strengthen Australia’s approach to drought and risk management, invest in research and development to underpin productivity growth, and open new markets for Australian exports.
Our department will lead the large and complex programme to implement the government’s agriculture agenda, working with other agencies and the state and territory governments. We will also have work to do on implementing the government’s northern Australia initiatives. That white paper delivers some important initiatives for agriculture including investment in water and roads infrastructure, a new Northern Australia Cooperative Research Centre, an expanded Indigenous ranger programme to expand biosecurity surveillance, and a commitment to reduce red tape around northern fisheries.
We will also take on an important new set of responsibilities, following the government's decision to transfer water policy to the agriculture portfolio. Effective water policy is essential for the health of our industries, our regional communities and the environment, and is a central part of the white papers. In assuming this responsibility, we will also be welcoming new colleagues from the Department of the Environment, and I will be working to make this transition as smooth as possible for our staff.
The Biosecurity Act 2015 will take effect from 16 June 2016, following a 12-month lead-in to allow our clients and stakeholders to familiarise themselves with their rights and obligations under the new laws. We have established a legislation implementation programme to ensure the department is fully prepared from the first day to run the new biosecurity system.
The post-entry quarantine facility at Mickleham will open in late 2015, and we will begin the process of closing the four remaining quarantine facilities. Work will continue toward building stage 2 at Mickleham, which is planned for completion in 2017.
Our new cost-recovery arrangements will be in place from the end of 2015, subject to government approvals. We will continue to build on the opportunities presented by Australia’s free trade agreements and other market access opportunities.
At the same time, our everyday work remains critical and will occupy a large part of the department’s workforce. We will maintain a focus on being a trusted, effective and transparent best practice regulator. This includes continuing to implement the government’s deregulation agenda to reduce the regulatory burden wherever possible.
We will strengthen our capabilities in decision-making and policy advice, including building the way we engage our stakeholders and our clients. We will make decisions that aim to support our portfolio industries, with balanced consideration of the impact these have on individual primary producers.
At a corporate level, our strategic aim is to be an efficient, progressive and professional department, through initiatives such as the Service Delivery Modernisation Programme and a new approach to national service delivery. We will continue to invest in our people, which includes maintaining a strong focus on work health and safety, and will maintain our drive to be financially sustainable.
Finally, on a more personal note, I would like to thank Paul Grimes and Phillip Glyde, who led the department for almost all of 2014–15. They have passed to me a department that is performing strongly and is well set up to deliver a busy agriculture agenda for the minister and the government.