Peter McGauran takes up his new job as agriculture minister facing a few stern challenges. Not least, that he’s regarded as a Collins Street farmer by many of his country constituents – Farmers Federation president Peter Corish noted diplomatically yesterday that the new minister would be on a “steep learning curve.”

But the more substantial issues go to the heart of MaGauran’s portfolio. For starters, agriculture’s contribution to total exports has been falling for years. Combine this with the long-term drying of the continent, and you get some scary scenarios.

Last month, Newcastle University lecturer and meteorologist Martin Babakhan warned that Australia was fast becoming a desert, under the heading: Farmers advised to leave land.

So what are McGauran’s priorities? So far, it’s populist protectionism. The new minister spent day one in the job whacking McDonald’s over the knuckles for buying some of their potatoes from New Zealand (Nats in push to protect farmers.)

While a National Party agriculture minister must be expected to cosy up to farmers, longer-term solutions are more sensible. More clear-headed participants advocate a little tough love. This is what meteorologist Babakhan says: “A couple of weeks ago there was little bit of rain coming in and the farmers were praying for more because they wanted to harvest. They are kidding themselves, it’s not going to happen.”

His prognosis: “From 2030 we shall start to see some massive changes in the Australian climate… the continent will dry up.” ” And if he owned a big farm struggling with debt across the eastern and western wheat belts? He would sell up and leave.

Primary exports remain a key to economic growth. But with our burgeoning current account deficit, Australia is heavily and uncomfortably reliant on continuing high prices for resource exports. The trade effort must be diversified, and ultimately that means less molly-coddling for the horny handed sons of the soil.

We’ll find out soon enough if McGauran is up to the job.

Peter Fray

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