We've heard this all before. "Strategic industries" and "industry plans" are invariably code for taxpayer support.
Something peculiar happened yesterday in the campaign. Tony Burke put out a policy, and everyone -- OK, nearly everyone -- loved it.
Burke announced the development of a "national food plan" -- our "first ever", inevitably -- intended to address issues such as food security, affordability, sustainability, productivity ... all the sort of stuff you look at when you develop a national policy.
Even logistics, which used to be very
fashionable in the transport planning community in the 1990s, got a guernsey.
Within two hours, two organisations that normally have nothing good to say about Labor, the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the National Farmers' Federation, had issued a press release lauding the move -- not surprising, since the AFGC has been pushing for such a plan for some time.
Almost at the same time, the Greens issued a press release welcoming the plan, saying they too had been driving the food security issue.
The only recalcitrant was Coalition agriculture spokesman John Cobb, who described it as a plan to have a plan.
But alarm bells should have started ringing the moment an industry group put up its hand and declared itself happy.
Industry plans have a tendency to end up involving taxpayer support, or more blatant forms of protectionism. The issue to watch in any food industry plan is "security". Whether the term is "strategic industry", "protecting heritage", autarky or "security", the idea of protecting a sector because it has some special importance to an economy is at the heart of protectionism.
Food security is already driving a protectionist reaction to foreign investment in the food industry. Cobb, Bill Heffernan and the Greens have all argued for a register of foreign interests in agricultural land. Other Nats such as Mark Coulton, and the Liberals, oppose a register.
Any plan driven by "food security" is likely to involve taxpayer assistance to particular industries, just like the automotive sector -- another "strategic industry" that benefits from taxpayer largesse.
Burke himself made the direct comparison yesterday. "I want us to take the same strategic approach to food manufacturing that we have been able to take to the car industry," he said. That "strategic approach" costs taxpayers billions of dollars, inflates the price of imported vehicles and ensures each job in the automotive sector is subsidised by tens of thousands of dollars.
The Food and Grocery Council's proposals for a food agenda
, for example, include calls for "support for industry to upgrade plant and equipment", "incentives for R&D" and spending on transport infrastructure. You can bet the preferred vehicle for the first two would be tax concessions, which have lower political visibility and that are harder to keep track of. They'll still cost the taxpayer and come at the expense of other industries not considered worth of the title of "strategic".