Australian Agricultural Council

The role of the Australian Agricultural Council

In 1927, the permanent heads of State and Commonwealth Departments responsible for agriculture and the Chief Executive of the then Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) met as the Standing Committee on Agriculture (SCA) to define priorities and methods for cooperation in agricultural research. In 1935, its role was extended to quarantine, pests and diseases, the improvement of agricultural products and maintenance of high export grade standards as well as research and development and to generally promote the welfare and development of agricultural industries while advising the newly-created Australian Agricultural Council (AAC). The Council comprised Commonwealth and State Ministers of Agriculture/Primary Industries. By 1980, SCA and AAC were meeting conjointly every six months to deliberate by consensus on a wide range of policy issues. AAC was progressively changed by the full membership of New Zealand in 1991 to become the Agricultural Council of Australia and New Zealand (ACANZ), soon afterwards becoming the Agricultural and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ), meeting in parallel with the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC). In 2001, these met together as the Primary Industries Ministerial Council (PIMC) and the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council (NRMMC). In 2012, they became the separate Standing Council of Primary Industries (SCoPI) and Standing Council on Environment and Water (SCEW). The Ministerial Councils were responsible for developing policies that guided the evolution of Australian agriculture to compete on the world stage.

Australian Agricultural Council was advised by the Standing Committee on Agriculture (SCA), comprising the heads of the Commonwealth and States/Territories Departments of Agriculture / Primary Industries along with their New Zealand and Papua/New Guinea counterparts as observers. The Standing Committee also retained representatives from CSIRO and, for a time, the Commonwealth Departments of Health, Trade and Finance, and later, the Bureau of Meteorology. SCA meetings were generally held twice each year, followed by Ministerial Council meetings. There were upwards of 40 agenda items to be discussed and recommendations agreed for submission to Ministers.Until the mid-1980s, Hansard staff were engaged to record the proceedings.The location of the meetings rotated among the states, often held in a capital city but locations such as Townsville, Cairns, Broome, Alice Springs, Port Moresby (PNG) and Rotorua, Queenstown and Nelson (NZ) were also chosen. The South Australian Director-General of Agriculture or equivalent chaired the Standing Committee meetings when held in South Australia.

Ministers were given regular reports on world trade in agricultural produce and the levels of subsidy and tariff protection that were available to overseas farmers. Australia had participated in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which had been established in 1947 to promote international trade by reducing or eliminating barriers such as tariffs or quotas. Separately, Australia and New Zealand commenced negotiations about “closer economic relations” (ANZCER).Australia became a member of the “Cairns Group”,an unique coalition of 19 developed and developing agricultural exporting countries with a commitment to achieving free trade in agriculture. Most states entered the 1980s with a variety of domestic statutory marketing authorities (SMAs) or Boards that managed the prices paid to farmer and in many cases controlled the elements of production. All told, there were 67 of them. These arrangements were progressively unwound by consensus among Ministers by 2000, with support provided to farmers to help them adjust to the competitive environment. The dairy industry was one of the most difficult. A market milk equalisation scheme operated in the Adelaide Hills and Murray Swamps, while manufacturing milk prices prevailed in the rest of the state. Most other states had market milk quotas beyond which producers could not produce, and their cows required expensive supplemental feeding to meet compositional requirements. Only one SMA remained in Australia by 2018. Australia’s international marketing changes included the abolition of the single desk role of the Australian Wheat Board, the dismantling of the Wool Reserve Price Scheme and disposal of its stockpile of 4.75M bales of wool and the introduction of stringent inspection standards and traceback facilities for export meat.

Australian farmers face many risks including poor seasonal conditions such as, drought, or low world prices due to overproduction in world markets, historically often attributable to overseas price support and subsidy schemes which encouraged more production when prices were already low due to high stock levels. Ministers supported a range of adjustment schemes, managed at state level, often involving interest rate subsidies or low interest loans for highly indebted farmers in the face of downturns. Eligibility varied, for example on a regional basis for farmers facing exceptional circumstances, or oriented to the economics of the individual family’s business unit. Farm management training and access to independent counsellors were also part of the assistance available. Managing during drought continues to be a problem.

Animal and plant health and effective quarantine arrangements have been crucial issues addressed by Commonwealth and States/Territories agriculture and primary industriesMinisters.. Over the past forty years, numerous incursions of new exotic animal, insect and plant pests and diseases have been recorded. Those referred to the Australian Agricultural Council have included Argentine Ants (Linepithemahumile), Asian honey bee (Apiscerana), Asparagus rust (Puccinia asparagi), Avian influenza , Black Sigatoka disease of bananas (Mycosphaerellafijiensis), Bluetongue, Branched Broom rape (Orobancheramosa), Chalk brood of honey bees (Ascosphaeraapis), Chestnut blight (Cryphonectriaparasitica), Citrus canker (Xanthomonas citrisubsp. citri), Citrus greening (CandidatusLiberibacterasiaticus), Cocoa pod borer (Conopomorphacramerella), Electric ant (Wasmanniaauropunctata), Equine influenza, Eucalyptus rust (Puccinia psidiicomplex), European Foulbrood of honeybees (Melissococcusplutonius), European house borer (Hylotrupesbajulus), Fireblight of apples (Erwinia amylovora), Foot and Mouth Disease, Four tropical weeds (Clidemiahirta, Limnocharis flava, Mikania micrantha and Miconia spp.), Green snails (Cornuapertus [syn. Cantareusapertus, Helix aperta]), Hendra virus, Kochia (Bassiascoparia), Marine organisms in ballast water, Myrtle rust (Austropucciniapsidii), Newcastle disease (virulence of various strains), Old world screw worm fly (Chrysomyiabezziana), Oriental fruit fly (Bactrocera dorsalis), Papaya fruit fly (Bactrocera papaya), Poinsettia / Silverleaf white fly (Bemisiatabaci), Potato cyst nematode (Globoderaspp.), Potato spindle tuber viroid (Pospiviroid; PSTVd), Red fire ant (Solenopsisinvicta), Russian wheat aphid (Diuraphisnoxia), Siam Weed (Chromolaenaodorata), Strawberry angular leaf spot (Xanthomonas fragariae), Stripe Rust  (Puccinia striiformisf.sp. tritici), Sugar cane smut (Sporisoriumscitamineum), Swine influenza (H1N1 virus), Varroa mites of honey bees (Varroa destructor and V. jacobsoni), Warehouse Beetle (Trogoderma variable) and Western flower thrips (Frankliniellaoccidentalis). Considerable sums have been jointly invested by the commonwealth and states/territories to try to eradicate these threats. Some were successful, others were eventually reduced to a policy of careful containment. One of the most successful was the complete elimination over twenty years of brucellosis and tuberculosis in the national cattle herd, thereby underpinning international confidence in Australia’s meat exports. From the mid-1980s, producers, through their peak industry organisations have been progressively involved jointly with the Commonwealth and states/territory governments in managing and funding eradication programs.

Other programs managed through the Ministerial Council system included the introduction of a wide range of animal welfare codes, the management of agricultural and veterinary chemicals and the requirement for training for those wishing to use them. Special programs encompassed the collection and disposal of chemicals which had been prohibited, along with responsible disposal of empty chemical containers. The successful management of spray drift was an adjunct to this work.

Ministers also promoted the coordination of agricultural research and development on a national basis, initially in a framework of fourteen industry sector strategies and seven cross sector strategies. These were developed with the grower co-funded research and development corporations. After some doubts as to feasibility in the 1970s, Plant Variety Rights legislation, leading the Plant Breeders Rights in 1994, encouraged the commercialisation of crop species cultivars and provided incentives for their further development with practical solutions to intellectual property management of essentially derived varieties, for example through the collection of end-point royalties when the crop is sold. As a result, South Australia remains a leading wheat breeding state, albeit now managed through a company, Australian Grain Technology whose shareholding includes the Grains R&D Corporation, SARDI, the University of Adelaide along with Limagrain.Agricultural Ministers, along with those from other portfolios supported the development of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator to oversee the incorporation of novel transgenic material into agricultural plant breeding. South Australia researches these new technologies.

Concerns first arose in the States about environmental impacts of agriculture during the early years of the 20th century, particularly about the need for soil conservation. Some areas were primarily affected by water erosion, while other areas developed wind erosion leading, for example, to passage of the South Australian Sand Drift Act (1923) which gave private landholders the right to take action against their neighbours if their land were threatened by drifting sand. Disasters largely created by wheat/fallow rotations and overgrazing of the 1930s exacerbated the water and wind erosion problems. In 1936, a special meeting of Agricultural Ministers from the states and the Commonwealth decided that each state should assess the problem in conjunction with CSIR and make recommendations. A Standing Committee on Soil Conservation was established comprising the heads of agencies responsible for soil conservation in the Commonwealth and States/Territories to provide advice to Australian Agricultural Council. Arrangements varied considerably. New South Wales established its Soil Conservation Service in 1938 with an unique capacity to undertake significant public works to address soil stability issues.Victoria established its Soil Conservation Board (later Soil Conservation Authority) in 1940. The soil conservation function was incorporated into Departments of Agriculture/Primary Industries in other states except Tasmania where there were no special provisions. With a slight change of states’ Ministerial representation from AAC, in 1986 the Australian Soil Conservation Council (ASCC) was established to act as an advisory body on soil conservation policy and ensure a coordinated national soil conservation effort between the Commonwealth and State Governments and other Ministerial councils involved in resource conservation. . The Commonwealth had already been investing in the National Soil Conservation Program (NSCP) from 1983. Ministers were presented with a draft National Soil Conservation Strategy, signed by Ministers in 1989.They were advised of a newly developing program in rural Victoria called “Landcare”.In February 1989, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation made a joint proposal to the Prime Minister to develop a National Year and Decade of Landcare from 1990, based on the Victorian experience. Following development between some Standing Committee on Soil Conservation participants of more specific proposals encompassing land capability, land and water audit, property planning and capacity building, the Prime Minister agreed to the suggestion.  This led to a collaborative approach between the Commonwealth and States/Territories through their Ministers to a much-expanded NSCP funding based on plans prepared for the following Decade of Landcare. The States/Territories were to aim to have 750 Landcare groups in place by 1992 (1400 was the actual achievement).Saline land degradation became evident in the early 1980s in many areas cleared of native vegetation for cropping and annual pastures. In November 2000 a new Commonwealth investment matched by the States/Territories, was announced for the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAPSWQ). Projects were based on community planning and participation, linked where appropriate to catchment management. The plan included capacity building for communities and landholders to assist them to develop and implement integrated catchment/regional plans. ARMCANZ aimed to ensure that NRM issues were addressed in ways that would ensure there was no halt to rural development, had support from communities, did not involve heavy-handed or excessive regulation and delivered the best outcomes for agricultural industries and rural communities. The program was later extended by providing funding directly to regional and catchment organisations for Landcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and Coastcare and was followed by a new program of discrete projects entitled “Caring for our Country”.

The separate Standing Council of Primary Industries (SCoPI) and Standing Council on Environment and Water (SCEW) were abolished from within the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) subordinate Ministerial Councils structures in 2014. An Agricultural Ministers’ Forum (AGMIN) was later established informally outside of COAG, with an Agricultural Senior Officials Committee (AGSOC) subtending it. CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology were subsequently excluded from the structure in October 2015. The Ministerial Council system, whichfacilitated Federal and State/Territories governments to streamline and coordinate their activities in the national interest was supported by the states’ research agencies and by relatively independent Commonwealth agencies such as the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and its successors, and the Industries Assistance Commission, the National Competition Council, the National Water Commission and the Productivity Commission. The Ministerial Council system, working through consensus.has been an important mechanism underpinned the development of Australian agriculture.

Although some other Ministerial Standing Councils remained after the COAG restructuring of Councils in 2014, the Council of Australian Governments, comprising the Prime Minister, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and a representative of the Australian Local Government Association was itself abolished in 2020. On 3 June 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new National Federation Reform Council (NFRC) to replace Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meetings, with National Cabinet (Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers) to remain at the centre of the NFRC.Once a year, National Cabinet, the CFFR and the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) will meet in person as the National Federation Reform Council to focus on priority national issues.

Dr John Radcliffe AM FTSE

July 2020

Further Reading:

The above paper was prepared for the SA History of Agriculture project, based around three papers prepared for the Journal of Agricultural Science, the journal of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology. The following papers were published in Volume 31 (2) 2020:

Influence of Australian Agricultural Council and successors on Australian Agriculture 1980-2014. 1. Operation, Marketing and Responses to the Risks of Farming (PDF 7.9 MB).

Influence of Australian Agricultural Council and successors on Australian Agriculture 1980-2014. 2. Protecting and Facilitating Farm Efficiency (PDF 9.1 MB).

Influence of Australian Agricultural Council and successors on Australian Agriculture 1980-2014. 3. Managing and Using Australia's Natural Resources for Agriculture (PDF 6.0 MB).

The approval, by the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology, to reproduce these papers is gratefully acknowledged and appreciated.

Page Last Reviewed: 07 Jul 2020
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