Simon Birmingham: Thank you for that welcome and getting me up here on stage nice and promptly and quickly upon my arrival. To you, as chair of the PIEFA board, to Ben Stockwin, the CEO, to the guests, particularly in the international guest speakers, board members, delegates, ladies and gentlemen – it’s a delight to be here with you all this morning for this important discussion and conference.
It was more than 100 years ago that my great grandfather, Michael O’Loughlin, left left Georgetown, just north of Adelaide, at the ripe old age more than 100 years ago of 67, and he went across to Kyancutta on the far west coast of South Australia. And with one of his sons, and one of his sons-in-law and their families, he opened up some of the farm industry in what is still a very remote part of Australia. On the October long weekend a couple of years ago, the many descendants – he was of good Irish Catholic stock and had about 11 children of his own – the many descendants gathered in Kyancutta to mark that anniversary, to celebrate the accomplishment there.
And of course at that age, at that stage, when the average age and life expectancy for an Australian man was really only to live into the sixties, it was remarkable to set out upon that type of journey and to open up those types of lands.
Now, that story is not uncommon in Australian folklore, Australian history, and in the type of background that people who have successive generations of Australians in their history may have. Certainly, when you go back to the generation of my parents of beyond, pretty much every Australian child growing up probably had an uncle or an aunty or a cousin, or somebody that the family knew who was on a farm, engaged in agriculture, or lived in a rural or regional community.
But as we’ve found, as time has gone by and country [indistinct] became increasingly urbanised, those things that we celebrate as a nation, those ties to outback Australia, rural Australia, have of course tended to drift a little more. And it is indeed because of that that much of the work that you have been doing is so incredibly important.
It is because of that reality that too many Australian students have no personal connection outside of the cities, and therefore little understanding that comes from their personal life of the importance of life outside the cities to our nation, that we need to make sure we focus on our school system and our education foundations, providing them with that information and knowledge.
Of course, Australian agriculture is central to our economic future. We, the government at present, are speaking with great passion about a time of economic transition and transformation innovation: from the period of the mining boom driving much of the investment in Australia and the lift in economic activity over the last couple of decades, to a time where we need to be more diversified as an economy, where we need to make sure we seize the opportunities within our regions.
And agriculture, as it has been central to the Australian economy right through our history, remains central at this time of transition. It is a central part of what we hope to achieve in our Innovation and Science Agenda, and so it is as important today as at any other time, if not more important, that we do celebrate the place of agriculture, and promote the place of agriculture to all Australians.
After all, Australian farmers produce enough food to feed an estimated 60 million people – far more than our population, nearly three times the size of our population. They export around 60 per cent of what it is they grow and produce, earning for Australia more than $32 billion in 2010-11 terms.
That of course has grown significantly; by 2013-14 farm production was worth around $51 billion, or about two per cent of Australia’s GDP, and it keeps growing. That’s before you look at value-adding potential after food and fibre leaves the farm gate.
Value-adding potential that we hope through our Innovation and Science Agenda as government, we can encourage more businesses to pursue and ensure that we continue to add to the contribution that agriculture makes to our GDP, which sits already at around 12 per cent of the nation’s economy.
This is a significant scale in anyone’s language, and it’s why it is so important that we make sure that agriculture is a central part of our economic agenda, but also of our educational foundations.
A few weeks back I had the pleasure of visiting Kilkenny Primary School in my home state of South Australia, and I did so with a couple of dairy farmers, and the cow that came along for the trip.
And of course, for most of the children in those circumstances it was the first time they had seen a dairy cow, the first time they’d heard from a dairy farmer, but they got that appreciation and understanding about what it is that actually occurs to actually bring milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter, et cetera, to the supermarket shelves that they enjoy and that they and their household rely upon.
And it’s a demonstration that whilst we want to see more children get out to farms, we also can bring the farm story and experience to the children. And it doesn’t always require bringing a cow to school it can be done in simpler and easier ways as well. We do want to ensure that Australian children appreciate where their food comes from, and the critical centrality of agriculture to Australia’s future.
That’s why we made good on our 2013 election commitment to invest in the Agriculture in Education initiative. We made that commitment because the research told us that 88 per cent of Australian children had never visited a farm, 73 per cent did not know a farmer, and that apparently some though that yoghurt grew on trees. Obviously there’s much to be done to correct some of those failings.
We now have a high quality online teaching and learning resource that PIEFA and AgriFood Skills Australia have developed, with quality assurance support from Education Services Australia.
An excellent job has been done in developing these resources, and I do want to congratulate all of the organisations for their work in doing so. The resources were launched, as I understand it, in June of last year and now have provided a base and a framework for Australian teachers with a degree of confidence to be able to teach students about food, fibre, and agriculture across Australia.
Children are learning how to make a financial plan for a market garden, and at that same primary school in Kilkenny in the Western Suburbs of Adelaide, they have well-established market gardens and fruit trees, and practical measures to ensure that children get their hands dirty and get an appreciation of the effort required to produce the food they use.
The resources are carefully aligned in the Australian curriculum, particularly in the areas of science and geography. Teachers are encouraged in their activities, their classroom activities, to download the 60 five minute videos and 30 other resources from the Scootle portal, which is a central repository that we support, for teachers right around Australia to access school resource material.
The Australian curriculum offers lots of scope for learning about agriculture, and students of course can also elect to do specific agriculture subjects.
In the year five science learning area, children are encouraged to learn how to use science to solve problems; they learn how the community decides the best way to grow plants, and particular plants and crops depending on environmental conditions: the nature of the weather, the soil, and circumstances in which farm may operate. In year eight, the students acquire an understanding of how and why certain methods have evolved, like plant pruning techniques in horticulture, fruit production and vineyards.
Urban children who have never been near a farm are at least now learning about how food moves from paddock to plate – a process that is so important in agriculture. Rural children are learning about aspects of agriculture they had never previously considered.
These vibrant, contemporary resources also help children understand how people use science in their occupations.
Both urban and rural children come to know the place of agriculture in the global economy, and the opportunities for highly skilled work in the agriculture sector.
We hope that the exposure to agriculture will delight and entice some of them to pursue careers in agriculture through tertiary education, because we do know that we need evermore skilled and qualified individuals to help our agricultural sector be as productive as possible, be at the cutting edge of innovation, pursue the opportunities that are available to it in future – whether that is in developing another area of precision agriculture, the use of robotics in agriculture, the advancement of biofuels, the challenges of biosecurity, or the opportunities of genetic modification.
These are the frontiers of agriculture, and of course more than just learning about farming and agriculture, they require us to have a school system of high standards and with particular focus on the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Yesterday I was pleased to outline the Turnbull Government’s commitment for school funding into the future.
We are committed to grow school funding each and every year off of what is currently a record level of funding. In 2016, as a Federal Government, we will provide around $16.2 billion to Australian schools, and that will grow if we are re-elected to $20.1 billion by 2020 – growth each and every year that flows into our schools. It’s a rate of growth that is in excess of inflation, provides real additional support, but also a rate of growth that we believe is affordable for the nation.
But importantly, most importantly, we want to tie that additional funding to actually put reforms in our schools around how it’s used. Because over the last 20 years, we’ve actually seen, from federal and state and territory governments, investment in Australian schools more than double in real terms, and yet our performance, as assessed internationally on reading and literacy, on maths and numeracy, on science, technology, foreign languages, has gone backwards.
So we’ve been putting ever increasing sums in and seemingly getting poorer outcomes, which is why in making the commitment for our school funding over the next few years we want to use for the first time really the Commonwealth’s funding as a point of leverage to get reform in our school systems, to ensure that we have the earliest possible measuring of student’s abilities to read, the opportunity then to intervene and provide additional support for those students who are not meeting those standards at the earliest possible years.
But also much greater aspiration in terms of year 12, that we return to a situation where year 12 students aspiring to go onto university education are studying English or a humanities subject and are studying maths or a science subject so that all students build at least a fundamental foundation of knowledge across maths and science, and English and humanities, before they go on to their university education.
It is an important compliment to the work of our National Innovation and Science Agenda and its huge investment in research and research infrastructure. Australian farmers have always been innovators, and from the late 19th century when a South Australian farmer invented the stump jump plough, through to Ladybird, the solar-powered intelligent robot the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney developed for the vegetable industry, the traditional innovation in agriculture continues.
Under our Innovation and Science Agenda we’re increasing funding for research, but importantly again it’s not just about the money, as I said with schools, but about how the money is used. Australian researchers, Australian universities are some of the best recognised in the world in terms of our accomplishment, for the publication of research findings, but have some of the poorest ratings in the world for collaboration with industry and commercialisation of research.
And at the heart of our innovation agenda is a shift in the way in which research funding is paid to better incentivise collaboration with business and industry, with farmers and agriculture, so that our researchers then have people working on the ground with them and are pursuing areas with the maximum possibility of them being picked up, commercialised and utilised into the future.
Today farmers can use satellite imagery to measure the amount of feed on offer in pastures and how fast it grows.
The US Department of Agriculture reported last year that an estimated 58,000 high-skill agriculture related jobs were expected to open up between 2015 and 2020, and I understand Jay Jackman from the National Association of Agricultural Educators in the USA is going to share some outstanding examples of science transforming agriculture in their country.
I’m sorry I can’t stay to hear this presentation, but I am confident that the types of reforms that we want to put in place will build on what is already a rich ability in Australian agriculture to innovate and to use those research linkages and get even better outcomes into the future.
The Turnbull Government is very serious about the quality of our schooling, raising that quality, getting better student outcomes, driving a more innovative and entrepreneurial culture, and ensuring that the billions that we spend in schools, in universities, and on research ultimately help the Australian economy to grow, businesses to grow, more investment to occur, and more jobs to be created. This is as important for agriculture as it is for any other part of our economy.
As you heard in the introduction, my life prior to entering the Senate involved a number of years working with the wine industry.
Wine industry, like most agricultural sectors, has had its share of ups and downs over the years, and plenty of challenges.
But it is also a wonderful example of every single aspect that is so important to Australia of agriculture. From the working vineyards, on the [indistinct] viticulturists, grape growers, who are actually of course using the latest technologies to ensure they get the best grapes from their vines whatever the weather conditions, whatever the climate challenges they face; through of course to the production, that manufacturing process of turning grapes into wine and bottling it; the marketing opportunities that exist to brand wine, to create personal and emotional attachment as well the quality of the product, the value adding that occurs from there; the connection then to our international export markets.
Right at every step of the value chain in the wine industry, as with so many other areas of Australian agriculture, there are different job opportunities for Australians, but an important need for students in our schools today to understand the diversity of careers and opportunities that are available in that sector of agriculture, as across every other area of agriculture.
We are committed to make sure we do have in our school system and throughout the support for students to understand that, and an important component of yesterday’s school funding announcement was greater career advice and career education within schools so that students are exposed to a richer awareness of the opportunities that exist beyond school, that it is not a singular focus on university pathways, but the opportunities of vocational pathways and elsewhere and the diversity of industry and jobs available to them is better explained.
So with that we hope that we can build very much on the good work that you have done in the last couple of years in developing these resources that will be so important to give our teachers the capability within classrooms to ensure future generations of Australians don’t just take- hear the myths about Australian farming in the past, but understand the reality of Australian farming today and the centrality of Australian agriculture to our future.
Thanks so very much for the chance to be with you today. Have a wonderful conference, good luck with your deliberations and discussions and I look very much forward to hearing about them after the event. Well done.