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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Election 2013: Food and agriculture policy debated by Labor and Greens in Wills

From my election 2013 series - see my Wills 2013 seat reports at

L to R: Kelvin Thomson (ALP), Tim Read (Greens), Margarita Windisch (Socialist Alliance)

Discussing Food and agriculture policy may seem a little bit incongruent in an inner urban electorate, but the forum held in Wills at the Coburg Farmers market on Saturday highlights that city people are concerned with farming and agricultural practices that affect everyone from farmers to city consumers.

The public forum was organised by Transition Coburg, initially with sitting Labor member Kelvin Thomson, Liberal candidate Shilpa Hegde and Greens candidate Tim Read. Shilpa Hegde withdrew from attending the forum with no reason given and Margarita Windisch from Socialist Alliance was added.

Presentations were kept relatively short ranging from 5 to 8 minutes and were then followed by audience questions. About 70 people attended the forum, quite a large number given the Farmers Market that was occurring.

Kelvin Thomson was first up and provided a succinct analysis of the multi-layered issues involved with food security on a global level, the environmental challenges, the impacts on public health, and the problems with food and retail concentration, and the impacts of urban sprawl on prime horticultural and farming land. He explained some of the governments supportive programs being undertaken with Ausbuy, funding support to Farmers markets and food industry innovation. Watch Kelvin Thomson's presentation:

Thomson was followed by Tim Read, the Greens candidate. The Greens are aiming to poll above the Liberals in Wills and Tim is a highly articulate candidate with a wide knowledge of different policy areas, but is particularly passionate on driving changes posed by the challenge of climate change.

The Greens are supportive of Labor policies but want to take them further. Some of the policy differences include: temporarily blocking further expansion of Woolworths and Coles retail duopoly and initiating a review by the ACCC of this sector; funding of $85 million over 3 years for farmers markets and community food bulk schemes; re-submiting container deposit legislation for support by both Liberal and Labor to reduce the environmental impact of container waste.

"As you've heard farmland is under threat from urban sprawl, but also from expansion of coal seam gas drilling, from coal mining, the long term decline in rainfall and climate change. The Greens are very concerned about this and we want to block all new coal mining and coal seam gas expansion. We want to introduce accurate country of origin food labelling. We want to block Coles and Woolworths and foreign governments, not foreign companies, from buying farmland. Foreign companies is one thing, but foreign governments is another issue and over the last few years it's been a growing trend." Tim Read told the crowd.

Read highlighted the major difference: Neither the Liberal party or Labor party have attempted to reign in the expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas (CSG) extraction which are despoiling agricultural land, contaminating water resources, and resulting in carbon emissions impacting on climate change when those coal and CSG are burnt overseas. Watch his presentation:

Margarita Windisch from Socialist Alliance emphasised the level of global poverty and a system which allows much food to go to waste. Part of her answer was nationalisation of public utilities and some of the larger monopolies and duopolies.

"As Kelvin has already pointed out there are already 1 billion people going hungry. It is criminal that food crops are being destroyed, deliberately destroyed. Food should be distributed and produced to satisfy need not to make profit." she said

"So what we are putting forward is that we need a publicly funded radical transformation of our agriculture that supports farmers in that transition...We also believe that farmers should receive a living wage and that could be through regulating prices or direct subsidies, so they can truly produce nutritious food rather than being consistently pushed to unsustainable short cuts the cause of the duopoly in terms of food ownership and distribution." she said.

Margarita Windisch called for the two supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths, to be nationalised, "so we can really guarantee a fair price for the products. We know a fair price for products for farmers is not going to happen if it remains in private corporations."

Like Tim Read and the Greens, Socialist Alliance also opposes expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas due to climate change and impact on agricultural production.

"It is the massive opening up of prime farmland for the exploration of coal seam gas which is currently threatening the future of our entire agricultural industry. The Socialist Alliance supports a ban on any kind of coal seam gas extraction." said Ms Windisch.

Watch her presentation:

Questions from the audience addressed to the three candidates included:

  • why the continued restrictions on growing and retailing of non THC hemp products for human use and consumption, when it is an easy crop to grow with the fibre so useful in many different applications.
  • How to cope with the increase in the Cost of living, in food prices and in electricity prices.
  • Foreign ownership of agricultural land and the impact of expansion of coal mining and CSG on land use.
  • What Support is there for Farmers markets and associated initiatives.

The answers to the question on the Cost of living, in food prices and in electricity prices:

The discussion highlighted a number of differences. Kelvin Thomson raised that there would be substantive constitutional problems with Socialist Alliance's program of nationalisation, although Windisch did allude to that nationalisation would be effected through compensation payments.

On cost of living and electricity prices Tim Read highlighted that power companies have been doing major upgrades to cope with peak power, adding up to 25 per cent to electricity bills. He proposed that better energy management, possibly closing some high energy use factories during heatwaves at peak periods, would be much more energy and cost efficient rather than making the average citizen and residential consumer pay through the nose in upgrading the grid to cope with peak use.

While Thomson is very concerned on the impacts of climate change on food security and agriculture, both the Greens and Socialist Alliance highlight the continued expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas as serious impacts on agriculture and climate change in Australia. Neither the Liberal Party or the Labor Party are taking the steps necessary to reign in this expansion, which is necessary if we are to limit greenhouse gas emissions on a global level. Scientists estimate 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves need to be left unextracted according to a recent Climate Commission report (See AFP report), including much of Australia's coal and CSG, if we are to limit climate change impacts this century to 2 degrees Celsius.

More concerning is the absence of the Liberal party candidate in Wills to contribute to this important discussion and be questioned on Liberal party policy on food and agriculture, especially if Australia is considering a Tony Abbott lead Government. She also failed to attend the forum on Climate change and sustainability.

The event was one of 90 around Australia celebrating the inaugural Fair Food week by the by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance which promotes the importance of supporting our farmers and food producers to transition to sustainable and viable farming systems that tackle food insecurity and food injustice.

According to a media release by Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, both the Labor Government and Coalition parties fail badly AFSA's Fair Food Electoral Scorecard.

“We want to let our members and the broader voting public know where the parties stand on the key issues of fairness and sustainability in our food system”, said AFSA spokesperson Dr Nick Rose. "In a nutshell, only the Greens have developed the sort of integrated policy approach we believe is needed to meet the serious food supply challenges we face in the coming years and decades."

"The Coalition more so than the government has a relentless and myopic focus on increasing productivity and boosting exports regardless of the social or environmental cost. This is very disappointing, particularly when there are such good precedents of how to support a fairer, more dynamic and more sustainable food economy in the United States, Canada and Britain, among other places”, said Dr Rose.

See previous Wills election reports on

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