Tony Abbott’s trade trifecta– a hat-trick of free trade agreements signed with Japan, South Korea and China late last year – was among the highlights of a less than stellar first 12 months as Australian prime minister. Once the trade tariffs that previously halted billions of export dollars are lowered this year, one local industry hoping for a windfall is agriculture.
With the prospect of a new market in Asia’s middle class, Australian farmers are pondering the possibility of their country becoming the continent’s food bowl. But for John Foss, the farmer and entrepreneur who made his millions bringing superfood chia to the world, the Asian opportunity should be about quality not quantity. “The term ‘food bowl for Asia’ gets loosely thrown around in Australia but farmers in the Americas and Africa all talk about creating the same thing,” he says. “If we work on exporting the right products and focus on premium there is an enormous opportunity for producers.”
Many agriculture experts agree that Australia should aim to be Asia’s fine-foods deli rather than its supermarket. But while Foss’s company enjoys its fastest-growing market in Hong Kong and Australian organic beef exports have surged as Chinese tastes develop, other producers struggle to capitalise on consumers in Asia. The fix, says Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh, is a unified and concerted brand overhaul. “We’re still in the mindset of commodity exporters, where it is a case of producing as much as you can and putting it on a ship, which is never going to win in terms of value markets,” he says. “We need to better position the brand that is Australia to an international audience.”
Asia’s favourite Aussie tucker
The Chia Co
The brand credited with popularising the seeds of the native Central American chia plant among health fanatics continues to expand its operations in Asia.
Tasmanian baby-food business known for its milk products has offices in China, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Farmed on pristine Queensland grasslands, obe’s organic beef is stocked in many grocers across Asia.
Papua New Guinea may be a nation of just over seven million people but its geography means it can often feel disconnected from the wider world. Ahead of its hosting of this summer’s Pacific Games, a 100-day cross-country relay will attempt to develop a sense of national unity.
“Papua New Guinea is split by mountain ranges and has a very limited road system,” says Tamzin Wardley, who is in charge of the relay route that will pass through all of the country’s 22 provinces. “These geographical challenges make our country special. The mission of the relay is to connect as many people as possible as we take on the countries of Oceania.”
Hosting the event for the third time in the Pacific Games’ 52-year history, Papua New Guinea has high hopes for its home team of more than 600 athletes.
Often overshadowed by its larger neighbour across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s dollar could become worth more than Australia’s struggling currency. While the latter’s resources boom has slowed down, New Zealand’s economy is operating at close to full capacity and is expected to reach its peak in March.
The rebuilding of Christchurch following the 2011 earthquake has spurred economic growth but it is New Zealand’s primary industries that have contributed the most, with agriculture and mining growing rapidly at the end of 2014. But it’s not all bad news for the Aussies. With a weaker dollar, their export and tourism industries might just look a little more competitive.
Peter Hartcher’s latest essay for the Lowy Institute, The Adolescent Country, explores Australia’s foreign-policy shortcomings.
Can Australia influence the Asia-Pacific region?
Tony Abbott recently made a telling comment about Australia’s position and its potential in the world. He said it stands ready to work with Japan and all of its Asian trading partners to be a guarantor of food, energy and mineral security. Australia can credibly say that and that’s an extraordinary position to be in.
Yet you argue that Australia missed foreign-policy opportunities to extend this influence?
There is a persistent compulsion of our political leaders to treat foreign policy as just a subset of political posturing and point-scoring. During g20, Abbott’s refusal to talk about climate change meant that eventually this rising global indignation overwhelmed the summit and became a dominant issue.
Which middle powers show greater promise with their foreign policies?
I was very tough on Abbott as opposition leader for opposing Australia’s efforts to join the UN Security Council. New Zealand’s Labour government started a bid to join the UN Security Council 10 years ago. Its conservative government continued the bid with full energy and has now won the seat. It has been a moment of national unity for New Zealand and national pride in bipartisan achievement.