Baiting the hook – is there a catch for Western Australia’s farmers?


Date of publication:  11 Jan 2019

For Western Australian farmers it might just be that State Government policy on the waters off our coast could have implications for those on the land.

In recent months Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly made policy announcements on three of the State’s fisheries – lobster, coral and pearl – which effectively grab part of one for the Government and redistribute quotas or double rents in the others.

As the fightback from sections of the fishing industry plays out, I was drawn to a comment from Minister Kelly who was quoted as saying “these guys are significant business people here in Western Australia, they are multi-million-dollar businesses in their own right”. Western Australia has many fishing families which, over generations of hard work riding the business highs and lows, have had success building their businesses.

Family businesses farming the sea have a lot in common with those growing grain or raising sheep and cattle– and that’s what I am worried about. These three decisions in quick succession could be a warning signal to farmers and pastoralists.  It should be something to think about for pastoralists as they front up for their five-year lease fee negotiations this year. They have already been told to sign a confidentiality agreement. Some fear this is code for the government wanting to muzzle the Pastoralists and Graziers Association as they go through the negotiation process before hitting them up with a significant hike in lease rates.

With the State’s 17% grab for the lobster industry, I will be interested (and nervous) to see if the State considers resuming pastoral leases from owners that have destocked to give the land a break or are not running at full stocking capacity. The rock lobster example makes me think it is not in the interests of any lease holder to not push the resource to the limit, now that the Government appears more interested in maximizing short-term economic returns at the expense of long-term environmentally sustainable resource management.

The word increasingly on the boats and utes across the State is – use it or lose it. Intentional or not, the signal sent to every one of the 43 fisheries and 504 pastoral stations is to go hard and fish and stock to the maximum limit or risk losing a slice of your business.

Looking at recent events it’s as if we have been transported back to the 1960s with the Government appearing to be seeking to control primary industry through taking a role in production and attempting to set prices.

This government tinkering appears also to be heading the way of our horticulture and viticulture sectors. As Minister for Water, Mr Kelly appears to be eager to progress the introduction of new water license fees which will hit our fruit, vegetable and wine producers adding costs which will have to be passed on to consumers and put extra pressure on some farmers who are already struggling.  Across the board, how any of these cost increases or changes to license conditions fits with growing regional employment is something I for one cannot comprehend.

Even the claims that the Government can make lobster more affordable by increasing the catch seems to ignore the market powers that major supermarkets and other retailers have to set prices, just ask the dairy sector how much power the retailers have. How quickly things have changed.  Just two years ago the Barnett government responded to calls by the Labor Opposition to abolish the last of the statutory marketing bodies The Potato Marketing Board because governments should not be interfering in the market. What’s next?  A modern version of the lamb marketing board to force down the price of lamb for domestic consumers?

Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand governments are elected to make decisions, but they must also be held to account for them.

Our State Government should collectively celebrate our successful agricultural sector and through its decision making seek to ensure farmers, pastoralists and fishers continue to invest without the threat of new taxes and charges or changes to long established property rights.

Finally, I urge the Government to remember that they already have the best of both worlds; they get to share in the good times through increased tax receipts without enduring the losses that come with the bad times. Now all Western Australian farmers and pastoralists should be watching the Government’s fisheries intervention and ask what might be next?

Trevor Whittington



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