Almost every government that comes along claims that agriculture is a critical part of the State’s economy, particularly important for supporting rural communities and regional. Ministers like to have their photo taken standing in a wheat paddock or at the sale yards; Premiers are on TV inspecting the Ord River and touring the Swan Valley.
What you never see is the Premier or Minister standing in front of the fading sign at the former Department of Agriculture offices in South Perth now the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development . Maybe because it’s contaminated land or simply because it’s an embarrassing eyesaw that should have been pulled down and sold off years ago. For a major agricultural exporting state marketing itself as modern, clean, green and safe, this building certainly does not fit with the image we like to project globally. No doubt it was state of the art when it was built back in the 1959s, making the main building 60 years old this year, in part it was designed as a spill over hospital flowing the scare of the Korean war, but today it feels more like a morgue than a place supporting living things. As a building it is completely unsuited to the modern way of efficient open plan office networking, in fact it’s probably the worst departmental building in the state.
No doubt one of the first things Minister McTiernan did after her first tour to the South Perth headquarters was to call for a briefing note on any plans to move the department to more professional and suitable accommodation. And no doubt the long suffering government architect lost in the bowels of the building was found, told to dust off his suit and sent up the hill to update this latest Minister on the long list of past plans previous ministers had signed off on. The Minister would have said will make it happen and would have instructed that a new plan be drawn up along with costings and a business case to go to Treasury.
No doubt Treasury would have been ready and waiting for it. As this has been going on for the past seven Ministers as cabinet submission after cabinet submission has ended up in the shredder they affectional call ‘Hungry’ as it spends most of its life chewing up funding requests from the department of Agriculture. Unlike ‘Money’ which is the shiny new printer that has been flat out printing approved cabinet decisions on each of the different Premiers grand city designs be it Elizabeth Quay at $440m, the new Museum $428m, Yagans Square $1.36 Billion, and of course the MetroNet project at $4 billion.
Every Minister wants to play architect, and every Premier gets to play grand designer on a grand scale, leaving Ministers to agonise over the placing of their plaque on any buildings they are clever enough to get through Cabinet. But we know this Minister is good at forcing things through cabinet as she has a track record of building things like roads and railways and is more than capable of staring down any Under Treasurer.
Having myself been in the political world since 1993 and having seen the boxes of past architechal plans for a new Departmental headquarters gathering dust in the departments storage rooms, I can attest that for at least the last twenty five years Minister after Minister has tried and failed to find a new home for the Department of Agriculture.
For Agriculture there has been a huge range of options considered, from carving off the back of the 20ha block in South Perth, to moving to Northam, Midland, the CBD, Curtin, Claremont Show Grounds, Tech Park, Murdoch, Bunbury, the list goes on. And with Fisheries there were plans to go to Hillarys, Joondalup, even Fremantle and the Department of Regional Development was set to go to well anywhere but the regions. The end result is not a lot has happened, the current head office component of the combined department is today split between the CBD and South Perth. It does not work for the staff and it does not work for the industry.
Last week I put out a challenge to the Minister to make her mark by seeing if she could hold off Treasury and stop the annual cuts of around $10m or 50 staff each budget to the department. If she achieves this she will be well on the way to stamping her mark on agriculture in the state as a successful Minister. The next challenge I’m putting to her is to land a new headquarters for the new combined Department. Some farmers might see this as a waste of tax payers money, but I see it as a statement that says government considers agriculture important and we are serious about the industry’s future. Good research requires good facilities and good staff are attracted to modern offices. If Treasury can afford flash new offices at 28 Barrack St, (Google the building David Malcolm Justice Centre) and if Premier and Cabinet can afford to refurbish and move Ministerial Offices at a cost of $100m for Duma House and the Emperors Palace then its well and truly Agricultures turn especially given we pick up the bill for the rest of them.
Besides if you want to attract and retain good staff you need to invest in decent housing and modern machinery, not park them in the old dump out back and continue to flog them into the ground and then wonder why they are not working very effectively.
Having toured with Ministerial delegations across Asia and the Middle East talking to buyers of our grain, wine, meat and produce I can confirm we have the most run down departmental head office I have yet seen. Its almost third world in appearance , not a good look, certainly not a place to bring international delegations. It’s embarrassing and it needs to be fixed.
So the debate should start of what building and where. Past Ag Minister Ken Baston pushed the project along when he was Minister by getting smart and offering up the land at South Perth to Treasury to sell. They could not believe their luck (no Minister offers Treasury anything) and grabbed it with both hands. Now Land Corp are planning their next big urban development project and the clock is ticking on the block. So let’s park up the politics of moving the department to a marginal seat such as Bunbury to buy votes, or social engineering as part of urban revitalisation into Midland, or virtue signalling it back to the bush by pushing the department into country towns like Northam, Katanning and Albany.
If we are serious about rebuilding our research and development focus and bolstering our biosecurity capacity then all roads lead to doing a deal with one of the Universities. We don’t need to do a Barnaby and blow the department apart like he did by moving the national pestisides authority from Canberra to Armadale in NSW (his own seat) and losing half the staff in the process. Its unfair to up and move a department off to a country town miles from where the existing staff have homes, kids in schools and partners at work, besides all farmers hub in and out of Perth. Any move along those lines would send the Department backwards for a decade, and if they do it we will be calling the Minister to move their office out there with them.
Minister McTiernan needs to take the lead and drive a common sense outcome, it time to start a bidding war between the universities for the land and then build what is a specialised building to house 800 people with all the specialised biosecurity rated labs. Total cost around $250m a fraction of the Governments $6 billion capital works budget with part of the funds coming from the looming sale of the 20ha of South Perth land. And maybe it’s time for Treasury to feed Urban and not Aggy and support ag for the first time in sixty years, and stop cutting their budget and invest some capital in a new headquarters because its time to reward the primary industry sector with the recognition they deserve for supporting the state WA with sustainable jobs.