At the recent WA farmers annual conference, the Minister for Agriculture Allanah McTiernan noted the regular advice I was giving her in these pages and questioned why I had not been more proactive making things happen when I was Chief of Staff to a previous Minister for Agriculture.
A fair question but as a staffer my job then was to give advice, not to make decisions, that responsibility lies with Ministers. In the world of politics good Ministers will listen to their industry and their advisors while bad Ministers tend to ignore their industry and sack their advisors when they don’t like what they are hearing.
In my current role as CEO of WAFarmers my job is to listen to industry and give some frank advice about what needs to change if we are to sort out industry representation and protect farm businesses from bad Ministers. As has happened to many a previous Chief of Staff and Chief Executive Officer when pointing out the obvious this might not end well, but here goes anyway.
In previous opinion pieces I have written about ‘Lifters and Leaners’ and ‘All for One and One for All’ the fact that to have a powerful voice in the political world farmers need to be members of a single peak body. Now we need to talk about the drivers behind membership and what is holding back people from becoming members of organisations like WA Farmers and how we can fix it and play a bigger role in national debates.
As Mao Zedong once famously said political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, fortunately in Australian agri-politics the gun barrel translates into political horsepower. Those organsiations that have been able to mobilise most of their industry members under one organisation are today running big tracked tractors that can pull back on bad Ministers. In our case we are running chamberlains and it’s time for us to gear up especially as we will in all probabilities be facing a federal labor government which is not sympathetic to agriculture.
We have recently seen the importance of big horsepower in a text book example of the Rock Lobster Fishery in WA where all the fishers are members of WA Rocklobster Council. They managed to roll the state governments push to nationalise 17% of their fishery by running a hard hitting, well-funded and coordinated campaign. Just as we are about to see the CFMEU force a Shorten government to roll up the Building Industry Watch Dog a strong membership base and a single voice equates to political power.
Internationally we see the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand all have well supported farmer representative bodies that have a majority of the industry as members. As a result governments trip over themselves to curry favour with these peak bodies. Not so in Australia. When big issues hit our industry such as live exports it’s a bizarre world of competing farm bodies tripping over each other in Canberra all attempting to get someone to open their doors and listen. There are today just too many farm organisations, many with limited memberships sending too many conflicting messages into the media and parliament.
My thinking is wheatbelt growers take the advice of Rob Kerin who is the current President of South Australia Primary Producers Association, a former farmer, agronomist, Minister for Ag and Premier who told us at our conference that governments only listen to well resourced, well organised and well represented peak bodies.
He offered up the example of the South Australia model with its strongly supported opt out membership structure backed through state legislation. The model raises a fee for service of 20c a tonne all tied to industry approved projects such as reviews into their grain transport system or engaging with GRDC to support local research funding.
In WA we already have 13 industries from wine to vegetables that have a fee for service model in place that supports their industry to run projects around biosecurity risk reviews, economic regulatory impact modelling and legal advice on water rights and importantly policy development. Its hard to imagine that our biggest agricultural industry, grains would not benefit from a more coordinated and better funded approach when it comes to industry representation.
As we head towards 2020 our grains industry is facing serious state and national grain industry coordination challenges many of which will be thrashed out over the next few years setting the scene for the next decade to 2030. I’m suggesting that a 20c a tonne fee for service on grain locked in for a single three year period would raise the funds needed to support a radical overhaul of state representation, and address key issues.
To start with the funding should be used to bring together the 1100 WAfarmers grain producers, the 100 WA Grains Group and the 100 PGA grain growers under one umbrella, lets call it the WAFGGGA so everyone feels included. This 1300 growers would represent about half the growers in the state and well over half the total production. By offering a simple formula for raising the $2m or so needed to run a highly professional office we as a industry that is producing 16m tonnes and heading towards 20m tonnes could commission the economic and cost benefit studies that are now standard fare for building the policy case for government funding to be redirected from the bottomless pits of health and social security into core infrastructure like roads and towers and tax issues.
The days of signing petitions, writing letters and drafting submissions in-house are long gone. If the industry wants to keep its fuel rebates or grow off farm deposits limits, have black spots funded or water piped to country towns then it needs to commission economic studies by reputable consultancies like KPMG and Price Waterhouse. This is the way the world works in modern policy development, just look at the scientific work that the live exporters are scrambling to do on the issue of the 28 degree wet bulb on animal welfare. This costs industry serious money and industry needs to be infront of the game. If the recent decision on glyphosate in the United States is not a warning shot that a $7 billion grains industry needs to build the structure and the professionalism to engage in complex policy debates with world class consultants riding shot gun then the industry is delusional.
WAFGGA with all 3500 grain growers in WA could also set itself the task of addressing the funding of the $70m that is flowing east in GRDC levy’s at the expense of WA growers. Are we getting value for money, is the state government pulling its weight or is inkind the new cash, are our grower groups being supported enough. By not having a single strong grains voice in the state analysing the flow of cash out of growers pockets via Canberra and back we are often running blind. Think of it as paying your accountant or lawyer to track down expenses that are lost in a complex legal and accounting structure. Farmers don’t like paying levy’s but as the total pool of funds rises towards $100m we should be prepared to put $2m into a compliance system that effectively tracks this money in the interest of WA growers.
Then there is the ongoing debate around the merits of GPA and GGL at some stage this will be sorted out, if WA is going to play a major role in these negotiations we need more than a single overworked Executive Officer to draft the policy papers on a wide range of complex issues to we end up with our preferred structure that protects our growers long term interests.
Such a funding structure would be limited, targeted and focused on policy not politics, how the existing bodies fit in will be up to the new structure, but to do nothing and hope that the zones and growers will come back to WAFF, PGA and WAGG is like hoping the millennials will give up their mobile phones and go to a zone meeting. No doubt the mouse that roars will be Puffing and Gruffing about no more levys but the mouse is sitting on a big stack of grain and it can always opt out. And roar away but the rest of the industry needs to work to protect the grain with the sort of horsepower only money from all growers can buy, not the few members left supporting WAF, PGA and WAGG.
If we are serious about ensuring Western Australia wrenches back a degree of influence which is in line with our size as a grain producer on grain research, policy, standards and market access we need to first show we can speak with one voice and we can stare down the other states and organisations that seek to control what we produce. If the price is 16c a tonne for 3 years then maybe its time to put down the guns and build a big tractor.