Most people in Western Australia will not have heard of the Liberal Democrats, but there is such a party and they do have one member of State Parliament Aaron Stonehouse MLC who holds a seat in the South Metropolitan Region of Western Australia.
According to their web site the Liberal Democrats have a vision of a state and country in which small government and minimal regulation combine to ensure and enhance our personal freedoms. It is a laudable vision which most farmers would no doubt support if asked.
The party also believe in the right of individual action. The right to choose as this offers the best incomes, both for the individual, and for society as a whole. Again, a philosophical position that broadacre farmers who produce grain and livestock would no doubt agree with. That is the right to choose to pay for something that benefits them.
But despite these positions of principle Stonehouse has attempted to make the case (Time to Cut Back Red Tape – West Australian, Countryman 5 September) that farmers should not have the right to choose to have access to the Agricultural Produce Commission (APC). The APC offers a funding mechanism that allows farmers (all that is except broadacre farmers under the current laws) to collectively fund projects that the government does not have the funds or the interest to support.
To fix this anomaly the government on the urging of WAfarmers has but forward a bill before Parliament that will change the existing legislation to remove this exemption. Unfortunately, the leader of the one-person Liberal Democrats argues in the media that the proposal should be rejected, and the anomaly should remain.
It is an unfortunate reality of our political system that fringe parties elected to city seats with a handful of votes can control the balance of power on issues that directly impact farmers. It would be tolerable if the principles behind the party of individual choice were being applied, but in this case, they are clearly not.
And they are also not being applied by the Liberal Shadow Minister for Agriculture Jim Chown who has also come out strongly against the APC, siding with the Pastoralists and Graziers Association who are running a medi-scare style scare campaign claiming it is a great big new tax.
If the Honourable members who are so apposed have their way broadacre farmers would be denied the right to choose to access the APC scheme, and it would put at risk the rights of all other farmers growing other more intensive produce to continue to use an effective funding system that is the envy of the other states.
For example, the Carnarvon banana growers use the APC to self-insure against the next big cyclone and the wine industry use the APC to fund marketing, while the avocado growers have used it to undertake research on crop diseases.
Farmers coming together to collectively fund projects that support their businesses sits well with good liberal values of self-reliance and the APC has been strongly supported by growers that have had access to it.
Both the Liberal Democrats and the Liberals would have realised the level of support that exists for the APC if they had made the effort of consulting with the 12 different industry sectors (including avocados, bees, vegetables, eggs, pork, fruit, bananas, wine) that have had access to the scheme for the past 30 years before coming out publicly against the amendments to include broadacre farmers.
Contrary to the claims by the Liberals and Liberal Democrats that the APC is a great big tax or a insidious impost on farmers our proposal will see plenty of protections built into the system for broadacre farmers. For example it will be up to farmers to request an APC Committee be established followed by a vote to determine the level of support before it can even be set up. The next step is another vote to elect an APC committee of farmers (not bureaucrats) and a opt out option will be in place for growers who do not want to participate, nothing sinister, nothing communist about it, totally nothing to fear.
The campaign by Stonehouse and Chown to publicly dismiss the new bill with the amendments to include broadacre before it even hits parliament or is considered by a parliamentary committee reflects poorly on them and their adherence to a consultation process and does not bode well for their respective party’s reputation when it comes to listening to the farm sector.
In comparison the Minister for Agriculture Alannah MacTiernan has shown herself to be far more prepared to listen and actively engage with farmers on this issue as has the National Party, Shooters Fishers and Farmers and One Nation. Maybe the Liberals have resigned themselves to a long spell in opposition and the Liberal Democrats to be a one term wonder as they are certainly not getting out and talking to farm sector bodies and farmers on this particular legislation.
Farmers who attended the three region forums on the APC run by WAFarmers along with the members of the three WAFarmers committees; Livestock, Grains and General Section all voted unanimously to support the inclusion of broadacre with a opt out clause once the pros and cons of the structure had been outlined along with the fact that this may be the only way to effectively fund a long term defence of live exports and glysophate.
Despite this overwhelming endorsement from informed farmers neither Stonehouse nor Chown have made any effort to come to meet with the industry or listen to the views of growers, preferring to communicate their uninformed views via the media.
Members of Parliament either support the right of all farmers to access the APC or they don’t, and if they don’t support this funding mechanism then it is appropriate to ask some hard questions. For instance when are they going to publicly come out publicly with their plan to abolish the APC? What about the other three Industry Funding Schemes under the BAM Act that pay for the monitoring control, or eradication of footrot, three horned bedstraw, bovine tuberculosis, enzootic bovine leucosis, Johne’s disease, and wild dogs, are these also on their hit list, if not why not?
When confronted with these questions suddenly the politics gets a lot harder for them, are they politicians of principle or not, if they don’t like levy’s, then they don’t support industry funding schemes so let’s hear about their views on not only removing all the different state schemes three of which get matching state funding but also the federal schemes GRDC, MLA and AWI all of which pick up federal government money.
In an ideal world we would not need the Agricultural Produce Funding Scheme or the Sheep and Goats, Cattle and Grains Seeds and Hay Industry Funding Schemes to deal with biosecurity risks but unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a complex global world. A world that is being overrun by pests and diseases that can shut markets overnight. A world that requires farmers to work together to keep access to live exports or retain the use of ag chemicals if they are going to hold off popularist governments caving to green extreme activists.
The farming sector is reliant on communities for our social license, state governments for animal welfare regulations, federal governments for chemical regulations, both governments for infrastructure and other countries for import licenses. We need to collectively build the case to support access to markets, clean up unwanted pests and diseases, defend our clean safe image and lobby government to build the infrastructure to be able to compete globally.
The APC is the ideal mechanism to collectively raise the required funds to fight for more workable government regulation and to build the economic case for better roads and mobile communications coverage. The alternative is to rely on members of parliament who never have nor ever will be a minister to push their extreme ideological views that deny farmers freedom of choice to fund industry good projects despite claiming to be supporters of liberal (freedom) values.
If the Liberals and the Liberal Democrats are serious about supporting farmers, they would support the passage of the APC bill with an opt out clause for broadacre just as there are opt out clauses for the other three industry funding schemes. This position would support farmers to either act collectively or individually. To pursue political ideals at the expense of a majority of farmers comes at a real cost to the industry to defend itself from exactly what Stonehouse and Chown complain of – big government, disinterested government and a community out of touch with agriculture.
As for the state liberals who are key in this debate they currently don’t hold one broadacre lower house seat across the wheatbelt (despite holding the two federal seats) and have even recently lost Geraldton to the Nationals hence you would think they would be beating a door to anyone that would give them a hearing. Instead what we have is a shadow liberal spokesperson for agriculture that only talks to one extreme industry group of a hundred or so farmers that opposes all levy’s no matter what their merit. This is not the way to win back the wheatbelt so maybe it’s time for the leadership to step in and open lines of communication to the bush.