Every state agricultural Minister leaves their mark on the portfolio, some grow the farm, some just keep the farm ticking over and some allow the farm to go backwards. Going back in time we had Monty House, remembered as a hyperactive Minister with a lot of energy particularly around the sheep industry, Kim Chance left us with a ban on GM crops and not much else, Terry Redman turned the tap on for Ord Stage two and a big range of Royalties for Regions Projects, Ken Bastion hunted the dogs, turned GM back on, deregulated the potato marketing system and undertook a stocktake of the department of agriculture, Dean Nalder removed the head of the Department of Agriculture and Mark Lewis locked in the Water for Food plan.
Now after two years in the job we are just starting to get a sense of where the current Minister and her Director General is taking agriculture. Putting the politics of live exports aside which ultimately sit in the federal sphere as the State Minister can only take a public position for or against the trade. In this case we have the Minister sitting on the fence but considering the pressure coming from the federal opposition and no doubt some of her own back bench we have to acknowledge this is as good as we can hope for at this time.
In terms of policy we have the Minister continuing with the wild dog strategy with is a plus, and putting money into mobile communications another plus, an unknown unknown is the restructure of the department of agriculture and its amalgamation with the department of regional development and fisheries. It’s been disruptive and no doubt painful but the new DPIRD seems to be coming together and starting to pump out policy and projects. Departmens are supposed to provide policy advice without fear or political favour. Something that often requires a brave DG, or at least a politically savvy one which this one clearly is.
Mind you one would love to hear what sort of policy advice the former fisheries departments policy and legal team gave the Minister for Fisheries about taking on Rock Lobster, I suspect that particular Minister was not interested in listening to impartial advice because he knew best. End result a humiliating public back down. Maybe he should be encouraged to watch some old programs of Yes Minister to find out what happens when a politician ignores departmental advice.
One suspects this current Minister has watched all the programs of Yes Minister and knows when to listen to advice and when to push the department to deliver on the Ministers/Governments priorities. It’s a fine line and it looks like this Minister is able to dance along this tightrope, which bodes well for the industry as a clever Minister can extract funds from Treasury as without money there is no honey. With now ag buried in with two other big complex departments it’s at risk of being lost in a large complex department which then fails to get policy and projects up through the system. With the rivers of Royalties for Regions having been cannibalised to fund day to day operations across other departments, there is no longer $50m a year to go into ag related projects like grain and sheep research programs.
And with $4 billion in capital dollars going into the metro net railway to nowhere project in the city there is no funds to go into big new ag capital projects like Ord Stage Three. But then again Grylls greatest legacy a big expensive white elephant its probably good that the money for that project has dried up. As an aside what a lost opportunity $300m into something you can see from the moon that could have gone into 300 more mobile towers across the wheatbelt what a game changer that would have been.
Hint Minister if you manage to get hold of any capital money our number one priority is connectivity, fast tracking 5G and doubling the number of towers would make you a very popular person in the bush. But back onto where this Minister is taking us, Departmental leadership is another big tick Ralph Addis is a great operator we can work with him, and his Executive Team have been hand picked and are solid which is important.
And finally what will this Minister be remembered for, well it’s too early to tell, if she can stop the slide in the budget but if she has the horsepower to hold off Treasury then this will be the first Minister in two decades to hold the line on Departmental staff numbers. The looming state budget is a big test.
The recently announced $25 million into grains with a focus on soils is a clear signal that the rhetoric on soil regen is serious. That’s fine its serious money or should I say matching things for cash with the GRDC putting up the new money but no matter it’s a welcome investment and the Minister should be congratulated to driving through a deal with GRDC. Any money coming back to the state is welcomed by growers, and any funding within the department that prioritises grain is good for attracting and retaining agronomy skills.
A look through he Ministers press releases across regional development and fisheries will show there are no lack of projects she could to pump $25m into, many of them in political seats that would provide electoral dividends to the government. So unlike her college Dave Kelly she is not playing the political card at the expense of primary producers. If we as an industry we play our cards right and sing the praises of the Minister when they get it right we might be able to convince her to keep investing in other broadacre projects that support a target of 20 million tonnes and 20 million sheep.
So in summary, the Minister has sown her crop and its looking good, now we wait and see how she top dresses it and manages the weeds, harvest is in two years time, in the mean time she has some sheep work to do to keep the flock numbers growing.