Every state agricultural Minister leaves their particular mark on the portfolio. Some grow the farm, some just keep the farm ticking over and others allow the farm to go backwards.
Going back in time to the 1990s, I recall a hyperactive Minister with a lot of energy particularly around the sheep industry, the next left us with a ban on GM crops and not much else, and then his successor turned on the tap for Ord Stage Two plus a big range of Royalties for Regions projects. Then came the hunting of the dogs and a reversal of the GM ban, a deregulation of the potato marketing system and a stocktake into the Department of Agriculture. In more recent times a Minister removed the head of the Department and another cranked up 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 are taking agriculture. (In making this assessment, we have put aside the politics of live animal exports. This issue ultimately sits in the federal sphere with the State Minister only being able to 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 that 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 which is a plus, and putting money into mobile communications, which is another plus. Still a big 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 project ideas. All too often departments sit back and wait for Ministerial direction, but good departments come up with ideas, good Ministers listen to their Departments.
Good Departments are also supposed to provide policy advice without fear or political favour. Something that often requires a brave Director General, or at least a politically savvy one which the current incumbent Ralph Addis certainly appears to be. Mind you, some Ministers just can’t be helped and stick their head in the sand or in the case of Dave Kelly the ocean. The full story of the advice the former Fisheries Departments senior policy and legal team gave the Minister for Fisheries about his brilliant idea to nationalise part of the Rock Lobster industry, will no doubt be a text book case. Had the Minister listened to his Department he could have averted 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.
Not so with our current Minister – one suspects she has watched all the programs of ‘Yes Minister’ and knows when to listen to advice and when to push the Department to deliver on good policy which hopefully always makes up Government’s priorities. A good department comes up with good policy ideas, a clever Minister makes it happen by pushing legislation through parliament and extracting funds from Treasury, as without money there is no honey.
However there are always challenges. With agriculture now buried inside two other big complex departments, it’s at risk of being lost in regional development which could result in a failure to get policy and projects up through the system. Also with the rivers of Royalties for Regions dollars 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. And with $4 billion in capital dollars going into the metro-net city railway project, there are no funds to go into big new agriculture capital projects like Ord Stage Three.
As an aside, that $334m spent on something you can see from the moon and is about as productive, could have gone into 300 more mobile towers across the wheatbelt – that’s something for the cost benefit economists to ponder!
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. This would make you a very popular person in the bush.
But back onto the direction this Minister is taking agriculture. Departmental leadership is certainly a big tick – Ralph Addis is a great operator with whom we can work, and his Executive Team have been hand-picked and are solid which is important. Together they are capable of working up some game changing projects that could easily surpass the Royalties for Regions projects and hopefully would leave behind more than ivory towers in the bush.
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 and has the horsepower to hold off Treasury, then this will be the first Minister in two decades to hold the line on departmental funding and staff numbers. This is priority number one. The looming state budget is a big test.
The recently announced $25 million into grains with a focus on soil regeneration is a clear signal that there is substance behind the rhetoric. Putting state resources on the table is a clear signal the department is back in the R and D game and the Minister should be congratulated for driving through a matching deal with GRDC. Any money coming back to the state is welcomed by growers, and any new funding within the department that prioritises grain is good for attracting and retaining agronomy skills.
A look through the Minister’s press releases across regional development and fisheries will show there are no lack of non ag projects she could have pumped $25m into, many of them in marginal seat’s that would provide electoral dividends to the government. Clearly, so far she is not playing the political card at the expense of primary producers. We as an industry support her approach and hope to convince her continue to partner with industry in other broadacre projects from digital ag tech, sheep systems, climate risk management through to social license, we need to park the politics and crank up the collaboration if we are going to hit a target of 20 million tonnes and 20 million sheep by 2030.
So in summary, the Minister has sown her crop and it’s looking good, now we wait and see how she top dresses it and manages the weeds – first harvest will be reaped in two years time. In the meantime she has some sheep work to do to keep the flock numbers growing.