Over the past three weeks WAFarmers have been on our annual road trip travelling between Albany, Merredin, Katanning, Dalwallinu, Kulin, Pingelly, Ravensthorpe and Esperance.
As we rolled through the kilometres, we take the time to discuss the condition of the roads, the patchy mobile reception, the lack of water in the dams and the state of the crops.
In the towns we rate the coffee in the cafes and the speed of decline of the main streets, all the while marvelling at the size of the machinery in the dealerships and the resilience of local fabricators and manufacturers.
Looking for images to tweet we stop and take photos of tree’s growing through Tier 3 lines and leaky weld patches on Water Corp pipes. We wonder how long the government will continue to force Western Power to retain the country power network and debate how the government gets away with spending $800m of R for R money on the Bunbury bypass when those dollars would be enough to fund one meter wide shoulders on all 4300km of the state’s grain highways.
As we go through each town we note the regional airstrips and wonder how many of today’s Ministers ever really experience the wheatbelt in a car as we were doing.
Unfortunately all too often MPs when elevated to being a Minister get a taste for the fly in fly out lifestyle and the joys of having access to the governments King Air or Lear Jet.
They forget the importance of getting in the car and hitting the road, taking the time to go for a ride on a header, dropping into the local bin during harvest, or chatting to the water carting contractors waiting in long ques to fill up at country stand pipes.
No doubt there is always a good reason for a quick flying visit by plane to attend a meeting in the bush, but unfortunately the end result is usually disappointing as all too often the Minister has failed to grasp the importance of the issue and has been more interested in lecturing than listening.
Rarely these days do Ministers come with solutions as most struggle to comprehend the complexity of running a modern farm or the challenges of living in rural communities. Few indeed seem able to extract the funding from Treasury, needed to make any real difference (with a notable exception of the last government).
As a result, over the years I have watched the farming community become more and more cynical towards fly in fly out city bred Ministers, many of whom were clearly out of touch with life outside of Perth.
This is not smart vote winning politics. To win and hold seats in the bush political parties have to show they are serious about regional issues. They need local MPs who look and sound like they care.
This is especially relevant to a Labor government who are weak on the ground in the regions with next to no local MPs outside of the north and big coastal towns.
In the lower house they have no representatives in any of the four key farming seats, with the Nationals holding; Moore (Shane Love), Roe (Peter Rundle), Central Wheatbelt (Mia Davies) and Warren Blackwood (Terry Redman), plus North West Central (Vince Catania).
While in the Upper House’s Agricultural Region the ALP hold two of the six seats; Darren West (Farmer from Jennacubbine) and Laurie Graham (Retired Geraldton Port Authority Manager).
To their embarrassment the Libs hold just one seat (Jim Chown) but a reinvigorated effort by Dr Steve Thomas (Ag Vet) as the new shadow Ag Minister will likely see Steve Martin (Wickepin – Farmer) and Kathryn Jackson (Geraldton – Town Planner) join the two ALP and two Nats.
One could understand a fly in fly out approach for a ALP Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development if McGowan had appointed a farmer or even someone who lived in the regions as their Minister for Regional Development but this is not the case.
In fact, the Labor party has a long standing problem in this space in that throughout its history when in government it has struggled to find farmers to stand for preselection or when in power to appoint a farmer/farm manager to the agricultural portfolio.
Since 1905 the state has had 33 Ministers for Agriculture of which 15 have been from the Labor side of politics. Out of these the party that had its roots in a meeting of striking pastoral workers in Queensland in 1891 has only managed to appoint one farmer or farm worker as Ag Minister, the late Kim Chance who held the portfolio from 2001 to 2008.
Hence it is strange that when presented with the opportunity to appoint a second farmer into the McGowan cabinet as their Ag Minister the current government overlooked Darren West. Instead they appointed someone with no immediate links to either a farm, the industry or a country town.
This is not to say that you need to be born and bred on the land to be a great Ag Minister or to have lived in a regional town to be an exceptional Regional Development Minister – but it would surly help.
Premiers when making cabinet choices inherently understand the need to link professions to portfolios, as just how many Attorney Generals are not Lawyers or Minister for Veterans Affairs not ex-service person?
The Premier should have factored in the special interest the farming community takes with their Minister and taken the opportunity to send a clear signal to the bush that his side of politics can represent farmers and rural communities by appointing someone who comes from the land.
By making the decision to appoint a professional politician the Premier missed the opportunity to elevate someone who speaks regional WA’s language, someone who really understands the challenges of operating a modern agricultural business and has the time and interest to stop and listen to the concerns of farmers and those who live in country towns.
Watching how Darren West has been sidelined one wonders what incentive is there for any future left leaning farmer to join the ALP if the Ministry will be out of reach. While many, won’t agree with Darren’s views on a range of policy issues at least he has some serious skin in the game.
Instead we have a Minister that was an activist student, lawyer and a public servant, someone who has always represented city seats and has built her formidable political reputation driving the construction of railways and freeways.
Still when she was appointed the farming community had an open mind to what MacTiernan could deliver to the Ag portfolio especially with regional development. Here potentially was a can do Minister with a big budget who could turn the department around and drive real outcomes such as a massive upgrade of our grain freight roads, or ensuring the Nationals big spending mobile black spots funding program continued or that the country water supply issues were effectively addressed.
But after three and a half years later and a multi billion dollar Covid-19 stimulus package the amount of funding that has gone into supporting Agriculture or Regional communities is a fraction of what the previous government put up.
It’s as if the government has decided that the country vote was not coming their way, so instead they were going to concentrate on Metro Net rather than build a Country Net of road and rail. Their focus is on city and coastal marginal seats rather than on farmers and inland towns and communities.
As we head into the budget and then the 2021 election platform the McGowan government has a chance to send a signal to the bush that they take agriculture and regional development seriously with some big spending policies. Anything less will be confirmation that they see us as a fly in fly out problem worthy of no more than a flying visit, just long enough to give a lecture and leave.
Post election you never know maybe the next Ag and Regional Development Minister will again have real links to the bush. Certainly, the Liberals and Nationals will have real policies that resonate and new country MPs who have the pedigree to do the job and the will to achieve outcomes. But will Labor?