Date of publication: 7 March 2019
In a past life working for ministers across the various primary industry portfolios as well as a State Premier, I met regularly with all of the representative peak bodies – from the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) to the Potato Growers Association through to the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council (WAFIC). In total there are over one hundred organisations in WA representing every fisher, farmer and miner, and all of them play a vital role in pursuing their members’ interests.
Three things stood out as to how effective they were in influencing government. One was the professionalism of their paid staff, their skills and experience in engaging with the political and bureaucratic world; the second was the calibre of the board and in particular the President and his or her ability to grasp the political reality around what was – or was not – possible; and finally, there was the strong backing of the whole industry behind its respective peak body
Examples of these effective organisations include AMEC with its long serving high profile CEO Simon Bennison, WAFIC, with the strong, savvy ex-chair Kim Colero, and the very strong and united membership base of the Potato Growers Association. In each case, the peak body was able to negotiate with government from a position of strength when threatened by government decisions which were likely to adversely impact the future viability of their industry.
Major policy changes such as Rudd’s mining super tax, the introduction of rock lobster pot restrictions, or the deregulation of the potato marketing structure, saw each industry mobilise to fight major changes that potentially would have catastrophic implications. In each case the industry swung in behind their peak body as they cranked up their lobbying effort to head off a looming policy change, negotiate a better management plan or force a compensation package to reduce the pain.
At the time, if the farmers, miners and fishers hadn’t had strong peak bodies to troll the corridors of power and build community and media opinion in their favour, they would have suffered a large and permanent hit to their industry. For the 80 or so potato growers, having a strong peak body was worth around $200,000 each to them in deregulation compensation. For the then 400 rock lobster boats, the pot restrictions drove the move to a new quota system which has helped increase the average pot price over the last decade from $8000 to $80,000. And for the miners, the killing off of the super mining tax saved investors billions of dollars in dividends and supported the mining boom. There is a simple story here – united we stand and divided we fall.
At the moment, the Western Australian broadacre farming sector is both divided and disengaged when it comes to our peak bodies, and as a result we are set for a fall when federal Labor comes to power. Being weak, it’s no wonder the animal activists, the carbon taxers and the greens are circling our industry. Ban live export, ban glyphosate, ban diesel fuel rebates, ban stubble burning, invade farms across the sector; the hunt is on and we as an industry are seen as easy prey. With two peak bodies both with loyal but limited membership we are not in a position to muscle up and hold our ground.
WAFarmers is clearly the state’s grain and graziers peak body with the numbers to front government with credibility. The PGA has solid pastoral membership but its focus is traditionally on those who mainly lease their land from the crown. WAFarmers’ focus is on those who own their land freehold. Wheatbelt farmers who are not members of WAFarmers, are either free riding or confusing our political messaging by being members of another organisation. Two organisations collectively halve our influence and this needs to change.
WAFarmers is our Wheatbelt’s insurance policy against those who want to tell you how to farm, what to farm and what you can use to farm. You might not always agree with our policies or our leadership, but you are not helping if you are not a member. It’s like not having a farm fire truck and expecting the neighbours to drop everything when the smoke goes up next door. It’s not the country way, we don’t free ride and we don’t run competing local fire brigades in the one district. It’s all for one, and one for all.
Today the policy and economic differences between the PGA and WAFarmers is almost negligible. It’s not the hard right against the agrarian socialists – that’s long gone. Both organisations support private property rights and less government taxes, levies and regulation. We need to stop competing in the same space. Non-members need to rethink and sign up to WAFarmers and help us fight the fires that are rapidly heading for your farm. The global anti-agriculture groups have targeted your farming operation and simply hoping that the current peak body structure is enough to hold off the forces of darkness is wishful thinking.
To hope that your local Liberal or National member of parliament sitting in Opposition for the next six years can block anti-farming legislation is like planning for no droughts and no fires in the next six years. None of us would do this, so it’s time now to do the right thing and support WAF to be an effective advocate on your behalf.
For the price of one tank of your mobile fuel trailer, it’s time to fill one big modern fire truck with fuel and water.
Trevor Whittington, CEO