PGA still fighting the Last War


Listening to Tony Seabrook President of the PGA, debating WAFarmers President Rhys Turton on the ABC Country Hour last week, reminded me of the former United States President Ronald Reagan a Cold War warrior who fought the Evil Empire (The Soviets) into bankruptcy.

Seabrook, like Reagan, is a political warrior with an uncompromising approach to politics, his focus is all about clearing the decks to free agriculture from the dead hand of government.  Both Reagan and Seabrook come from an era when the battle lines between the left and right, between socialism and liberal economic rationalism were clearly drawn.  Like Reagan, Seabrook has been on the right side of history having been involved in his organisation throughout the key battles over agrarian rent seeking.

But as with all great battles won or lost, time moves on. Past enemies become friends and new enemies emerge, requiring new alliances and new sophisticated ways of winning battles.

The debate between Tony Seabrook and Rhys Turton was a conflict between the old-school ways of doing things and new age thinking about ways of winning; one looking backwards and the other one looking forwards.  The debate was illuminating, and I urge people to listen to the recording on our website, as it sets out the two big issues the industry will be debating over the next few months; ‘One Voice’ for industry, and the Agricultural Produce Commission (APC) funding amendments.

During the debate, Tony Seabrook argued that the PGA had in the past run successful political campaigns, which is true. They never lost a major battle on government deregulation.  But that does not mean they are winning the war today.  In today’s world of agri-politics we are fighting a long drawn out war on multiple fronts – animal activists, ag-chemicals, live exports, carbon, water and land clearing. It is all wrapped up in complex changing community views summed up by the word ‘social license’ which simply means ‘the political license required for politicians to continue to back us’.

The community has changed, the politics are changing, and the complexity of winning political debates is changing. The PGA achieved its biggest success as communism was collapsing around the world and the Australian community was concluding that governments did not have all the answers, which led to a wave of political intervention sweeping through our parliaments, wiping out many of the support measures around agriculture.

Was the PGA instrumental in driving these changes or had the community and politics just woken up to the reality of how the world operates? Either way it does not matter, they were an important part of the debate at that time but today they are starting to sound more like a right-wing conservative think tank constantly debating the risks of the return of socialism than a sophisticated farming advocacy organisation.

The PGA need to cease reliving yesterday’s battles and acting like generals walking into the future looking backwards.  Rather we need them to come together with the rest of the industry and fight as an allied force. They need to turn their minds away from carpet bombing those who disagree with them to fighting in the era of digital warfare where winning hearts and minds is the way to a successful political outcome.

Smart political strategy and tactics with careful low key media engagement is how you get politicians to engage, the most recent example of this was the repeal of the GM Crops Free Areas Act in 2016, a textbook study of what can be achieved with clever politics.  This is one of the biggest wins our farm sector has had in years and it has paid huge dividends to grain growers.

During the recent Country Hour debate, the PGA attempted to claim this victory as their doing. Unfortunately for them, I happened to be working as Chief of Staff to the Minister for Agriculture Ken Baston during this policy debate, and I can assure industry that the PGA had very little to do with driving that reform.

In fact, more often than not, their noisy advocacy was a hindrance and not a help.  We did not need a sledgehammer approach to get it on the agenda or to smash it through parliament via the media. What we did need was sensitive political management to navigate around the politics of Barnett and his western suburbs views to get the legislation repealed. It was a nuanced lobbying effort that WAFarmers worked successfully behind the scenes to help achieve, quiet diplomacy supported by science and economics is how you achieve policy outcomes today.

The old days of in your face advocacy are long gone, the PGAs approach of running pro live export ads in the Farm Weekly was next to useless. The real work is done behind the scenes working the corridors of power and engaging with the bureaucrats using lawyers, scientists, economists and focus group polling to build the case.  It is a very different world to what the PGA were known for back in their day. So, let’s not allow history to be rewritten on the GM fight or the Live X fight. In fact, we need a hard and dispassionate review of the effectiveness of both organisations to make sure we have the horsepower to stop GM again being banned in the future and the allow the live export trade to continue beyond the life of the Morrison government.

What we should be focused on now is building a single united organisation that is capable of pushing back on the inevitable pressure by a future Labor government partaking in backroom deals with the Greens to trade off agriculture for their own agenda.  This is what the whole debate around One Voice is about. We need to concentrate on the future not faded selected memories of who won what battle in the past.

Which takes me to the line that Tony Seabrook kept repeating during the debate of the threat of a ‘Great Big New Tax’, when referring to the push by WAFarmers for the removal of the broadacre exemption on the Agricultural Produce Commission Act.

The only problem with this beat up is there is no big new tax nor, as he claims, are we as an industry opening the door to future unknowns by passing a simple one-line deletion to an Act of Parliament that has been working effectively for 30 years. All that the APC allows growers to do, is to raise a fee for service to address a particular issue or issues, that the majority of growers’ support.  It was put in place as an industry funding mechanism back in the days when the Department of Agriculture started to withdraw its paddock-to-plate support of all things agriculture, from R and D through to industry development.

Since its introduction the APC has been picked up by most agricultural industries across the state including wines, vegetables, bananas and avocados, and runs very specific programs such as self-insurance against cyclones, export marketing and industry peak body support.  In total 12 sectors have adopted it and none of them have any intention of relinquishing it even though the APC Commission regularly seeks grower feedback on its effectiveness and support.

Unfortunately, the one sector that is banned from using it is broadacre. It is not as Seabrook claims, an underhand way of funding WAFarmers; rather it is a mechanism that various groups of farmers and pastoralists could use to tackle problems that funding bodies like the federal government, DPIRD, GRDC, MLA or other bodies won’t tackle.

For example, the pastoral rangeland goat producers are currently unable to use it to build a marketing brand, the dairy industry are unable to tap into it to develop the economic modelling for a new cooperative, and Esperance growers are unable to use it to fund the administrative costs of SEPWGA.  Of more interest on the PGA front, the Kimberley Pilbara Cattleman’s Association are unable to use it to permanently set up in competition to the PGA as the states peak cattle pastoral advocacy association, which may just explain the PGAs vehement opposition to the legislation.

So, in summary, the PGA cannot run the line that it’s a great big new tax because it’s simply not true. It is a fee for a very specific, defined project, not an open-ended levy, which includes industry representation. For the amendments to go through with WAFarmers support, a simple opt out clause must be included.

This means for example, that every PGA member can opt out of a request by the PGA (or a new body call it the (Farmers, Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA) for a one off 10c a head fee to raise $500,000 to have the KPMG review the economics and science around stocking densities on a live exports. Just as they can opt out of a request for 5c a tonne for one year to have Deloittes review the complex web of regulations around ag-machinery and harvest RAV road movement to make them more practical. Or further opt out of raising funds for the CSIRO to develop an App that will map farmers’ mobile black spots meter by meter, paddock by paddock, to help build the case for more mobile towers. Or personally my favourite they can choose to opt out raising funds to commission RSM to undertaken a comprehensive review of all existing state and federal levies to see what can be removed, rationalised or moved into a Canadian style online voting system on priorities, finally giving back to growers control of their levy funds.

The PGA are effectively arguing against all the above because they do not place trust in growers to make their own decision to choose to opt out of paying a fee for a specific research or policy project.  As Tony Seabrook claimed in the debate, the PGA system of voluntary funding works, hence we don’t need another levy.  But it’s not a levy and the current system of fundraising simply does not work.

As we saw with the live export debate the PGA made much of the fact that they raised a large amount of money for the campaign, but how much did they raise? where was it spent? We never get to see their books or their membership numbers as they operate as a quasi-secret society.  Who in fact are their members?  How many Wheatbelt farm businesses have they really got on their membership register?  How are they funded, or should we ask who is funding them? Raising funds from a few large corporate cattle barons from their offices in Hancock House to run ads in the Farm Weekly was not what saved the live sheep trade.  The Messiah from the Shire Scott Morrison was the saviour of sheep live exports not the PGA, and if the ALP had won the election, it would have been all over. With or without the PGAs limited secret funds.

Neither WAFarmers nor the PGA covered themselves in glory during the live export campaign. The fact that two thirds of growers are non-members, and that we continue to split our administrative and decision making between two organisations, is a compelling argument to say our current advocacy system is broken and needs to change.  So, let’s sort this out once and for all.  In the coming months we will set up an independent poll during the field day season and if PGA members want to opt out, they can, but all growers are invited and encouraged to vote.

In the mean time we will urge the state MPs from all sides of politics to remove the unfair exemption banning farmers from accessing the APC legislation and when it’s passed, PGA members can opt out of any project that gets the majority support of growers. If or when a new Single Voice peak body is established, then loyalist PGA members can also choose to opt out of that too.

No one expects PGA members to suddenly wake up and join WAFarmers or vice versa, but when the votes are counted and the three options of a merger vs a new body vs status quo are considered, then odds on once its settled growers including PGA growers will in 2020 put their money where they think the best political insurance for their farm businesses will be delivered.

Just like McCarthy found by the 1960s you can only keep banging on about the communist threat for just so long before your supporters start to think time’s up and their money is better spent backing a new organisation fighting todays battles, not one stuck in the past.  I suspect that time is coming fast.


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