Where is the Iron Lady of Agriculture

Iron Lady

Alannah Joan Geraldine Cecilia MacTiernan  born 1953 qualified lawyer, professional politician, has just won her 9th preselection contest to guarantee she will serve 4 more years in state politics.

Not many politicians get even close to the sort of career in politics she has had, let alone at all three levels in government.

In a ruthless factional deal MacTiernan has seen her party dump another woman (Adele Farina) to allow her to swap from her current North Metropolitan region seat, to move to the South West region so that she can continue on in her current role (if McGowan wins in 2021) as Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development.

As they say, politics is a blood sport and our Minister is a past master at playing it, not that one could ever accuse her of being a factional player, in fact quite the opposite, she has managed to climb to the top without racking up debts to factional warlords, unlike many who sit opposite and behind her in state parliament.

Nor could anyone accuse her of not being an immensely hard worker or being unqualified for a life in politics. With a long career already under her belt and more to come, it is worth reviewing the journey MacTiernan has taken to date, to better understand what’s possible in the future.

A graduate of UWA with a Arts Law degree (almost a prerequisite for politics in the Labor party) her working career started with the Federal government in the area of aboriginal employment and training, another favoured training ground for the ALP (along with the unions).

She was elected to the Perth City Council in 1988, entered state parliament as the member for the East Metropolitan Region at the 1993 state election and after 8 years on the opposition benches giving the Court government a hard time, (I recall vividly as I worked for the Leader of the Legislative Council at the time) she became a Minister in the Gallop/Carpender government in 2001.

Most Western Australians will recall her time as Minister for Planning and Infrastructure where she drove the construction of the Perth to Mandurah rail line and the start of the Perth to Bunbury Forrest Highway.

After 8 years as a Minister it was back to the opposition benches following the 2008 Barnett victory, but not being prepared to sit around and wait out the Liberal government she resigned from state politics to contest the Liberal held federal seat of Canning, which she lost at the 2010 federal election.

Never a quitter it was back to local government politics and in 2011 was elected as the mayor of the City of Vincent, then with the retirement of Stephen Smith from the federal electorate of Perth she had a crack at the 2013 Federal Election and won.

Only problem it was the election that Abbott won. Sitting around on the opposition back benches was not for her and so after just three years in Canberra and with the state liberals heading for defeat in 2017 it was out of Canberra and back to elbowing someone aside for a seat in state politics. 

The landslide victory for WA Labor at the last state election ensured her return to the Legislative Council for a second time and a seat in Cabinet. Unfortunately, she did not pick up the coveted transport portfolio which came with it the responsibility to build Labor’s  $4 billion signature Metro Net rail lines.  

No doubt that decision was made by the brains trust guarding the Premier who were not wanting a political force to be reckoned with taking all the glory for another big Labor rail project, so  McTiernan was shunted off to rattle around the regions with the Ag and Regional Development portfolio.  

In hind sight this was a huge mistake as Metro Net probably needed the force of an Iron Lady (not that I suspect the Minister would like to be compared with the former British PM), to get those iron tracks laid on time and on budget, something the current Transport Minister has failed to do.

Instead we have had MacTiernan roaring around the regions for the past three years attempting to completely redefine what the former Department of Agriculture and Regional Development is and does.

Unfortunately, the first three years of this effort have been blurred in bringing together three completely different departments under the one single agency. Not only did it lead to a very unhappy department according to an internal union poll, but farmers, fishers and country people had no idea what the new department was focused on, or if it was even capable of focusing on.

The Ag sector in particular has been confused and frustrated and questioned if agriculture  exists in its own right any more within this mega department, or is it so irrelevant that it is just a bit player supporting new niche products like hemp and pseudo sciences like regen agriculture.

Farmers used to the big spending Royalties for Regions billion dollars a year fund, questioned where were the big wins for grains and livestock were, noting that the previous government invested over $300m into the Seizing the Opportunity programs.

For this government to succeed in leaving their mark on agriculture, something generational is needed such as the Ord Stage II project that can forever be linked to the Governments time in office not to mention the Ministers name. For instance an Ag version of the Ministers Perth to Mandurah railway could be on the table – turning select parts of Tier 3 lines into Tier 2 perhaps, now that would stop the industry in its tracks.

Currently small grants and small handouts and small programs are all the department can fund outside of rolling over a couple of existing programs in grains, feral animals and beef totally around $50m.  While welcome as they are, they are not the piece de resistance or the vitally important gains and improvements our sector needs.

WAFarmers has given this problem a lot of thought and recognises that the budget rebuilding process means funds are tight this term.  As a result we have provided the government with a long list of affordable projects that could be funded as part of the state’s covid recovery plan starting with fulfilling their election commitment to proceed with a replacement for the Boyanup saleyards (3 Aug 2018 – Govt Media Statements).

Having twisted and turned over the last 3.5 years on even this simple promise the Minister should take up our suggestion and rebuild the saleyards as a community job training program, similar to the way the Katanning saleyards were built.

It would at least fulfill the governments one Ag related election policy, the rest being a very long list of motherhood statements. Interesting the most notable of the 50 policies trotted out was not surprisingly a few big ticket road and rail projects in the metropolitan area with billions allocated, which tells us there really was some money available just not for the Ag sector.  

Our next bit of advice we will offer the Minister in the coming months is a list of policies for her to feed into the Premiers re-election platform that will capture the imagination of both her new South West regional electorate and farmers across the neighbouring Agricultural region.

As a teaser of what we are thinking on how to allocated less than 1% of the $130 billion the next government will spend between 2021 and 2025, here are a few ideas that our farming community no doubt would like to see included by the Minister in the next WA Labor party agricultural policy.  

Town to Port Grain Highways upgrade all 4300km of our country grain freight highway to road train specs which would cost around the same as the Ministers signature Forrest Highway.

Paddock to Bin RAV Roads doubling local government road funding budgets and employ local workers on training contracts to learn to maintain country roads.  Such a plan would be a shot in the arm for local employment and address long standing safety and efficiency issues.

Paddock to Tower a mobile backspots program to double the number of mobile towers outside of towns to cover every paddock with mobile coverage, would keep the Minister connected to regional voters.

Grains and Livestock Western Research Establish independent grains and livestock centres of excellence incorporating all the relevant staff and push to double the level of GRDC and MLA funding we receive though matched funding.  

Any one of these would put the Ministers name on the agricultural map next to her previous two signature projects road and rail projects. But so far we have seen no evidence that the ALP is interested in supporting agriculture or regional development in any big way.

If the Minister is good enough to fight her way through local, state and federal politics and clever enough to extract money from Treasury to build roads and railways that are game changers for Perth, Mandurah and Bunbury we can only hope that in her next term the Iron Lady for road and rail delivers something big for agriculture.

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