Who’s Fighting for the Pastoralists?

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The state’s pastoral leaseholders will be at the front line if we get a Foot and Mouth outbreak in northern Australia. If this disease gets imported into the Kimberley from an illegal landing or – god forbid – some mad biological terrorist, then we are looking at a massive destocking and feral animal eradication campaign that will make the 27-year long brucellosis eradication program look like a walk in the park.

To put this in perspective, the United Kingdom’s footrot outbreak cost over $20 billion dollars and saw more than 6.5 million animals culled. Imagine trying to hunt down every last feral goat, pig, buffalo and camel in the north after you have shot the last cattle.

Any outbreak will require three groups to work closely together in a partnership that will last years – the pastoralists (or the ones left who have not gone broke), the Department of Primary Industries Biosecurity Unit (or what’s left of it after the years of downsizing) and the industry peak body (once the government has worked out which of the industry groups it’s going to deal with).

Biosecurity is our number one industry risk, greater than droughts, trade wars or changing community sentiment. The 2011 live cattle trade shutdown to Indonesia which lasted weeks is nothing compared to what a botanical epidemic such as Foot and Mouth, Panama or GTD disease could do to Australia’s livestock, banana and wine sectors.

So what to do? The first thing is to build a credible peak body that has the ability to represent all growers in the state and be the one point of call for government to work with to prevent and combat a disease outbreak. That journey has started with the One Voice debate. How far we get will depend on growers and members of existing bodies putting aside memories of past battles and perceived differences and recognising new challenges coming over the horizon.

With a credible peak body in place, funds are then needed to build the defences. Readers of the Farm Weekly will be well aware of the push by WAFarmers for broadacre to have access to the Agricultural Produce Commission Act which will allow farmers and pastoralists to self-fund industry good projects.

Unfortunately the usual suspects and the politically self-interested have come out against farmers and pastoralists having access to the APC, running an effective campaign accusing it of being a great big new tax. Interesting to note that these very same people who are against farmers setting up their own voluntary fighting fund through the APC, are putting next to no effort into fighting the compulsory pastoral lease rate increase of up to 300% that the government has recently announced.

An interesting set of priorities, or maybe they have no idea on how to run modern policy arguments against government other than chanting ‘No’, or can’t raise the funds to engage professional consultants to run the campaign for them.

Normally when faced with this sort of impost on your industry, the peak body would swing into action and raise $250,000 to prosecute its case, just as the rocklobster sector recently did, except they raised $2.5m. The pastoralists should have engaged consultants to produce a comprehensive economic and social case study showing how the pastoral lease increase would impact the environment, the economy and regional communities. Then it should have collaborated with the mining magnates and corporates who own pastoral properties, along with the 55 indigenous owned stations, to back their position.

Build the coalition of interests and build the economic case – that’s Lobbying 101. In fact the 2018-19 rocklobster example maps out exactly how to do this, and they handed over the full masterplan of how they ran their campaign to the PGA. But seems the PGA is too busy fighting on other fronts to apply this case study to look after their members interests.

As the PGA is too busy to help the pastoral sector, I will offer some advice to the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemens Association (KPCA) on a way forward that could be a face saving way out for both the industry and government, the old win win. This is where I circle back to biosecurity, to where a smart peak body would think of linking the biosecurity threat to the lease increases.

No government is going to let the big end of town with their showcase properties, get off big lease increases, but they are sensitive to struggling indigenous pastoral stations being hit with the same increases. So the industry should call for a common-good investment fund for the lease increases to be paid into, or even better, put all pastoral lease monies into the one trust account for industry good. Treasury would go berserk but they lived with Royalties for Regions being hypothecated into a trust account so surely they can live with pastoral lease monies also going into a specified account.

A long term Feral Animal Control Trust Fund topped up annually from $30m in pastoral lease fees that station owners can tap into, would be a no-brainer to manage the environmental and biosecurity risk of growing feral animal numbers. Or a Biosecurity and Environment fund to be used as an insurance account to carry the costs pastoralists have to bear in the case of rapid destocking during major droughts or a biosecurity culling would also make sense.

Hard for the government to say no, particularly if all the pastoralists including the indigenous station owners were standing shoulder to shoulder under one banner. But it looks like the only ‘No’ we are hearing is from the PGA on the prospect of ‘One Voice’ representing the state’s farmers and pastoralists, and ‘No’ to a funding scheme that would help fund smart industry-good policy ideas like the above to take to government.

Maybe the KPCA which represents most northern pastoralists will step in for all pastoralists and represent the industry while the PGA is busy fighting other wars. The first thing they are going to need are some serious funds to run a professional campaign and develop the policy case that will get government across the line.

They have two choices – hand the hat around as the PGA suggest is the best way to raise funds, or use the APC Act to place $1 a head fee on the sale of northern cattle. WAFarmers knows which is the fairest way and the one most likely to get the majority of industry behind a project that will benefit all producers.

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