Changing style of agri-politics

I blinked and missed that sad day when Australia’s feistiest agri-politicians decided to retire

WHATEVER happened to good old fashioned agri-politics and those crusty old agri-politicians in tweed jackets who once spear-headed Australian farming?

Having started in rural media at a time when agri-politicians sparred like gladiators on regional news pages and radio airwaves over die in the ditch issues like the AWB wheat export single desk monopoly, perhaps what I’m really lamenting is the diminished opportunity to write such sensational stories.

It never got old reporting on the mass blood-shed and credibility wounds suffered by angry farmers of all persuasions engaged in ideological conflicts over economic policy or other tough issues, on a weekly basis.

But it seems sometime in the recent past I blinked and missed that sad day when Australia’s feistiest agri-politicians decided to retire simultaneously, with tails between their legs, just like the Brisbane Lions’ ageing triple premiership players shortly after they lost the 2004 AFL grand final to Port Adelaide, by a considerable margin.

Or did these farm leaders simply disperse into thin air like Harold Holt after driving their headers too far into the back paddock, late one harvest evening?

Maybe, like the nation has witnessed with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent ascent to power, a change of leadership style has occurred, rather than substance?

Some say the National party’s influence on farmer politics is not what it used to be with a seemingly natural, historical progression into power disrupted in recent times by the junior Coalition partner diversifying its representative base, beyond agriculture.

Could wheat and sheep farmer and former Victorian Farmers Federation president - now Victorian Coalition MP - Andrew Broad be the last of his kind to enter federal parliament after graduating from that once fertile and reliable Nationals’ breeding ground?

Another alleged contributor to the rate of apparent agri-political decline has been the financial and emotional strain placed on representatives in trying to balance running a commercial farm-business and still serve family needs, while mostly volunteering their time to address altruistic industry needs.

And then, having sacrificed valuable hours and dollars to serve industry’s big picture causes, they suffer multiple face-palms from fellow farmers or industry commentators who do little more than grumble from the sidelines.

A more experienced rural reporter in Fairfax Agricultural Media’s ranks - national grains reporter Gregor Heard - believes agri-political succession planning has largely failed.

His theory suggests young farmers have been repeatedly denied opportunities to advance through representative channels due to initiative-blocking by older, conservative, agri-political hacks.

Maybe that’s just a subtle way of saying up-and-comers with talent and initiative have subsequently shown-up and threatened others already sitting on various agri-political thrones, resulting in Machiavellian skills being used to kill-off the challengers.

Subsequently, representative young-guns have been more incentivised to put their time, efforts and valuable dollars into pursuing other commercially-driven activities and fine-tuning their production-skills and knowledge.

That shift in attitude has seen increased membership of local agronomy groups and farmer-representation on commodity levy-boards - but fewer producers taking on roles and responsibilities, within local branches of their State Farming Organisations.

Another suggested reason for this alleged agri-political deficit has been the younger generation’s disenchantment with fractured representative structures and in-fighting of various leaders; especially when they’re belting the living stuffing out of each other in the national press, with gusto.

However, the passage of time and removal of long-standing inter-generational statutory marketing boards, like the AWB single desk in 2008, has contributed to the alleged disappearance and gradual extraction of agri-politics, to the betterment of the sector’s commerciality.

Regardless of the above, if anyone has any more solid theories on missing-in-action agri-politicians – those men and women perhaps lost during an industry-inspired mission to the Bermuda Triangle – please feel free to submit those thoughts and ideas.

Never been a better time to be a young farmer

But in the meantime, no matter which way you look at it, the world is run by those people who turn up for the fight; not just for Australian agriculture but also federal politics.

And in my humble view, young farmers have more reasons now than ever to be excited about potentially stamping their authority on the industry’s big, bright future as a food-provider to the world, especially nearby Asian markets.

As Mr Turnbull may well say, there’s never been a better time to be a farming representative, to tackle the big challenges and grab even bigger rewards.

Agriculture’s enemies are seemingly growing stronger by the day, fuelled by an influx of public funding driven by deliberately emotive media campaigns lacking in scientific rigor but designed to place overwhelming pressure on supply chain activities they abhor.

That includes animal rights or vegan campaigns disguised as animal welfare interests and anti-biotech movements dressed-up as food safety or environmental concerns.

City-centric environmentalists who demand greater government intervention to try and save the planet’s food producing resources like land and water - but baulk at the thought of paying a realistic price for food, to help keep farmers in business - are also significant threats

The fake-outrage mobs and those with a true rent-seeking mentality, who don’t have farmers’ interests at heart when it comes to public policy outcomes, are all over Canberra and various State parliaments like a rash, lobbying their bleeding hearts out.

And while they’re asking for more public funding and legislative layering to achieve their various feel-good goals, very little of it equates to wanting genuinely fair outcomes for farmers.

Consider political policy machinations around climate change or water, where farming and regional communities have long been an after-thought to major decisions that can spark negative social and economic consequences.

Farmers not having their proper say, or diluting messages to political representatives due to fractured viewpoints, can have nothing but fatal consequences.

As Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh said nearly a decade ago at a regional forum, irrespective of which government has ultimate responsibility for managing water policy, the question of what constitutes sustainable water-use is likely to remain a contentious issue for a long while, “and one that will be determined as much by politics, as it will by science”.

“Agriculture urgently needs to communicate its very positive potential to the Australian community, instead of constantly emphasising its problems,” he said.

The goodwill of politicians towards the rural sector, despite obvious restrictions on industry due to the tyranny of distance, can’t ever be taken for granted, with the 2011 Indonesian live cattle exports suspension the prime, glaring example.

Unless farm groups find more funding and people-power to bang the table with, including sharing their passions with the media, their enemies will only prosper due to the conspicuous absence of farmer representatives, when the big decisions are made.

United we stand in Washington, divided we fall in Canberra

One obvious difference between Australian and US farmers that I’ve noted in my travels has been the willingness of our American cousins to actively embrace and endorse farmer representation.

US farmers see their Farm Bureau membership as being intrinsic to delivering commercial outcomes for their business operations and equally as vital as contributing funding to Research and Development or marketing programs.

As a result, those farmers and ranchers willingly put their hands up and into their pockets to join their local Bureau branches to empower the organisation further up the line into State legislatures and ultimately to march virtually united in Washington.

That political influence – as NFF president Brent Finlay noted while in Washington earlier this year for talks around the Trans Pacific Partnership – is glaringly obvious to delivering desired outcomes, at different negotiating tables.

Legislation that threatens to stifle farm productivity is effectively fended-off and new laws are shaped by unambiguous messages about the farm sector’s priorities, following frank and honest input.

But in Australia, too many industry participants see commercial outcomes as somehow being completely divorced, or needing to be totally separated, from agri-political activities.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

If farm leaders were fairly rewarded and appreciated for giving up their valuable time, the catch-22 of people not wanting to join such groups, due to a perception they’re doing an inadequate job, could soon be dissolved.

But these groups also need to engage in genuinely honest and forthright debates on even the toughest of policies where everyone is heard – a position reached – and then taken forward with no lingering angst that festers on and on, sometimes for decades.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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Sorry did i get it wrong..? Rankins Springs is still open..?!
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No doubt a few frosted Freddies out there who will wish they had taken a closer look at the AGC
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Matthew, I was wondering if you had followed up this story with the farmer after the whole