’Tis a far, far better thing Peter does

Ray ChanThe West Australian
Peter Lee at home on the farm.
Camera IconPeter Lee at home on the farm. Credit: Ray Chan

When Peter Lee reflects on his stellar agripolitical career, he could be forgiven for feeling it truly had been the best of times, and the worst of times.

Living through his own spring of hope and winter of despair, Mr Lee achieved great success as a leader of WA’s biggest agricultural lobby group in the late 80s and early 90s, only to be confronted by periods of darkness when he lost the support of conservative farmers over his convictions on orderly marketing.

It was a chastening period, but exciting as well, Mr Lee recalls.

Born in Kununoppin in 1939, Mr Lee was raised on the family farm at Trayning, and educated at the Trayning Convent school, Aquinas College and Muresk Agricultural College.

The Trayning property had been one of the first cleared and developed in the area, where the Lees grew wheat and sheep on 607ha.

After marrying Christina, they moved to Kulin and share-farmed, leased and finally bought their own patch of land, Jesmond, where life was good and the young Mr Lee had time to pursue an interest in agripolitics.

He rose quickly through the ranks of the then WA Farmers Federation (now WAFarmers) as an admired leader, quickly being appointed senior vice-president before replacing the unflagging Winston Crane at the helm in 1989.

He was appointed junior vice-president of the Federal body, the National Farmers Federation, a year later.

Softly spoken yet charismatic in his own way, Mr Lee presided over an era of industry regulation, when wheat boards, reserve price schemes and marketing corporations ran rampant; a philosophy backed by many WAFF members, who believed they needed that mechanism of support to remain viable and profitable.

So it came as no surprise when Mr Lee came under attack for daring to suggest to the organisation’s grains section that the Australian Wheat Board was not necessarily the best marketing option for wheat growers.

“In one year, the AWB forced costs on to the pool participants that I believed should rest with the shareholders, an attitude that cost them around $70/t,” Mr Lee said.

“I started farming at a time when the organisations were controlled by survivors of the great depression or World War II, when statutory pooling of farm products was a recent and acceptable option.

“I had never really questioned the concept, for the benefits seemed both logical and real.

“I felt that the collapse of the wool reserve price owed more to national and international politics than a failure of marketing, whereas the final days of the single desk for wheat was as much the fault of the AWB as of the agri-politicians involved.

“And now, these days, just about everything is deregulated.”

The AWB remark had ruffled feathers, not only because it stomped on WAFF’s sacred cow, but was also more in line with the policies of the other WA farm body and staunch free market champions, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association.

“I didn’t realise how much I had annoyed them until the organisation celebrated its 100th birthday with a gala dinner to which they had invited all past general presidents and life members,” Mr Lee said.

“I was both a past president and life member, but it seems my invitation apparently got lost in the mail. I am no longer a life member.

“It saddens me to admit it, but I would probably join the PGA if I were farming again.”

Mr Lee’s refreshing honesty also bit him on the national level, when he stood for president of the NFF in 1992.

“WA farmer and inaugural NFF president Sir Don Eckersley had the daunting task of guiding the disparate groups that made up the very new NFF through its early years,” he said.

“He achieved it superbly, allowing his replacements to commence the big jobs of economic revival, especially through the golden years when Ian McLachlan and staff members Paul Houlihan, David Trebeck and Andrew Robb won major victories over the union movement. During my time, with Dr Gus Hooke in charge of economics, NFF was a major factor in the deregulation of much of the economy, the floating of the Aussie dollar and the replacement of myriad sales taxes with a single GST.”

But Mr Lee felt that by appointing staff predominantly from the Canberra public service, NFF had become “just another Canberra bureaucracy”.

“Consequently, my election manifesto in 1992 was that, if elected, I would dismiss half the staff,” he said.

“I came close, but didn’t win, but I still believe that the ‘Canberra disease’ I identified is the reason for NFF’s current decline into irrelevance.”

Despite the setbacks, Mr Lee is remembered most for persuading the WA government, led by Carmen Lawrence, to underwrite the State’s wheat price after a subsidy war between the US and EU ravaged global markets.

“It was my proudest achievement. I was the only WA member of the NFF delegation that met prime minister Bob Hawke and the inner cabinet in Canberra, then led the State delegation to seek the underwriting from the WA government, negotiating with Carmen and WA agriculture minister Ernie Bridge,” Mr Lee said. “It also helped raise the profile of WAFF to a level not known before, or since.”

Some years after leaving the NFF, more bad news was to follow when Christina was diagnosed with a terminal illness, forcing the Lees to make a decision to sell the farm and move to Perth.

After her death, Mr Lee shared his home with daughter Monica, who eventually moved to Carnarvon to be with her husband.

Alone and with time to spare, Mr Lee decided to enrol at university, returning to Muresk and graduating with a Graduate Diploma in Agribusiness from Curtin University in 1998, which fostered an interest in agricultural education.

He’s currently a member of Curtin University Council, and on the advisory committee to the Faculty of Agriculture, University of WA, and for nine years chaired the board of the Catholic Agricultural College, Bindoon.

However, it is Muresk that remains close to his heart, with the current uncertainty surrounding the campus proving a prickly thorn in the side.

He is part of a committee currently lobbying for the survival of the facility, owned by a Government which appears to have little idea of what to do with it. Curtin University has provided little reassurance in continuing an agribusiness course, while Charles Sturt University, which had been running some of its modules at Muresk, is also uncommitted.

These days, Mr Lee is living contentedly on a 3ha block at Banjup with his daughter and son-in-law, recently returned from Carnarvon.

Surrounded by family and his grandchildren, and in between forays into freelance journalism, Mr Lee says he enjoys “reading, listening to classical music and researching the medicinal value of red wine”.

Occasionally, he catches up with WAFF colleagues such as past executive director James Ferguson, committee member Tony Gooch and former president Alex Campbell, along with other members of their extraordinary league of gentlemen, to reminisce over how “things were better” when they ran them, tongue firmly in cheek.

However, he has some serious last words on the future of farm groups in WA.

“There really is no room for more than one agripolitical organisation,” he said.

“When I became general president early in 1979, I declared that I hoped I would become the last president of WAFarmers, wishing that my replacement would be the head of an amalgamated body.

“A committee comprising a senior member of both WAFarmers and the PGA was set up to try and achieve a single organisation, but the first step proposed by the committee was vetoed by the PGA.

“Some years later, I discovered to my surprise that since the early 1970s, amalgamation had almost been achieved four times.

“The PGA had vetoed it twice and WAFF had vetoed it the other two times!”

Mr Lee said the role of farm organisations was probably more essential now than it was in his time, but was not as visible.

“I’m sure today’s farm groups have some use, but damned if I know what that is,” he said.

“Back then, we were operating at a time when tariffs were still reducing farm income, while unions were an even larger financial burden.

“The economy was over-regulated and real competition was lacking.

“The reduced number of farmers, when coupled with a major growth in the cities, has now provided an environment where grower organisations are much under-resourced and the influence of the rural sector — and its politicians — has waned dramatically.

“Neither State organisation has the resources to tackle the problems of rural WA, whereas if they combined, they would have a fighting chance, especially if they realise that they are now a part of agribusiness, not agriculture.”

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