The world according to Winston

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

It was the heady days of the 1970s and 80s, when farmers first began the public fight to untangle their industry from the stranglehold of the unions.

There were tales of union battles on the waterfront, gunshots in the shearing sheds and clashes in the trucking yards.

It was a time of enormous change, when the profitability of the farming industry could no longer afford to be governed by the iron fist of the union movement.

It was also a time when a farmer named Winston Crane from a small community west of Esperance stamped his name all over this wave of change.

Mr Crane might have now been out of the spotlight for more than 12 years, but his passion for the rural industry remains, and he takes no time at all in recalling these battles with the unions, and the way they changed the course of Australian agricultural history.

During his time as the youngest president in the history of the WA Farmers Federation, from 1981 until 1989 and, in fact, before that during his rise up the ranks, Mr Crane was involved in high-profile industrial cases such as the wide comb dispute in the shearing industry, the meat packing case at Mudginberry and the CBH Geraldton wharf dispute.

Inaugural deputy chairman, then chairman of the WA Farmers Federation's Industrial Association, Mr Crane remembers those fights like they were just yesterday, and his passion for a fair go rings loud and clear.

"It was all about setting precedents in law. With most of these cases, by using the law, you dealt with them without actually ending up in an industrial court, by being smart about it," he said.

"I've always believed emphatically that to have a coherent society we have to behave according to the law.

"But it's also important in a democratic society to recognise that if it's a bad law, you have to get it changed."

Mr Crane recalls one of his first cases was breaking the stronghold of the maritime union on the wharf, to ensure Australian wheat continued to be exported into Asia.

"I remember back in 1976 when there was a union ban on using Indonesian and Chilean ships and the unions believed the crews on those boats were not being looked after properly," he said.

"It was an issue that was mostly to do with the political regimes in those countries at that time. But 40 per cent of our wheat was going to Asia, most of this to Indonesia and, all of a sudden, our wheat wasn't going to get on a ship because of this union ban and that would have sent farmers broke.

"We took the Maritime Union to court under the Crimes Act, because the penalty under the Crimes Act was jail, not just a fine, which they would have just thumbed their noses at.

"After the intervention of then- Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and ACTU president Bob Hawke, the case was withdrawn, but it still lies sine die, meaning that we can reinstate this legal action at any time if something like this happens again."

By any accounts, the Industrial Association was a force to be reckoned with.

"We never lost a case," Mr Crane said. "We were not going to allow ourselves to be held to ransom any more."

Extending himself across State borders, Mr Crane then moved into the national lobbying scene, as a founding member of the National Farmers Federation, working closely with well-known names such as Sir Donald Eckersley and Ian MacLachlan.

"At that time I was very fortunate as the president of WAFF and with NFF, there were a lot of good strong people around at that time, that had a real vision, who wanted to shape their own destiny. They didn't want to be told what to do," Mr Crane said.

He was the inaugural chairman of the NFF Trade Committee, established as the forerunner to the well-known Cairns Group.

"We were instrumental in being the first group to put pressure on John Kerin in terms of opening up trade. We had a view that unless we expanded access to markets, the entire agricultural industry would end up like the wool market," Mr Crane said.

From activist to politician, Mr Crane was elected as a WA Senator to Federal Parliament in 1990, a seat he held until 2002.

"It was an interesting place, the party room of the Coalition. At that time, I was there with Wilson Tuckey and Senator John Panizza from Southern Cross," he said.

"We were known as the three musketeers, fighters for Western Australia and for the agricultural industry.

"We were very much into social issues and our philosophy was not to buy a hungry man a fish, but buy him a fishing rod and teach him how to fish.

"I think we've lost of bit of that attitude these days. It is too easy now to get a hold of what I call middle class welfare. It's far better teaching people how to look out for themselves, and it also gives them a feeling of being a worthwhile person."

Among so many of his successes in the Federal Parliament, Mr Crane cites the reform of the wool industry and the deregulation of the domestic grains industry, as two key achievements.

He also believes the fight to keep Woodside as an Australian- owned company was the predecessor to the debate recently held about the sale of NSW grain company Graincorp.

"When they talk about the recent Graincorp debate setting a precedent, it didn't really. We did all that with Woodside, we saved Woodside," Mr Crane said.

"When it comes to food supply and energy supply, you have to take a different stance to what you do with internal trading, and it's only just very recently that the ACCC has shown any guts on these issues at all."

These days, Mr Crane is happy to be just a farmhand, helping in the family business at Jerdacuttup.

"I had spent over half my life in public view, and I was tired from travelling from here to Canberra. I was going over there 40 weeks of the year," he said.

"I'm a farm labourer now, that's usually the life story of most farmers.

"We came here 52 years ago from Bindi Bindi. Our family had five boys and we couldn't get land up there at the time. So we ended up down on the south coast, 90 miles west of Esperance.

"It's a wonderful place. The rainfall is good, the climate is good, the stock-carrying capacity is good, the crops have been consistently good over many years.

"We really are in heaven."

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