Farmers are being targeted from all angles, it’s time to give agriculture a break

Steve Martin Countryman
Liberal MLC Steve Martin.
Camera IconLiberal MLC Steve Martin. Credit: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

The next State or Federal Government official or politician who turns up in regional WA wanting to “inform” or “consult” with the locals better be careful — the “stakeholders” are getting restless.

Small businesses right across the regions have been told their social licence has been revoked — think timber and live exports — and they have been thrown on the scrap heap.

And people have been “consulted” up to their eyeballs about incoming legislation or the latest “transition package” designed by the wise inhabitants of West Perth and Canberra.

A number of regional industries have been affected, but in particular I’ve noticed a rise in the amount of farmer-fatigue cases recently.

The symptoms are a general sense of unease and feeling sick and tired.

Sick and tired of being consulted at. Sick and tired of being informed after deal has been done.

Sick and tired of being transitioned from somewhere they know, to some uncertain future.

Being told the ban on “xxxx” is coming.

Here you could insert any particular regional industry that has fallen out of favour in the suburbs.

They are sick of being told a new law or regulation is coming. Being told the tax has gone up.

Here are just a few recent examples.

Federal Labor’s decision to ban the export of live sheep and the farcical consultation process.

Liberal MLC Steve Martin.
Camera IconLiberal MLC Steve Martin. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

Let’s leave aside the cynical and populist decision to ban a trade that feeds millions of hungry mouths around the globe and plays a crucial role in the West Australian merino industry.

Let’s just have a look at the consultation process.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt set up a group led by former Murray Darling Basin Authority boss and senior public servant Phillip Glyde to meet with the WA sheep industry.

Clearly underestimating the resolve of the sector to keep their businesses alive and the passion of local farmers, Mr Glydes’ first crack at the consultation process could hardly have been worse.

They panel snuck into WA with little notice, booked a few venues with nowhere near enough capacity which had to be upgraded at the last minute, and didn’t schedule meetings across all sheep-growing regions.

After admitting, “we probably didn’t get it right”, Mr Glyde and his team corrected some of their blunders.

But first impressions matter and the WA sheep industry lost trust in the process.

And now, after some excellent reporting and documents sourced through Freedom of Information laws, The West Australian reporter Kimberley Caines has discovered our friends in Canberra originally intended to send just one person to WA.

And that person wasn’t going to be a West Australian — despite the trade being almost entirely sourced from here.

Even a lifelong Canberra bureaucrat would struggle to justify that effort.

Also confronting WA landowners is the introduction of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, which will take effect on July 1 after being rushed through the parliament late last year.

Farmers are still scrambling to understand the new laws and are worried they will have to navigate a complicated, lengthy approvals process to carry out essential jobs.

Public information sessions for landowners only started to roll out recently, a few weeks before the July 1 start date.

Other industries have been also hit.

Timber business have been shut down and workers sacked after the WA Labor Government announced a shock ban of native hard wood logging from the end of 2023. Sawmill owners and workers are being transitioned as we speak.

Local furniture manufacturers and firewood supplies who rely on that timber face an uncertain future.

To add insult to injury, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 and live-sheep panel sessions occurred during seeding.

This is the busiest time of the year for broadacre farmers.

This intrusion on their busy schedule comes on top of a two very hectic years dealing with COVID-19 lockdown-induced staff shortages and exceptional harvests.

Getting the grain in the bin from two record crops without any staff has been a great problem to have, but it has had an impact on farmers and their families.

Horticulturists have picked the fruit, pastoralists have mustered the cattle and sheep have been shorn, but the workload has been carried by fewer people.

Farmers aren’t the only ones feeling fatigued after COVID.

Premier Mark McGowan shocked West Australians last week with the news that he had decided to quit after six years in the job and 27 years in the State Parliament stating: “I’m exhausted.”

Fair enough. Leading the government is a demanding role.

Throw in a global pandemic and Mr McGowan has every right to pull up stumps and take a break.

And he knows about labour shortages. He couldn’t find anyone to take on the Treasurer’s role and had to work double shifts.

My point is that Mr McGowan and our farmers both deserve a break.

Our regional businesses are vital to the interests of WA, providing billions of dollars of export income and sustaining thousands of jobs from Kununurra to Esperance.

How about governments back off for a while?

Or even better — reduce the red tape, cut taxes and let sustainable, profitable industries get on with their business with less government intrusion.

Steve Martin is a Liberal MLC and Member for the Agricultural Region.

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