Fury over razor blades comment

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

A high-ranking State Government official is under pressure to resign after making a gibe about handing out razor blades to a farmer from a Wheatbelt community where there have been two suicides this year.

Department of Agriculture and Food WA executive director Peter Metcalfe made the remark during a meeting in Perth last week to discuss the crisis in the eastern Wheatbelt.

He issued a written apology to Narembeen farmer Murray Dixon late yesterday.

"We have already lost an 18-year-old and a 74-year-old farmer to suicide in our town this year. Both were family friends," Mr Dixon said in a complaint sent to Mr Metcalfe, DAFWA director-general Rob Delane and Agriculture Minister Ken Baston.

It was supported by an email from Mr Dixon's wife Vicki and a follow-up complaint from the Muntadgin Farming Alliance.

Mrs Dixon said the comment had shattered her husband.

"The man that returned from that meeting was not the same man that left home," she said.

The meeting was organised by DAFWA and included farmers, the Rural Financial Counselling Service and representatives from seven banks.

The RFSC has about 800 clients and warned this month that an increasing number of Wheatbelt farmers and their partners were being prescribed antidepressants and other drugs to control anxiety.

Volunteer community groups and the Government-funded Regional Men’s Heath Initiative are supporting hundreds of at risk farmers and their families, promoting the message: “Before it all gets too much … talk to a mate.”

Mr Dixon attended the meeting on behalf of the MFA, which is lobbying for a Commonwealth-backed reconstruction and development bank.

MFA spokesman Jeff Hooper said that if Mr Metcalfe did not resign, he should be removed from his position by Mr Delane or Mr Baston.

"The comment was extremely inappropriate," Mr Hooper said.

Mr Metcalfe and Mr Baston would not comment on the incident.

Mr Delane said he would not sack his executive director of regional operations and development.

“Peter has worked in regional areas with the department for 22 years, including the Merredin office, and has a deep understand of the challenges before farm businesses,” Mr Delance said in a statement.

“I’ve spoken to the Dixon family over the weekend to apologise for the comment used and for the distress it has caused.

"The context in which the term was used was to shift group discussion which was becoming negative and redirect it to a more positive focus. More appropriate words could have been used.”

Mr Dixon, one of hundreds of farmers fighting for financial survival, said DAFWA and banks regarded rationalisation as a way out of the debt crisis.

"I was accused of being negative for saying many farmers could not leave the industry because there were no buyers for their farms," he said.

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