Growers chief says ALP plan a mishmash

Claire Tyrrell and Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Abolishing the Potato Marketing Corporation (PMC) could decimate the WA industry, according to growers.

Last week, the Labor Party announced it would wind up the PMC if elected next year, which would spell an end to the market regulation of the industry.

The PMC currently controls which varieties farmers can plant and regulates the production and sale of potatoes.

Opposition Leader Mark McGowan claimed the move would benefit both growers and consumers by allowing farmers to grow any variety available and by reducing the shelf price of potatoes.

But growers are livid and say the retention of the PMC is what allows their industry to remain viable.

Potato Growers Association of WA Manjimup zone chairman Andrew Tempra said the current system was working for both growers and consumers.

"From a consumer angle, the last three or four years when there's been very little water over in the eastern states, prices in WA have remained stable because we've kept the regular year-round supply of potatoes rather than having a shortfall which would have sent the price through the roof," he said.

"If they abolish it, my fear is that we will be reduced down to maybe four or five growers in the State growing all the potatoes.

"That concentration then means the stability of supply will be all over the place - to say that potatoes will be cheaper, on a long term overall basis, is just wrong."

Mr Tempra is frustrated the Labor Party failed to consult with the industry before making the announcement or consider how growers would be affected.

"Mark McGowan has made a statement about deregulating, but he hasn't come down and spoken to any industry representatives and actually found out how the industry operates," he said. "I'm nearly 40 and we'd be some of the younger growers left in the industry.

"Deregulation would simply see a reduction again of the security of it and therefore younger people in the industry.

"I've got three boys and I'd like to think that one day there is a potential for them to continue farming.

"Without the sort of security with the (PMC) system that just wouldn't be the case."

But Tony Galati, of Myalup, is one grower who relishes the prospects of deregulation. Mr Galati has flouted the rules of the WA potato industry's governing, most recently last December when he was fined $3000 for exceeding his planting limit.

"It is about time someone realised how stupid the PMC is and had the guts to highlight this," Mr Galati said. "It does not serve any purpose to anybody except to control the market."

Mr Galati said deregulation of the potato market would separate efficient and inefficient growers and result in cheaper prices for consumers.

"If growers can not survive in an unprotected market, they should not be growing," he said.

"The good growers will get more money in an unregulated system. Why should consumers pay for growers' inefficiencies?

"If there wasn't a potato board prices in WA would be 50 to 60 cents per kilogram cheaper than the eastern states, because growers wouldn't have to pay exorbitant marketing fees."

Meanwhile, Labor Agriculture spokesman Paul Papalia admitted there was a lack of industry consultation over the issue, but put this down to the campaign process.

"The reason it wasn't discussed directly on this occasion was because we are in an election campaign," he said.

"We didn't want to provide the Premier with prior notice of this announcement.

"The policy does not suggest there is going to be an overnight change, but confirms there will be consultation and a phased introduction to reduce the impact as much as possible."

Mr Papalia said he knew the decision would be "unpopular among the majority of producers" but his party's pledge had the support of the wider community.

"Potato marketing regulation has got a lot of support among potato growers - I am not going to deny that," he said.

Former WA Labor Agriculture Minister Kim Chance supported the PMC during his time in office.

In response to accusations he backflipped on Labor policy, Mr Papalia said the party was simply "developing with the times".

"The PMC and the legislation resulting in that structure has been around since World War II and came from the Depression era," he said.

"The reality is it is essentially an anachronism."

Agriculture Minister Terry Redman said the Liberal-National Government intended on keeping the PMC but revising its structure.

"I am yet to be convinced of a need to change the potato marketing system in WA. It is effective and provides consumers with a wide range of choice," he said.

"The PMC recently completed a review of the supply chain for table potatoes in WA.

"That review identified a range of reforms, including measures to increase choice for consumers, product quality and business opportunities for producers. This reflects changes in industry conditions and consumer preferences."

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