WHEN the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) was formed in 1979, the tasks facing it were many and varied.
But they certainly weren’t complex as recently claimed by current NFF chief executive Matt Linnegar.
Australia was still dealing with a tariff regime, a firmly entrenched centralised wage-fixing system, a regulated financial system and an understanding of the economy that was based on World War II experiences.
The commodity councils of NFF were also straightforward, for in the main their task was the care and maintenance of various statutory boards that handled wheat, coarse grains, rice, wool, lamb, beef, dairy and sundry smaller commodities.
The major problems were obvious and all that was required was a will to tackle them. Its first challenge in 1979 was just to survive, with WA’s Don Eckersley being the perfect choice as inaugural president, for he was able to hold the disparate organisations together for a couple of years until they were ready to face the future.
Farm organisations were strictly “farmer” versus “grazier” – statutory marketing versus free market – and although the numbers were strictly with the farmer side, NFF soon forgot those divisions and operated as one.
The one person who made it all work was David Trebeck, whose intellectual rigour and keen perceptions enabled NFF to identify the economic costs being borne by farmers because of such policies as tariffs and subsidies.
Others were attracted to this new force in Canberra, with Dr Gus Hooke bringing modern economic theory to both NFF and, later, governments. Paul Houlihan understood the industrial relations system and had the will to tackle union rorts. Dr Peter Barnard brought the same intensity to the nation’s transport system, while with elected leaders such as Ian McLachlan, NFF soon became the most effective lobbying force in Canberra, with most State grower organisations changing their names to bask in its reflected glory.
Any report with the name “Trebeck” attached to it is worth studying, and he and others are correct in stating what seems to be obvious from out in the bush, namely that NFF has lost focus and needs to be rebuilt.
NFF was formed to give agriculture a single voice and notwithstanding its many victories, the task is now to allow agribusiness to become the scope and a single voice to remain as the means of representing it.
All partners in the agribusiness chain, from paddock-to-plate, have one thing in common – those who didn’t get out have got bigger. There is more wealth in the agribusiness chain than ever before, but fewer players, with State and federal organisations needing to take this new reality into consideration when assessing the industry’s lobbying needs.
The advent of NFF and its startling successes demonstrated to farmers that not only was this new organisation affordable, it was a good investment. The Australian Farmers Fighting Fund (AFFF) was measured in many millions when one million was considered to be a lot of money, with many opponents abandoning their battles as soon as the AFFF and its millions intervened.
David Trebeck is correct in observing that “top shelf” farmers need to become involved in agri-politics, without the “15 year apprenticeship”.
Peter Lee is a past WAFarmers president and past NFF vice president.