Ask Canberra: Does govt care?

Bill Heffernan.
Bill Heffernan.

Ask Canberra

: With many farming and rural issues needing urgent attention in the lead-up to the federal election, Fairfax Agricultural Media bureau chief Colin Bettles wants to hear what action readers want from the nation’s political leaders. Each week Colin will take the best question and seek to have it answered by the relevant politician or bureaucrat in Canberra.

Email your question here or

THIS week’s "Ask Canberra" question comes from Phil and Shelly Holmden from Glendara Station at Broken Hill in NSW.

Phil and Shelly run sheep, 356 km North East of Broken Hill and feel the current Government is out of touch with the many challenges facing Australian farmers.

“There’s a lot of media hype at the moment,” they wrote to Fairfax Agricultural Media.

“Back at the grassroots there is a total lack of confidence and it doesn’t really matter what type of production you are involved in.

“Is this government prepared to put some incentives in place - not handouts - to make farming a more viable proposition?

“We hear politicians harp on all the time about “level playing fields” of free trade when there is no way with our wage structure and requirements - making our food much more expensive to produce - that we can possibly compete with developing countries.

“We’ve been thrown to the wolves.

“Is this government interested in the survival of Australian agriculture – run by Australian farmers?”

NSW Liberal Senator William Daniel Heffernan, or Bill as he’s most commonly known, runs a sheep and grain producing business at Junee and has spent his life living and working on the land.

Senator Heffernan turned 70 in March and has been a passionate supporter and advocate for Australian farming since entering Federal Parliament in 1996.

In typical style, the outspoken Senator said agriculture was facing a looming crisis from several directions and needed to get organised rally Canberra to express the farming industry’s feelings loud and clear and passionately.

He said there was an emergency crisis hitting the stone fruit industry in Victoria with Woolworths selling cheap canned product at the expense of local producers who now faced destroying their crops while trying to avoid an outbreak of fruit-fly.

The northern cattle industry has been hit by market disruption from the Federal government’s closure of the live cattle trade to Indonesia two years ago and those impacts – as he predicted at the time – are now being felt in southern Australia.

West Australian grain producers and Victorian dairy farmers are also doing it tough, he said.

“I’ve said it for a while now, farmers are very close to having to march on Canberra,” he said.

“The great thing about Australian farmers is they are bloody resilient but there are limits.

“Most people don’t give a rat’s because they just think you go to Coles, Woollies and ALDI and there it is in the aisle - but at the same time, there’s a huge event about to happen in Australia.

“Because more people live in the Western Suburbs of Sydney for instance than all of rural Australia, I don’t think politically anyone really gives much of a rat’s ass.”

Senator Heffernan was asked if the Coalition’s attitude would be any different to that of the current Labor government, underpinned by two NSW Independent rural MPs.

“There’s a hell of a difference between the Coalition and the present government because for instance there’s not one single solitary soul in the government who actually lives amongst people living in the bush” he said.

“Some people in this parliament pretend they’re farmers but I’m probably the only bloke that drove a header myself last harvest and we’re sowing canola this morning.

“I know what we’re doing.”

Senator Heffernan agreed that now was the best time for farmers to stop arguing amongst themselves and get behind their farm lobby groups and present a strong and united voice to Canberra outlining what they need for the future.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

“The difficulty with the current farmer representative processes is they are under resourced both intellectually and financially,” he said.

“And most good farmers are too bloody busy surviving to be frigging around and going to different meetings all around Australia and drinking cups of tea at different forums.

“A lot of good farmers are still doing OK but Mother Nature’s a tough referee and it doesn’t help when the cattle market get closed down overnight.”

Senator Heffernan declined to say how many farmers needed to rally on Canberra to have the right impact and deliver a strong message.

He made that suggestion to farm groups last year saying they needed to march on Canberra but was told not enough people would turn up on the day.

“I just think to make an impression you’ve got to show passion and the bush needs to get a bit passionate,” he said.

“One of the great institutions of Australia as we all know is the great institution of family farming.

“People say, ‘oh we can all go corporate’ but historically most corporate farms go broke because most family farmers don’t pay themselves overtime.

“Yesterday my son drove the truck until 6am seeding and didn’t get paid overtime but he got the crop in.”

Senator Heffernan said protesting in the cities to also message consumers and increase pressure on major retail grocery suppliers like Coles and Woolworths was also welcomed.

But he said it had to be measured and delivered in the right way and sustained.

“I was one of the people who thought the Year of the Farmer last year, like the Year of the Child, or the year of whatever, was a waste of time,” he said.

“There were people driving around field days getting paid to put out these bloody placards saying farmers are nice.

“But reality needs to touch down and it has already hit parts of Asia.

“As I’ve said many times in 2070, if it all goes to plan, China will have to feed half of its population with food from somewhere else.”

Senator Heffernan said meanwhile here in Australia, there’s “a very serious crisis” unfolding in various agricultural sectors like stone fruit, with the ACCC taking action to look at the activities of major supermarkets, when dealing with food producers, suppliers and processors.

“There will be a huge catastrophe very soon but I don’t hear very much about it,” he said.

Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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