Another opportunity for a woman to take the reins

28 Nov, 1999 11:33 PM

I HAVE reached that stage of life where I have stopped looking in the classified section of the local paper in the area known as "hatches, matches and dispatches," figuring that none of my peers are likely to die, marry or have children. A fairly reasonable assumption, except that I keep reading in the paper the obituaries of people I know, some are of friends who were a fair bit older than me, but increasingly it's because the old "three score and ten" approximation is falling by the wayside. One of the real failings when talking averages is that an age which is considered reasonable is actually made up of extremes at both ends, with the elderly combining with the too young to average the biblical minimum. My ponderings have been triggered by reading in Stock & Land, the Victorian equivalent of Farm Weekly, an obituary for a woman I once worked with. Heather Mitchell was the first woman to be the president of a major state grower organisation, being elected president of the Victorian Farmers Federation in 1986 and vice-president of the NFF in 1989. As VFF president, she was also the executive member of the NFF, starting her term at a time when the federal body was still trying to introduce some consistency into its economic policy. Most members of NFF had come to realise the high cost that rural Australia had paid for the protectionist policies of previous federal governments, an awareness that owed a lot to the efforts of their one-time policy director, David Trebeck. The support of a Victorian president for "rational" economic policies, although I'm not sure we used to call it that at the time, was extremely important, given that Victoria was the major dairy state. Although dairy was never a highly protected industry, many economists believed that insulating the local price from the corrupt world market returns constituted a major degree of protection, hence tariffs were a particularly sensitive subject for them. Heather was an unashamed free marketer, articulate during debate, but her proximity to the dairy farmers gave her a particularly good understanding of the problems of agricultural industries with high protection, real or contrived. She had previously been the vice-president of the Victorian state branch of the Liberal Party, which gave her a list of impressive contacts from the conservative side of politics, but she was also highly regarded by the ALP for her knowledge and views on landcare. Her competence and success in what had been considered a man's world was such that she should have started a major move by women everywhere to emulate her, but far too few have taken up the challenge. During my time with the WAFF, there was a woman on the General Executive whom I believed would be the first woman to head the organisation because, apart from being a practical farmer, she had that great mix of political nous and common sense. She made a conscious decision to steer clear of the "soft" issues that occasionally come to the attention of a grower organisation, things like education and school buses, that are all too often seen as "women's issues". She was so successful when nominated to represent the Federation on the board of a statutory authority that she eventually gave up her active involvement with WAFF. She later became the chairman (Heather Mitchell always refused to use the trendy chairperson) of the authority and has developed a strong involvement at a national level in the same area. She would still make a bloody good president of WAFF, although it is hard to blame any successful person for not getting involved, considering the aggro and petty politicking going on within the organisation today. But one hardy woman is already a declared candidate for the presidency next year. Marie Dilley has had experience at the top as a previous dairy president, a job that also contained a fair bit of national involvement. Marie was dairy president during a period of major restructure for the state's cow cockies, experience that would have given her more than a fair share of the rough to take with the occasional smooth. Being president of the WA Farmers' Federation in 2000 will not be a job for the faint-hearted, taking over a seriously divided organisation which has just had 45 per cent of its General Council vote against the ruling group. But if some new blood were introduced into the top levels of the organisation, there will still be plenty of time to turn it around and bring back some of the talent that has previously given up. Many see that job as a hard task for a dedicated man to take on, but it could be handled just as well if a dedicated woman were to accept the challenge and show the Victorians that, just because they were first, they are not going to remain the only achievers. The precedent has been established and Heather has shown that women can match it with the best of them, so maybe WA will be the next state to continue the initiative the Victorians took all those years ago.


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