Broadening the view of landcare

27 Feb, 2002 10:00 PM

BACK in the dreamtime, when I was involved with farm politics, I often had to discuss, debate and argue issues with "real" politicians, a pastime that probably accounts for my generally jaundiced view of that breed.

Occasionally I would meet a polly who would not be moved by my comments, not because my adversary was particularly pig headed or obtuse, but because I couldn't refute the logic being used.

One of the few consistently logical politicians I came up against was, not surprisingly, a farmer and one from the North Eastern Wheatbelt where they specialise in farmers with strong opinions.

I refer to Peter Walsh, one time ALP Senator and Finance Minister in the Hawke government, who has always demonstrated an impeccable logic, administered without fear or favour.

Farmers who objected to Peter's criticism should read his book, "Confessions of a failed Finance Minister," which shows that he was critical of all groups if they tried to replace reason with emotion.

Peter is back in the news, addressing the PGA Annual Convention where he has challenged some accepted wisdom and brought out the odd sacred cow for a medical examination - just like old times.

He made some very pertinent comments about the "Green industry", while also using his farming knowledge to note how little of the federal environmental funds end up in a paddock or farm catchment.

He was also critical of the alliance forged between the NFF and Australian Conservation Foundation, a view that is of great interest to me because it happened during my time on the executive of the NFF.

On his retirement from NFF, the CEO at the time, Rick Farley, claimed that this alliance was one of his major achievements during his period with the farm body, although I wouldn't like to claim ownership of it.

It was sold to us on the basis that, as green was the political flavour of the time, an alliance with a politically trendy group like the ACF could allow agriculture to divert some real funds into some real, green problems.

It sounded reasonable, so major resources were committed to the project, with the final submission containing a mix of conservation incentives, including a range of special tax deductions designed to assist and encourage.

The end result was a high powered announcement, made somewhere in the bush near the Murray River, where Bob Hawke told the waiting media that the program would see a billion trees planted over the next 10 years.

It was no big deal, considering that the nation's farmers and conservation groups were already planting 10pc of that amount per year, so the PM did no more than promise that his initiative wouldn't slow us down.

Subsequent initiatives have produced the same smoke and mirrors and the same lack of substance, with the National Heritage Trust, funded with some of the Telstra money, being another spectacular failure.

Peter did not dwell on the NFF move, rather he talked of the failure of many government initiatives, while highlighting the different agendas at work within the green movement.

While the goal of farmers is to solve the problem of environmental damage, others see it as a meal ticket as long as they restrict their effort to only talking about it, while another group has an entirely different agenda.

A publicly expressed concern for broadacre salinity for this latter group is a means of gaining some legitimacy for their line on the forest industry, organic farming, GMOs, animal liberation, multi-nationals and globalisation.

Farmers who want to save their valley floors from "rising damp," or who wish to reclaim some saline country should make sure that their public allies have the same practical ideals.

In WA we have the ludicrous situation where a Shire Council in a frost and drought susceptible area, whose ratepayers are calling for research into better grain varieties to help them cope, have declared their shire a GMO free zone.

In a time when the farmers of the world are producing food surpluses at ever decreasing cost for increasing populations of healthier and better fed people, some still pine for the "good old days."

These good times may pre-date chemicals and artificial fertiliser, but they also occurred before tractors, cars, phones, electricity and modern medicine were developed and before the last five billion people joined us on earth.

Anyone who wishes to see agriculture practised the way everyone did before the 1960s "green revolution," need only go to sub-Saharan Africa where the organic, chemical-free subsistence crops mock a starving populace.

Peter Walsh warned his listeners in his own pithy, logical way that not everyone walking down the road alongside a farmer is necessarily heading for the same destination.

Farmers have discovered that landcare will only work if notice is taken of the factors operating in a very large area around the farm, so farmers should choose their allies only after a similar, wide-ranging analysis.



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