CHANGES to the Farm Management Deposit (FMD) scheme and other agricultural policy improvements are on the new year's list for Western Australian Liberal MP Rick Wilson.
Mr Wilson entered federal politics at the 2013 election, replacing Tony Crook who served just one term for the National Party in the seat of O’Connor.
However, the large rural electorate remains marginal in a three-cornered contest against the Nationals, who have declared they’ll run again in 2016.
With the O’Connor electorate also susceptible to the direction of Labor preferences, Mr Wilson can’t afford any complacency heading into the next election.
Ag white paper focus
Mr Wilson said he would be vigorously pursuing changes to the FMD scheme in 2015, via the Coalition’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.
A green paper was released late in 2014 and gathered further public submissions on its proposals up to the December deadline.
The final document is expected to be presented to cabinet and released at some stage in early 2015.
Mr Wilson said he wanted to see legislative changes made to the FMD scheme which would allow it to be used as an offset to farmers’ bank loans.
“We’re in a situation where most of the southern wheatbelt in my electorate is having its second very good year in a row so farmers are in a situation where they have surplus cash to put into FMDs,” he said.
“The FMDs are very generous scheme and farmers should be very grateful for it.
“But what’s happening at the moment is if a farmer owes the bank $1 million and puts $300,000 into a FMD he pays say 6 per cent interest on his loan and gets 3pc on his FMD.
“But that’s just a windfall profit to the bank - they’ve got $300,000 of that farmer’s money sitting in an account they control effectively.
“What I’ve suggested to the minister, which was a suggestion that came out of green paper process, is that we look at allowing FMDs to be used as an offset account, against the bank loan.”
Mr Wilson said the 1998 legislation which established the scheme included a line that specifically said FMDs can’t be used as an offset account.
He said he’s been unable to find out why FMDs can’t be used as an offset account but will push to have that changed, to improve the capacity of farmers to manage drought proactively.
“At the end of the day, this proposal is not going to cost treasury any money,” he said.
“I’m not sure how many billions of dollars are sitting in FMDs – I have to do that research.
“But whatever the figure is, there’s a saving to be made for farmers at the expense of the banks and not at the expense of the government.”
Kicking goals in Canberra
After a long career in farm advocacy, Mr Wilson has landed a long way from his Katanning grain and sheep property and now works alongside some of the nation’s biggest political names.
His office at Parliament House in Canberra is right next door to one of the nation’s key political influencers – Palmer United Party (PUP) leader and Queensland MP Clive Palmer.
Mr Wilson said he gets along very well with Mr Palmer on a personal level, while ensuring their political differences remain politely below the surface.
“Clive’s certainly a very gregarious and generous fellow,” he said of Mr Palmer.
“Certainly on a personal level, we always have a friendly chat if we see each other in the corridor.
“But it is frustrating when we (the federal Coalition) hold a 30-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a lot of good legislation has been blocked in the Senate; not always by the PUP.”
Mr Wilson said after a solid apprenticeship in agri-politics and at grassroots level in the WA Liberal party, he arrived in Canberra knowing political progress doesn’t happen overnight.
He said major policy shifts and other beneficial changes take a while to evolve in the federal political landscape.
“You’ve got to convince people and bring them along,” he said.
“I’ve always recognised and understood that I wasn’t going to change the world in the first year. Some issues have been a little frustrating but we’ve also kicked some goals on other issues.”
Ag's biggest wins
As well as removing the carbon tax, which helped reduce supply chain costs to producers, and repealing the mining tax, Mr Wilson said one of the government’s big wins in 2014 had also been securing free trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Korea and Japan.
He says the FTAs will help open export markets that invoke greater choice and competition for growers.
Mr Wilson said the FTAs were the most significant development in Australian agriculture during his 30-year farming career.
“We’ve heard about the emerging South East Asian markets since I was a boy, but we’re now actually starting to see them mature into markets that we can actually deal with on a fair and even level,” he said.
“There have been some issues in the past with contractual obligations and so on, which have not been respected.
“But these FTAs will now deal with that and put in place mechanisms to ensure those sorts of issues can be ironed out.
“I think these FTAs are the biggest win for agriculture this year - and possibly the biggest win for agriculture in my lifetime.”
On a more personal level, Mr Wilson said he’d advocated for $25 million in drought funding assistance from federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce who “couldn’t have been more sympathetic and helpful”.
He said that funding helped assist farmers around the Yilgarn region which was “a great win for the electorate”.
But he lamented the fact it then took six months for the various bureaucracies to work through the finer details of actually making that money available to farmers.
“At the end of the day that (delay) took us through to August and for many of those growers, who desperately needed that finance to put in another crop, it was bitterly disappointing,” he said.
“We got the minister onside and got the commitment but couldn’t deliver on that commitment because of some argy bargy between the WA government and other bureaucracies.”
Mr Wilson said he and other WA Liberals also “set the scene very early” with Mr Joyce that WA was “a very different case to the east coast” in regards to developing the new wheat port access code signed off in September.
“The minister listened and took on board that WA was different and we didn’t need or want extra regulation imposed on the industry and so in that respect I think we got as good outcome for WA,” he said.
“Not everyone would agree with me but the fact that CBH is not tied up in red tape and is now saving about $1.6 million in compliance costs, and independent operators are not caught up in the scheme as well, is an outcome I think most people of a free market philosophy would be happy with.”