Home's where the House is for minister Monty

27 Oct, 1999 09:59 AM

THE National Party, WA Parliament and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries have combined to take Monty House, farmer and Member for Stirling, away from his home town of Gnowangerup to a job that requires him to spend much of his time in the city. Although he places a priority on getting "home" as often as possible, it is a city-based job, so it was an intriguing thought to check how much of the "country boy" remained in the minister. Catching him at home and with time to be interviewed was, however, no easy matter. First elected to the Gnowangerup Shire in 1972 and its president in 1982, it was not surprising that I finally caught him at home just after he had attended a meeting with the local shire. Mr House spoke glowingly of his time on the council, sounding almost as if there were some regret that his election to Parliament in 1986 brought his career in local government to an end. The oldest trick in the political book is to condemn a politician by saying: "You should see his farm, it's a mess," a ploy I have heard used against quite a few country pollies < real and agri. Well, anyone who has used that line against Monty House should hang his (or her) head in shame, because his farm could be used as a model of tidiness and order for other farmers to aspire to < even the grass around the sheds looked as if it is mowed regularly. The front entrance is near the remains of a very old stone house in which his grandfather lived in the 1870s, a solid reminder that the House family and the town of Gnowangerup have been partners for a long time. The current farm house was built by his grandfather in 1912 and a quick tour shows that the best of that era remains in the graceful old home, but the addition of modern technology has produced a great combination of beauty and function. Mr House started farming on the family property after leaving school and the operation has since expanded. These days, however, the properties are now handled by share farmers due to his political workload and his son Paul's decison to opt for a non-farming career. The area of various crops and pastures as well as the fertiliser and stocking regimes are predetermined and the use of the farmhouse has been retained so that it will be available whenever Monty and wife Sally are in (or near) town. When asked if any country remained in the minister, he acknowledged his love for his farm and community remained, but admitted that many years as a politician living mainly in the city had changed his perspective in some areas. If he were to lose his seat at the end of his current term, he would no longer go back farming, considering that he would be too old by then to consider starting again. Some political views of his opposition period have now changed, particularly the retention of statutory arrangements for marketing many products, although he admitted to "worrying like hell" about the withdrawal of government from the marketing scene. He still believes that the adoption of centralised marketing arrangements was right at the time but, with changing times and technologies, it is the duty of governments to look forward. The support for a state-based guaranteed price for wheat and the National Party's attempt to bring in the Farmers' Debt Bill were areas where Mr House now admitted he had changed his view. The Debt Bill, which would have allowed farmers to stop banks from initiating mortgagee sales on their properties, was opposed by the WAFF and PGA at the time, but it was the policy of the Rural Action Movement and the move was an attempt to "gain their electoral support". He acknowledged that not everyone supports his changed views, with support for the Hanson phenomenon very real in WA because there are always "takers for the simple solution". He has some sympathy for these voters, claiming that it is the rapid pace of social change that is behind their unease, even though many have a track record of adapting to farming changes. He felt that the margins in the federal rural seats of O'Connor and Forrest were large enough to fend off any Hanson challenge, particularly as they had less electoral support in WA than in some other states. Mr House believes that politics is more "people oriented" in the country, with voters being more likely to vote for a person than for a party, citing this as the reason why large numbers of the votes cast for the federal Liberals in O'Connor revert to the Nationals in a state poll. Current or proposed changes to the structure and operations of the AWB, Grain Pool, CBH and Westrail were further examples of a rate of change that was progressing faster than many farmers would like < and faster than many politicians have been able to explain. He was concerned when the ACCC vetoed an arrangement a year or so back that would have seen a strategic alliance set up between the AWB and the NSW privatised grain handler, Grainco. The grower-owned handler has now entered into a commercial arrangement with the US-based Cargills, achieving a similar result for their shareholders, but he believes the AWB option would have been better for Australian agriculture. His current support for the corporatisation and privatisation of government-owned instrumentalities is another area where his views have changed over the years, acknowledging that a lot more discussion and explaining needs to be done before the Westrail exercise can be completed. With the goal of broadening their appeal, the original Country Party has also been called the National Country Party and, currently, the National Party, even going so far as to once form an alliance with the old Democratic Labor Party and contesting an election as The National Alliance. None of these exercises were able to defeat the demographic reality of a shrinking rural population, so the recent adoption of new green policies by the Nationals that are closer to the fringe parties than their coalition partner made me wonder about another "broadening". Mr House seemed genuinely surprised when I asked him if the "greening" of the Nats was based on a desire to revisit the National Alliance and he assured me that the Nationals have no intention of coming to any electoral arrangement with the Greens or Democrats. He claimed that the Regional Forest Agreement signed with the Federal Government virtually reflected their new forest stance, although since our discussion the Nationals have supported the Government's capitulation to the Greens and repudiation of the RFA. An area of controversy and criticism some years back was the restructure of the Agriculture Department and the attachment of the trendy name Agriculture WA to the resultant organisation. Six years later, the minister believes that Agwest is doing a "damn good job", with a dedicated and strong staff that "delivers pretty good results" and is able to compete with private enterprise and is closer to its clients in the bush. He doesn't agree that he entirely caused the change in the department's operations, rather that change was inevitable and his intervention merely "managed the change". He sees the focus on marketing and QA programs as important changes, with the alliance built up with the GRDC as being productive, although he was less than impressed with the Federal Government's withdrawal of funding from the Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture As a farmer, Monty House has no problem with two grower organisations competing for his business, but admits that, as the Primary Industry Minister, when the two groups present him with different options, there is no real pressure on him to accept either submission. He doesn't have any apologies about the disproportionate representation that rural and regional WA has in State Parliament, believing strongly that the important contribution made by this area requires a strong representation at the highest level. But he is opposed to the proportional representation model in the Senate that allows very small numbers of votes to be transformed into seats, although it was a deal between the Nationals and the ALP that gave WA the same scenario in the state's upper house. Mr House seemed to undergo a rejuvenation when he shed his suit for some "working clothes" and a tour of the farm, taking great pleasure in showing off the areas where trees have been planted and new fences built to protect his remnant bushland. Contour banks are very much in evidence and all fertiliser used on the crops now contains copper, zinc and molybdenum, the result of new research that indicates that the early views about the longevity of the original applications may have been too optimistic. Although he no longer drives a tractor at seeding time, he was keen to check the crops < "all direct drill" < and the effect of the season on the crops and pasture. I was surprised when Mr House said the big three issues raised with him by voters in his electorate were the Premier's bell tower, the $100 million subsidy for the convention centre and the Fremantle maritime museum. His constituents have obviously followed their member's lead and extended their vision beyond the farm and district.


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