The minister we've taken a chance on

30 May, 2001 10:00 PM
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FOUR years ago, Kim Chance said that if he were to become Minister for Agriculture, his first priority would be to see if the Department of Agriculture could still be salvaged after its vicious "restructure".

Well, he is now the Hon Kim Chance MLC, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Forests, Mid West, Great Southern and Wheatbelt, and he still sees this rescue job as a priority, but ongoing problems like the Exceptional Circumstances negotiations did not allow him the luxury of giving it the number one ranking.

Under the previous government, the Ag Department looked as though it would soon have more committees than workers, a state of affairs that the new minister has already tackled.

One of the old Partnership Groups has already been wound up because of its high cost, while the rest of them have been asked to "put the case for their continued existence".

The reporting structure has been changed so that all committees now report to the CEO of AgWA, not the minister, with "only three people reporting to the minister ‹ the CEO of AgWA and the presidents of the WAFF and PGA".

This change has meant that the government's response to the OJD debate at a national level has "relied heavily on advice from the PGA as well as the wool and meat sections of the WAFF".

On the broader issue of AgWA, the stakeholders ‹ who include the WAFF and the PGA ‹ have been asked their views on the operations of the department, including whether they believe they are getting value from it.

As the minister in charge of such a broad range of departments, Mr Chance is looking forward to the proposed amalgamation of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests, an exercise that is not "dollar driven".

"There is not a lot of overlap" in the three, he acknowledges, but an amalgamation could result in "more competitive agencies and more effective service for the clients and the tax payers".

€Farm organisations

Mr Chance comes from a background of involvement with the ALP and the then Farmers' Union ‹ not the sort of organisations that traditionally attract much favour with the PGA.

As minister, Mr Chance describes his relationship with the PGA as "very good," a state that goes back a long time and includes his period as the shadow minister when in opposition.

He acknowledges some fundamental differences on issues such as marketing, grain and GMOs, but "we can sit down and talk, they (PGA) can express their views and have an influence on the outcome".

Mr Chance hoped that WAFF can "overcome its current difficulties, as it remains a very important source of information for me and we share a lot of common goals".

He finds it "productive to have two grower organisations" because they provide the "strongly held and virtually unanimous views of significant numbers of producers, whereas a single view may be seen as a compromise.

The deregulation of the dairy industry was quoted as an illustration, with the support "coming from a single organisation," yet he was receiving "conflicting signals" from dairy farmers.

The minister saw an increased interchange of views between the PGA and WAFF as being "more useful" to him than amalgamation, adding that "farmers can seriously underestimate their (grower organisations) influence".

€Exceptional circumstances

THE first job that faced the new minister was the ongoing Exceptional Circumstances saga, with the initial task being to try and facilitate the allocation of the federal funds to those in need.

But the longer term task is to review the whole area of EC funding, to remove the concept of "affected area" because as a farmer, the minister is well aware that weather patterns do not follow shire or farm boundaries.

The arbitrary nature of the current system has resulted in "late decisions and inordinate delays" and there is a need to "fast track" the process by taking it back to a state and local government level.

But the state's ability to fund the EC program direct has been removed by the ongoing transfer of state funds to the federal coffers, with $2.5b flowing out of state pockets annually en-route to Canberra.

The major funding must continue to come from the federal government and his discussions with the federal and other state ministers is aimed at seeking change, perhaps back to the old Natural Disaster Funding model.

Mr Chance was somewhat surprised at the ease with which funds were made available to farmers in northern NSW when the floodplains flooded, particularly as they had three of these "once-in-a-lifetime" occurrences in only five years, yet were still able to call them "exceptional".

€Rural and regional politics

As a resident of Merredin, Mr Chance is not at all apologetic about the new government's policy to remove the electoral weighting from the state to bring in the "one vote, one value" concept.

Farmers are "justly critical" of over-government and the inefficiencies that can be seen in public and private administrations, so "consistency demands" that they should also support a more efficient and fair electoral system.

He made the quite reasonable point that the conservative parties support for having fewer voters in country electorates had a lot to do with "returning more conservative politicians" to parliament.

The removal of the weighting for federal electorates has now been in operation for many years, with electors accepting the premise that representation requires more than just a lot of politicians.

But the minister's most telling criticism of the status quo is that it hasn't delivered benefits for rural voters as it "didn't stop the privatisation of Westrail or the run down of services and country towns".

Many of these issues were opposed by the ALP, but "initiatives like dairy deregulation were supported, or even driven, by the National Party," negating any effect that the political weighting might have.

Although committed to the concept, the ALP government does not yet have a policy on how it will be implemented, with the Legislative Assembly "probably retaining individual electorates with a fixed number of voters, plus or minus a percentage."

The Upper House will provide a different challenge, perhaps with proportional representation like the Senate, treating the state as one or even two large electorates.

€Conclusion

Mr Chance rejects the belief that the ALP is a city-based party, running through a list of country electorates that are held by the government ‹ seats as widely dispersed as Kimberley, Bunbury, Albany and Eyre.

He would be happier if there were "more regional members in Cabinet," but pointed out that the "leader and deputy leader of the government in the Legislative Council are both regional members".

Kim Chance has spent most of his adult life immersed in farming and politics, and he brings to his new job a wealth of knowledge and experience. From my conversation with him soon after his appointment, he has wasted no time starting his latest challenge.

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