Change is inevitable: Macfarlane

09 Dec, 2015 01:00 AM
Ian Macfarlane.
Change is inevitable, along with death and taxes
Ian Macfarlane.

THEY call Ian Macfarlane "the Chainsaw" due to the distinct sound of his gravelly voice.

But despite those unique vocal chords producing a dusty cacophony that would put any hardened gangster to shame, and 18 years serving rural Australians in Canberra, the veteran Liberal MP is relatively unknown in mainstream Australia.

That was until the ambition behind his shock move from the Liberals to the Nationals was unveiled last week which could engineer an incredible return to cabinet.

The Queensland MP entered federal politics in 1998 via the rural seat of Groom and has since spent 10 years of his career as a federal minister.

His most recent appointment was as industry and science minister in the Abbott government and then separate stints as industry, tourism and resources minister and small business minister, in the Howard government era.

Mr Macfarlane was born in Kingaroy in 1955 and before entering federal politics was president of the Queensland Graingrowers Association and Grains Council of Australia (GCA).

He spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media in mid-September, just before being dumped from the ministry, where he said he was leading the GCA when the AWB wheat board monopoly was privatised.

Mr Macfarlane referred to that conquest during a speech in 2012 on the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill which continued the deregulation pathway of the bulk wheat export market that started in 2008 under the former Labor government.

“In my time as the president of the Grains Council of Australia, I took it through one of the most traumatic, most difficult and most hard-fought times in the wheat industry's history,” he said.

“The previous president, Don McKechnie - some might remember his name - and another fellow called Mitch Hooke tried unsuccessfully the previous year in a tour around Australia to convince growers of the need to move the wheat industry into the 21st Century by privatising.

“I had the poisoned chalice passed to me as the president of the Grains Council.

“I have to say, with modesty, that I succeeded and the wheat industry moved another step towards complete deregulation.”

In an extensive and intimate 2010 radio interview, Mr Macfarlane said his nickname was given to him by ABC rural reporter Judy Kennedy who said he had a voice that sounded like a chainsaw, going through iron bark.

He said that moniker had since been “finessed” and subsequently related more to his direct way of operating around politics.

But he also told the serious story behind his nickname, saying he’d always had a rough voice due to the way he vocalised which posed a life-threatening risk.

In an unsolicited phone call to his home shortly after entering politics, he was told by a speech pathologist that if he didn’t do something about his way of talking if would result in vocal-chord cancer.

He said that warning proved true when he was eventually diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 2002.

Subsequently, he had operations and radiation treatment to find a permanent cure but during that same period he completely lost his voice which was “difficult for a politician”.

Mr Macfarlane said after the treatment he went to a speech voice expert who over three years rebuilt his voice to its current “silky” sound.

Move to politics

He also spoke about his change of attitude and mood on Boxing Day 1996 where – after being involved in agri-politics since 1984 and full time since 1991 - he woke up and thought it was time to move on, having done all he could.

That included his experiences with the wheat board privatisation but also accompanying former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating on a famous drought tour of regional Queensland.

Mr Macfarlane said while their politics were “miles apart”, he knew Mr Keating had pigs and given he also had pigs, he decided to “talk about pigs” during the tour.

But he said Mr Keating knew more than he did on the topic including about stud-breeding and different genetic strains, for pig breeds.

In the end, he said the tour led to an announcement of $100 million in drought relief funding which was a huge sum of money in 1994.

Mr Keating was also the first sitting Labor Prime Minister to visit the bush for some time and the tour itself was regarded as a coup, for Mr Macfarlane and others who helped strategise it.

The Groom MP also spoke about the “glory days” of agri-politics in the 1980s when the National Farmers’ Federation started to become a “force to be reckoned with” and the big farmers’ rally was held in Canberra, which he attended.

He recalled protesting in front of then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s office at Old Parliament House while George Bush was visiting Australia who he described as the “arch demon” of global free trade but who was subsidising US farmers while Mr Hawke wasn’t giving the same government assistance to Australian farmers.

He said the rally was “a good day”, allowing farmers to get a lot of hot air got off their chests and subsequently leading to the NFF’s Fighting Fund being established.

Mr Macfarlane also spoke about the excessively high interest rates in the 1980s which did more damage to agriculture than any drought, with some of farmers paying 30pc while his family business was hit with a 22.5pc rate.

But after his epiphany the day after Christmas almost two decades ago, he decided to move into the commercial sector and was considering the offer of a bank job in Sydney.

But that was cut short after being approached by the Liberals to fill a vacancy for the federal seat of Groom.

He said the Nationals were courting him at the same time and Labor had also asked what his plans were “out of curiosity” due to his close relationship with former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss.

But he said due to his upbringing and background where he’d always been on the conservative side of politics the Liberal party was “where I’d fit the best”.

“I liked their philosophies (of) free enterprise and that sort of stuff; that’s right up my alley,” he said.

Growing up on the farm

Mr Macfarlane also revealed that his father and grandfather were stock and station agents by trade.

His father originally bought a mixed farming property consisting of dairy, pigs, grains and beef cattle where he grew up, as one of four children.

He said his only regret about leaving farming in the 1990s – after going to college and buying into the family farm in 1982 - was that his daughters didn’t have the chance to experience that same lifestyle.

He said he entered agri-politics because he didn’t think rural issues were being dealt with properly and tended to be ignored.

Another one of his motivations for getting into agri-politics was to see stories about farming production appearing on the nightly television news bulletins.

Mr Macfarlane said breaking his ties to farming to enter politics was very hard to handle and did not resolve itself, in his soul, until he became a cabinet minister and felt like he was achieving something again.

In his 2012 speech, Mr Macfarlane said one thing he learned during the passage of time on the path to wheat industry deregulation was that “growers find it incredibly difficult at times to prepare for the next step and to prepare to accept change”.

In an ominous warning about his current dilemma in switching to the Nationals, he said, “change is inevitable”.

“As I used to say to them when I was travelling round during that period in 1993 and 1994, you do not still drive the same tractor that you had 10 years ago; you do not still farm in the same way that your father and your grandfather - who probably used horses - did,” he said.

“Change is inevitable, along with death and taxes.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


9/12/2015 2:48:25 AM

"if something aint broke don't fix it". What accountability for that change has there being, Keating more or less admitted the gov't had to bail out the banks immediately after dereg. How realistic is it that aspiring farmers/home owners can save for homes under fract res banking and manipulated int rates? is it not a coincidence that the change u refer to have taken the profits from individuals and given them to the financial services industry, what right do private banks have to create public money and charge interest on it? or what of wheat dereg, how are growers interests represented now?
Jock Munro
9/12/2015 4:10:16 AM

Wheat Deregulation was achieved by Mcfarlane and his cohorts against the wishes of the vast majority of growers. The industry is now in the hands of large foreign mega merchants. Any wonder that the majority of wheat growers would be sceptical about Mcfarlane's move to the Nationals.
Philip Downie
9/12/2015 10:40:07 AM

Actually Ian you moved the wheat industry back to the 1930s, not into the 21st century. You know the saying if it ain't broke don't fix it. Unfortunately when pollies and wannabe pollies start fixing things they know nothing about they invariably break them. It started by turning the AWB into a public company that was always going to end in tears, you can't satisfy the supplier and the shareholder, one has to loose.
9/12/2015 12:28:02 PM

Ian fixed an inequitable system. Now NSW farmers have had to learn to make the economics of growing wheat work without the distortion of stealing top up wheat payments from WA and SA grain growers. I can see why the NSW socialists and other unemployed ex-employees are so vocal.
Jock Munro
9/12/2015 5:40:49 PM

There are reports coming out that durum growers in Marfarlane's electorate and beyond have recently seen the merchants withdraw from the market place and not list prices. And Mcfarlane has the effrontery to treat deregulation as an achievement.
Jock Munro
10/12/2015 7:41:24 AM

Dereg-can you explain what process was used by AWBLtd to top up NSW payments by stealing from SA and WA? Did you contact WEA and tell them of your suspicions?


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