WITH tight budgets and crisis talks at the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA), it has been a challenging year for agriculture in WA, however there has been some good news for the sector.
A range of State Government initiatives rolled-out this year, including the $300 million Royalties for Regions' (RfR) project Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture, the Northern Development White Paper and the Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper, which ensured the agricultural regions remained on the radar.
Some of WA's rural communities move towards better connectivity at the start of 2015, after it was announced that $45m over the next four years will be directed to establishing 85 regional mobile phone towers.
The RfR-funded Regional Telecommunications Project (RTP) will provide greater connectivity for regional communities and improve safety and emergency service capabilities.
The project kicked off with 22 priority sites, including Wongan Hills Town, Nyabing, Gracetown, Arrino, Ongerup North, Boorabbin, Tammin, Nilemah RT, Albany West, Bolgart, Cranbrook West, Wickepin, Peaceful Bay, Molloy Island, Salmon Gums, Grass Patch, Nyamup, Wilyabrup, Westonia, Muntadgin, Highbury and Yerecoin.
Already 113 communications towers have been installed as part of stage 1 and the work is scheduled to be completed during 2018.
While regional development has had a boost, DAFWA was hit a further bitter blow with additional job cuts and budget cuts this year.
The department reduced its staff numbers by 100 last financial year as part of the Barnett government's voluntary redundancy scheme to shed 1500 employees from the public sector, with indications that more staff will lose their jobs in the 2015-16 financial year.
Nor did DAFWA fare well in the State Budget with plans for a new headquarters cancelled.
The department played down reports that it was holding crisis talks at a meeting with industry leaders.
A spokesman said director general Rob Delane and key industry stakeholders will meet at the South Perth headquarters for a general updates meeting.
Mr Delane will put together panel of experts to review the department.
The review, which has $100,000 funding, will be made up of five or six people and make recommendations to Agriculture and Food Minister Ken Baston as to what a future department should look like.
The recommendation for the panel's will be provided to Mr Baston for his consideration.
For pastoralists, the lengthy process of renewing pastoral leases came to an end.
All but two of the State's 437 eligible stations had their pastoral lease renewed, concluding two years of intensive consultation to ensure as many lessees as possible met compliance requirements.
However lease holders were not pleased to discover that the battle had been lost to prevent further release of the State government assessment report of the viability of Rangeland pastoral leases.
The Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) president Tony Seabrook said pastoralists were angry about the accuracy and fairness of a viability report by DAFWA, which was released to 41 out of 62 leaseholders under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Labor MP and shadow minister for environment, climate change and lands Chris Tallentire.
The PGA lodged a legal challenge late last year against the WA Information Commissioner's decision not to exempt the information from FOI release and to prevent any further disclosure of DAFWA's viability assessments.
Mr Seabrook said he was disappointed with the commissioner's decision to deny the request to not release that information.
Northern pastoralists keen to see the Tanami Road development gain traction this year.
WA Liberal senator Dean Smith said it was time the Tanami Road was fully bituminised to fulfill the development of the State's Top End.
Tanami Road covers a 1014 kilometre stretch from the Great Northern Highway, just south of Halls Creek, to the Stuart Highway near Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory.
Some NT sections have been or are about to be sealed, leaving about 790km unsealed.
The road, which is 311km long to the WA border, is a strategic transport link and services Aboriginal communities and the tourism, pastoral and mining industries.
Mr Smith called for immediate action to seal the road, saying the link between Halls Creek and Alice Springs is integral to the region's development.
Thoughout the year Mr Smith had driven the road, spoken to key parties about its future and in Parliament had pushed the agenda to get further funding.
Early in the year, 12 northern pastoral enterprises expressed an interest in taking part in the multi-million dollar Northern Beef Futures (NBF) project.
The four-year, $15m RfR-funded program sparked interest across the North to transform the northern beef industry by improving markets, businesses and productivity.
In June, a shock announcement came that Shadow Agriculture and Food, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Ken Travers had resigned from shadow cabinet citing personal reasons.
A friendly-face to industry Mick Murray stepped in to fill the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food position.
The 2015-16 State Budget made some waves for the livestock and grains industry, with news that the Barnett government had ambitious plans to sell-off some public assets to help pay for WA's rising debt, including offloading the Fremantle Port under a 49-year lease which is yet to be negotiated.
WAFarmers president Mr Park said the Budget has seen the government provide little commitment to the future of agriculture in WA.
West Australians will pay up to $99 extra on their vehicle registrations as of July 1 2016, to fund the introduction of a no-fault insurance scheme.
The scheme could increase farmers' operational costs by thousands of dollars.
"While there are some concessions, the scheme is going to hit our members hard," Mr Park said.
The Emergency Services Levy, which is paid by farmers annually, has jumped by 10.9 per cent.
"This is compounded by an increase in power and water fees of 4.5pc which will drive production costs up, particularly for our dairy farmers," Mr Park said.
Capacity building programs, including the Northern Beef Futures, Sheep Industry Business Innovation and grains research and development, have received RfR funding.
"The injection, while not substantial, is welcome," Mr Park said.
Farm owners discovered they would suffer a blow, as Treasurer Mike Nahan said compulsory third-party premiums would be an extra $30 for on-farm vehicles, farm firefighting vehicles, mopeds and vintage cars, and $25 for tractors from July 1, 2016.
"We are going to put that in place - we would've liked to have it done earlier, but it takes time to get legislation and systems set up," Mr Nahan said.
"It would be $99 for vehicles, motorcycles and trucks."
Which means the registration of an average vehicle would jump to more than $400, though there will be no extra cost for trailers and caravans.
Regional Development Minister Terry Redman said RfR investments would continued at a total $1 billion a year over the next four years.
"There are significant budget impacts on Royalties for Regions," Mr Redman said.
"A reduction of the State's four-year royalty income of $14b compared to when I spoke to you last time (last year's 2014/15 State Budget) is fairly significant.
"Last year I talked about the headline figure for RfR having an expense limit of $1b a year in that year and into the four-year forward estimates.
"The only difference to that in this year's budget will be a $100m reduction in the expenditure limit for 2015-16 and 2016-17."
Mr Redman said the expense limit was kept to $1b over the four-year forward estimates, which was below the 25pc of mining and petroleum royalties.
"This was to maintain the integrity of the RfR program and to support the State Budget," he said.
"The headline figure is still $1b a year in RfR, accounting for the fact there is a slight reduction limit, based on the fact there is a reform fund being put in place.''
Following the State Budget Mr Redman launched the first of the State government's regional investment blueprints - offering a vision for renewed opportunities in the Wheatbelt.
Mr Redman said the blueprints identify growth and development opportunities for investment to build the regions' and the State's economy.
The plans were in various stages of development and no specific funding has been allocated to any one region.
The IGA Perth Royal Show was discussed at length this year, as WA Labor said it was the key link to connect the city with the country - which it believed had been broken by the government's decision not to continue free admission for children under 12.
The decision not to fund free Show entry for children was made during the budget process, due to the deficit and tight financial circumstances for 2015/16.
This year's Show experienced a drop in crowd numbers, and the Royal Agricultural Society of WA estimated that the 2015 crowd was less than 400,000 people.
In comparison last year's show attracted nearly 410,000 people, despite heavy rain over the opening weekend.
The year's big political news was the release of the federal government's long awaited Agriculture White Paper.
WA farm groups cautiously welcomed grand plans for northern Australia in the subsequent Northern Development White Paper, which outlined northern development, including $200 million to build water infrastructure, $6m to develop new and seal existing roads and programs to broaden training and employment.
Past Kimberley Cattlemen's Association chief executive officer Gill Stassen said the White Paper covered most of the issues facing the North, but had failed to address some issues in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions.
WA lobby groups, WAFarmers and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association were more cautious about the paper, stating it was good news but offered false hope to industry.
WAFarmers president Dale Park said while government had taken the first steps, there was a lot of work still to be done.
Some of the key projects for the northern agriculture sector include:
p $600m for priority road projects.
p Funding to assist in finalising native title claims
p $200m to build water infrastructure, tied to developing secure water rights as part of a new National Water Infrastructure Development Fund
p Expanding the Seasonal Worker Program to all agricultural industries
p Broadening eligibility criteria for access to skills and training under the Industry Skills Fund
p Retaining existing access to second year visas for backpackers who work on farms for 88 days and extending second year visa access to backpackers from other countries if they work on farms or in tourism in northern Australia
The WA Electoral Distribution Commissioner's (WAEC) plans were unveiled for the redistribution of electoral boundaries in WA, but some MPs remain disappointed with the outcome.
Under the changes the electorate of Eyre would be abolished at the next State election and the shires of Esperance and Ravensthorpe would be included in the newly-created Roe, which would combine the former Wagin and Eyre electorates.
The boundaries take in much of the agricultural land between Esperance, Kojonup and Narrogin.
Eyre MP Graham Jacobs will be affected by the change.
"The decision to include the whole Shire of Esperance in one electorate, as opposed to splitting it in two as first proposed, is a sound one, but it is disappointing to be removed from the Goldfields-Esperance region," Mr Jacobs said.
"The sad thing for the Goldfields-Esperance region, is the loss of representation in parliament, from two down to one."
The animal welfare debate sparked growing interest across animal welfare groups and industry.
The parliamentary inquiry into the RSPCA WA commenced this year, investigating concerns the animal welfare group may be transitioning into an animal rights group.
The relationship between DAFWA and the RSPCA WA was the focus of some key questions considered at one of the parliamentary inquiries into the animal welfare organisation.
Mr Rob Delane and other representatives testified at the hearings.
Mr Delane said the department's relationship with the RSPCA had been "testy" but that the strategic partners would work together.
The RSPCA WA had labelled the parliamentary inquiry into its functions as "infuriating and insulting".
There were some heated moments during proceedings as RSPCA WA president Lynne Bradshaw responded to some hard line questioning from some inquiry committee members.
At one stage she said the inquiry had placed a "financial, resource and reputational burden" on the organisation and was a "politically motivated campaign".
The findings of the inquiry are due to be released next year.
However the long-awaited review of the investment and administration of the Animal Welfare Act 2002 was tabled this month, 12 months after Cabinet approved the independent review.
Part of that review examined the not-for-profit organisation, the RSPCA, and its animal welfare inspectorate role.
The report found the government had value through its $500,000 contract with the RSPCA to conduct inspections, investigations and prosecutions and outlined that the RSPCA should maintain its animal welfare inspectorate role.
But it called for key performance indicators to be created for all appointed inspectors to better monitor animal welfare outcomes, pairing the $500,000 RSPCA grant to its inspectorate duties, and recommended that future grant agreements with the RSPCA only include inspectorate functions.
The panel said it found it difficult within the review to assess the success or otherwise of service delivery models, the performance of the public sector and the efficacy of grants.