I HAVE an abiding, deep respect for anyone who makes a living off the land.
Farming is in my blood and while I am not a farmer, my connection to agriculture runs deep on both sides of the family and continues to this day.
As the Member for Central Wheatbelt and leader of The Nationals WA, it is not only my role to reflect the voices and aspirations of my constituents, but also to provide leadership on issues that affect their daily lives.
This advocacy takes many forms – in Parliament it can be asking questions, leading debates and interrogating legislation.
It can be engaging with ministers, meeting with industry representatives, talking directly to constituents and working with our Federal colleagues to make sure they understand how their decisions impact our State.
Part of our role is to call out misinformation and policy agendas that are blatantly incorrect or misleading.
Our State Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan and I agree on one thing when it comes to the live export debate.
Animal welfare should be at the centre of every decision we make.
Every farmer agrees.
But our paths diverge after this because Ms MacTiernan has a long-held and public view that the industry should not exist.
Her continued insistence that developing new markets for chilled meat, pointing to our domestic processors and saying they can offer us a neat solution and blanket statements that the trade cannot be conducted in the summer months are as damaging, if not more, than the adverts Animals Australia are bombarding us with.
Ms MacTiernan needs to provide real evidence to back up her claims.
Where is there modelling on the effect of every farmer shifting stock through domestic processors?
What impact will this have on price?
Would this shift ultimately lead to the closure of a processor if farmers exit the industry because they can no longer factor live trade into their business structure?
At best, her positions can be defined as wilful ignorance, at worst a deliberate attempt to win the battle she’s waged for years on behalf of the animal activist lobby.
The historical bank of goodwill the nation has for farmers is no longer enough to combat the relentless and well-resourced campaigns we have seen emerging over the past decade, whether it be live export, GMO or mulesing.
Australian agriculture’s connection with an increasingly middle-class and urbanised society is weakening and this population is influencing policy makers.
Time will not change this and the industry needs to act quickly to address this growing divide.
If we don’t, the interest groups that bombard the general population with “information” related to the “evils” of live export and other emotive topics will continue to fill the void.
Many farmers and operators in the agricultural sector I engage with understand this – but there are still a few that think that because they are operating legally they should be left alone to get on with their business.
Frankly, that is old-school thinking and has to be stamped out.
The ag sector is dynamic, innovative, cutting edge and solutions driven.
We must be better at selling this message and work harder to create trust and understanding with the broader Australian public.
Ask any person tasked with crisis management and they will tell you it’s far easier to set the course straight when there’s been a reserve of goodwill developed and banked over a long period of time.
The live export industry’s wake-up call to start that process should have been the ban imposed by the Federal Labor government in 2011.
In terms of a proactive approach to the longer-term issue of building that ‘bank of goodwill’ for the sector – our agriculture spokesperson Colin DeGrussa MLC has presented to various forums on models of industry engagement and advocacy that he observed while completing his Nuffield scholarship in 2014.
His view is that industry needs a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to attacking and resolving the live export issue, which needs also to be linked to, but independent of, the lobby organisations.
It is a reality that everything in the sector from this point forward is set against the backdrop of the Awassi Express incident.
The whole of the animal production industry is being measured by the worst day of one operator, not the best of many, many others.
Animal welfare is a technical industry issue.
Approached scientifically, standards can and have been continuously improved over time.
It is at the centre of every farmer’s business model.
But as a well-respected industry participant pointed out to me recently, what we are dealing with is not a question of an irresolvable technical issue.
It is ideological and political.
The role and performance of the Federal regulatory body (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources) cannot be overlooked either.
The high level of scrutiny on the sector at this time means it is more important than ever for the department and its processes to be beyond reproach.
Unfortunately, they have been found wanting on at least one count – and that mistake sends a ripple effect of uncertainty across the sector and plays into the hands of critics.
I don’t absolve government decision makers either – we can and should take some responsibility for the situation facing us now.
As a collective, those of us invested in the sector have not always put our best foot forward.
I do support the actions of David Littleproud as the Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister.
He responded to the Awassi Express incident by immediately adding an independent veterinarian to all voyages moving to implement reduced stocking rates and improved ventilation.
An additional accredited stockman was added to each voyage and a requirement for Kuwait to be the first port of discharge when travelling to multiple middle east ports was mandated.
After this, a whistle-blower hotline was created and he announced a short review into the trade during the northern summer months (the McCarthy Report, now complete) and a review into the investigative capacity, powers and culture of the independent regulator (the Moss Review, which is ongoing).
Mr Littleproud has clearly signalled that those operators who do not and cannot meet the standards expected by experts and the community will be stripped of their privilege to do business in Australia.
That does not mean there is not great uncertainty and concern within the WA sheep sector and I have urged the minister and his colleagues to visit WA to meet with industry representatives and growers who are bearing the brunt of the hiatus in shipping and changing goal posts.
I think it’s important they hear direct from Mr Littleproud that he supports the industry and understands that there is a crisis emerging here as serious as the drought in New South Wales and Queensland.
Likewise, I have asked him to consider providing additional resources to fast-track the Moss Review.
Any changes to the goal posts that emerge from this review should be known as soon as possible so farmers and the industry can start to adjust.
In the interim, exporters need to know that if they seek to conduct their business legally and demonstrate the new, tightened regulations, the department will manage the permit and approval process efficiently.
This industry can and should survive.
It will take a concerted effort from everyone involved and there is no room for ego or ideology, even politics.