Too many voices in the room

Call for common ground for WA farm lobby groups


Opinion
WAFarmers chief executive officer Trevor Whittington.

WAFarmers chief executive officer Trevor Whittington.

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Watching the two organisations respond to modern challenges such as animal activists targeting the live export industry, or the green movement targeting glyphosate and GM crops, I am more convinced that too many voices muddy the waters and confuse the overall message.

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HAVING dealt with WAFarmers and the PGA in one form or another over the past 25 years during my political career, I am very aware that political messaging from the State’s two peak farm bodies is often contradictory.

Even when both organisations are presenting common views on questionable government policy, any slight difference of presentation is seized upon by government as a sign of disunity in the industry and hence not credible.

Historically the two organisations were almost as philosophically different in their economic views as the wets and drys of the Liberal Party, with one side demanding government support and intervention into the market and the other calling for the government to let market forces reign. 

But in the last quarter of a century, just as we have seen the economic rationalists win over the competing views within the Liberal Party and support the freeing up of the Australian economy, we have seen the PGA and WAFarmers come closer together on most major policy and economic positions.

Just occasionally there is a point of difference between and within both organisations as seen with the recent corporatisation debate of CBH. 

However, this is no different to political parties dealing with the republic versus monarchy or the same sex marriage debate – these are issues that are best left with the membership or electorate to sort out at the ballot box. 

Watching the two organisations respond to modern challenges such as animal activists targeting the live export industry, or the green movement targeting glyphosate and GM crops, I am more convinced that too many voices muddy the waters and confuse the overall message. 

So where to from here? 

WA Farmers has 1200 members, almost all farmers and graziers, the PGA has around 200 pastoral members plus a smaller number of Wheatbelt farm businesses.

 We both have livestock and grains councils, we both have presidents with the first name Tony, and we both front up to the various government ministers with almost the same policy position – except one organisation can speak with far greater authority on pastoral leases and the other can speak with far greater authority on grain issues. 

So, isn’t it time for a bit of succession planning? 

We either split the assets and focus on what each really knows or we amalgamate the entities.

Today’s farmers and pastoralists have been succession planning successfully for over five generations.

Looking back on the long history of the dozen or so different farm industry organisations that have emerged and amalgamated over the past 130 years in the State, history tells us that when organisations have aligned their differences they are far stronger and more politically effective. 

In my travels around the State I am constantly encouraged by our members to find a way to bring these two organisations together. 

This is something that will require goodwill on both sides and will take I suspect, the next generation of leadership to call time on the current competing structures. 

But it can be done. 

I have played a small role in supporting the amalgamation of two other organisations, that like PGA and WAFarmers, were competing in the same agri-political arena, thus diluting the influence of each of them. 

In this case it was the national wine industry – last year after decades of debate, the Winemakers Federation of Australia (WFA) and Australian Vignerons (AV) came together to form a single peak body Australian Grape and Wine. 

It was a long, hard road but good leadership drove a good decision for wine producers across Australia, creating a single strong voice to comment on a complex array of legislative and technical issues. 

Just as we are seeing big corporations and small farm businesses amalgamate to gain economic efficiencies, we cannot afford as a State to be running two peak bodies competing for membership and sponsorship, as well as media and political attention. 

Both organisations will continue to suffer with declining membership and funding as agribusinesses expand. 

If we want to have the horsepower to have more powerful representation at both the State and national level, we need to eliminate our competing structures. 

We should look at the process followed by WFA and AV as it provides a possible pathway forward for our two bodies. 

The first step is for the membership of both organisations to recognise that one voice is louder than two disparate voices, and to encourage their respective boards and presidents to sit down and talk. 

With a new president of WAFarmers to be elected next month and a very real chance we will be facing State and Federal Labor governments for at least the next six years, it is timely to change our structure to be in a position to respond appropriately to the highly-organised lobbying efforts of global green anti-agriculture organisations as they pursue key issues such as live exports, glyphosate, GM and carbon.

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