A bridge too far on merger talks

A bridge too far on merger talks

Trevor Whittington.

Trevor Whittington.


I READ with great interest John Snooke's letter, Farm Weekly, July 11, mistitled 'Merger talks'.


I READ with great interest John Snooke's letter, Farm Weekly, July 11, mistitled 'Merger talks'.

This was not a letter about merger talks, rather it focused heavily on "Mr Whittington's baseless assertion that the repeal (GM Crops Act) was the result of a nuanced lobbying effort that WAFarmers worked successfully behind the scenes to help achieve."

In the letter Mr Snooke pays credit for the repeal to the Pastoral and Graziers Association (PGA) on the organisation's efforts over the years to educate Liberal and National party politicians of the benefits of GM technology.

He completely ignored the fact that most MPs were already highly supportive of growing GM crops and that lobby groups can educate political parties until the cows come home, but if the party's political leadership have no interest in supporting your policies then nothing much happens other than promises to conduct reviews, keep the door open for further talks, possibly run trials and undertake an exemption rather than a repeal.

This is exactly what happened with the GM Crops Act when the Barnett government came to power.

The government's first agriculture minister, Nationals MP Terry Redman, put in place an exemption rather than attempt an all out repeal of the bill.

This was fine for the short term, but would have been a disaster in the long term if the Liberal Party's Ken Baston, the governments second term agriculture minister had not come along and introduced the legislation to shut the door with a full repeal rather than risk waiting any longer.

One thing we know is the current Labor government has a leadership team that would never have repealed the GM bill if it had still been in place.

For a lobby group to be successful in driving political change along their preferred lines, they must aim to embed their policy platform into the political promises of one of the major parties along with the key cross benchers in the upper house.

Failing that, they need to convince the government and minister of the day to take up the challenge and support them in driving their policy through the party room, cabinet and then finally through parliament.

The PGA in this case achieved neither.

The letter spent some time in detailing the PGA's role in the Marsh v Baxter court case.

He attempted to make a link between the court case and the ultimate repeal of the legislation in Parliament.

A reading of past press releases and media articles builds the true picture.

The facts are that Mr Baxter was a member of both the PGA and WAFarmers and WAFarmers was supportive of Mr Baxter and had approached the National Farmers' Federation to fund the case with support from its fighting fund.

Approaches were made to a range of other funding sources.

Funding was ultimately and logically provided, not by the PGA, but by the chemical/GM industry which had the most to lose.

To link the result of the court case to the repeal of the legislation is a bridge too far.

Claiming the PGA were the drivers convincing Mr Baston to introduce the repeal legislation into the parliamentary process is a case of wishful thinking or worse an attempt to rewrite history.

On the day of his swearing in as agriculture minister Mr Baston and I (as his chief of staff) sat down and mapped out what he wanted to achieve over the next four years.

Twelve years of past political experience told me that one major project a year is as good as any minister can hope to drive through the political process.

Together we came up with four key projects to focus on: a comprehensive wild dogs' strategy, deregulation with compensation of the Potato Marketing Corporation, a review of the Deparment of Agriculture, including moving grains research into a private structure and the repeal of the GM Crop Restrictions Act.

Unfortunately, Mr Baston and I were shuffled out of the portfolio after three years just before we could complete all four projects, but we were close, very close.

Fortunately, by then the four projects were locked and loaded into the cabinet and parliamentary process (where were the PGA on removing the 120 grains researchers out of the department and on deregulating the Potato Marketing Authority - but that's a story for another day).

Yes, Mr Baston was not there in the last 12 months to complete the job.

The repeal happened on October 28, 2016 under the watch of Mark Lewis, who was agriculture minister for the last six months of the Barnett government.

Contrary to Mr Snooke's assertion, I was there to see the process through as I joined Mr Lewis' office as a policy adviser.

But it was very much the efforts of Mr Baston that got the repeal legislation past then premier Colin Barnett and into parliament.

It was hard work and very nearly did not get there.

The Baxter v Marsh case, if anything, spooked the nervous green nellies on the conservative side of the house.

If the PGA were so influential, the repeal should have been pushed through under Mr Redman in the government's first term, but Mr Redman also had to walk the Barnett western suburbs tightrope.

Failing that the PGA should have had it written into the Liberal and National Party's policy platforms for both the 2008 and 2013 elections, but again this was not the case.

Yes, the PGA was supportive of the process, but so were WAFarmers Grains Council who worked quietly behind the scenes and did not worry about attracting media attention to themselves.

I know this as fact, for I established the Ministerial Agricultural Consultative Committee and had both the PGA and WAFarmers around the table at least four times a year for three years with the ministers I worked with.

This is how governments work with industry and at that time I thought this working together may lead to both organisations (PGA and WAFarmers) joining the dots and coming together as one.

Common sense dictates that one voice is much more powerful in the political world than two competing voices, particularly if the differences are marginal as they clearly are these days.

In respect to GM, both organisations supported the legal case and the repeal bill, but they should have been working together on this from day one back in 2003 when it first arose and again in 2013 when they were lucky enough to have a minister prioritise it as a key act of parliament to repeal.

The debate that we need to having today is how 4000 farmers, graziers and pastoralists are going to be in a position to embed into the policy platforms of the major parties prior to the next election a suite of pro agriculture policies.


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