HAVING spent a fair chunk of his career in the Kimberley and worked in the private, not for profit and public sectors, Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development director general Ralph Addis said his previous experiences helped shape his views on regional communities, indigenous issues and the State's agricultural sector.
Mr Addis spoke to Farm Weekly journalist BREE SWIFT about the curveballs life has thrown him and his ambitions for the future of the department.
Question: How many people are employed by DPIRD and how is DPIRD delivering for the sector?
Answer: In total we have about 1700 people and about 1600 full-time equivalent (FTE) spread out across the State.
About 40 per cent are in the regions and that helps us keep connected with our regional communities and primary industries.
That's a really important set of relationships and it helps us to maintain a focus on what is most important in the regions and protect our natural resources - which are by and large used by our primary industries for very productive means.
Right across the board we have a focus on helping the industry to grow, looking where the government can assist and latch on to opportunities to strengthen our advantage in the market, particularly in the food sector which is a trade orientated market.
Our research, development and innovation agenda has also been a longstanding part of Western Australia's ag sector success and ongoing productivity growth.
In the past few months with COVID-19 we have been able to step up and work closely with industry and regional communities to make sure we understand what's going on and help as much as possible to keep the economic wheels under the bus.
That has been something we are quite proud of.
Q: Do you think the restructuring of the department to include Fisheries and Agriculture with Regional Development is showing tangible benefits and improving its relationship with the State's producers?
A: Restructures of any sort are never straight forward, so it hasn't been beer and skittles by any stretch.
This week we are three years in our new form and admittedly there is a long way to go, but I'm certainly seeing very positive signs of sharing strengths across our organisation.
For example, with our fisheries resource management - we started to think through how that can be applied in other resource management settings that are important for us and vice versa.
We had strengths in business and industry development in the regional development space and somewhat in agriculture that we are now able to apply more broadly.
So there have certainly been some benefits, one of which was going from three departments that were modest size and second or third tier within government to a much more significant economic agency.
That change has put us at the main tables within government and is starting to pay dividends in terms of our ability to help shape the broader State economic agenda and make sure our sector's and regional interests are represented.
Q: How have staff adjusted to the restructure?
A: These sorts of changes are never easy so there have been some challenges and frustrations for staff, including the likes of myself.
But there is a growing sense that there are great opportunities to be mobile and to seek out different and better opportunities to deliver value for the State across a bigger span of activity.
That includes some of our compliance work where we have fisheries and biosecurity officers and so forth - some of the interactions and learnings there have been really terrific.
The opportunity to shift people around other functions and other geographically focused areas has been good.
The past three months of COVID-19 have given us an immediate cause to step up and step forward to help keep our sectors and businesses going in the face of great challenges.
That has been a uniting and energising thing for our staff despite the trials and tribulations.
I think we are in pretty good shape to continue helping our regional economies and primary industries with the broader COVID recovery.
Momentum has been built through the past several months which has been excellent.
Q: When will the emphasis of the department return to independent extension?
A: That's a good question and that is particularly relevant to the old agriculture functions where back in the 1980s through to the early 1990s there was a strong focus on direct on-farm extension.
There had been significant changes with the Department of Agriculture before DPIRD became a thing of course.
I wouldn't say we will be going back to extension.
We have certainly gotten clearer about what is our best role and in what parts of the primary industries it is most relevant for us to play that sort of role.
That's largely turning out to be in areas where it's not able to be provided by other means.
An example of that is in the northern cattle industry, where we do have a reasonable focus on direct extension activities, although we do some through partner organisations such as the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen's Association as well.
More broadly, the aim of the game is to make sure that our producers are able to be as efficient, productive and innovative as they can.
It's fair to say over the past 20-30 years our producers, particularly across the ag zone and fisheries have become extremely sharp and very focused on technologies and innovations that are going to help them run their businesses efficiently, compete more effectively and be more sustainably profitable.
I am always impressed by the sophisticated and very professional way in which our producers operate these days.
I think that's gone through a growth and maturity curve and our role is to complement that virtuous process in quite a different way than we used to 30-40 years ago.
We work closely with grower groups across the State and have significantly increased the level of commitment and partnership with the grower group alliance to make sure they are as productive and innovative a system for producers as possible.
We know farmers get enormous assistance through ag consultants and so forth, so we have a role to help provide sharp data and good intelligence.
An example of this decision-making support for our producers is our very extensive weather system which is widely used in farm decision making.
Q: Will the department maintain/improve its regional contact through its country offices?
A: About 40 per cent of our footprint is in the regions and we have 30 major sites from the Kimberley to the South West to the Eucla.
That's in addition to our nine regional development commissions which are a critical part of regional governance and leadership across our State.
So we have a pretty formidable regional footprint that's of enormous value to the government and we need to continue to build that value by linking that to other relevant agencies.
It's also a powerful way for regions to be purposefully engaged with the State government.
We have to leverage our regional capabilities more and more as we mature and that's a terrific opportunity for both our regional industries and State government.
Over time we will want to shift the balance gradually towards there being a stronger regional footprint and presence so that we are best able to shape decision-making both within DPIRD and across government.
Having key people with their feet on the ground in the regions is a really important part of making good decisions for regional WA and our primary industries.
Through COVID-19 we have been forced to be in touch remotely, so we have been having very different and much more engaging conversations on our platforms such as Zoom.
We are not going to let that go, as that technology allows us to be less postcode centric in terms of who we are talking to and engaging with.
Q: When is the department expected to move its head office? Do you think a move/upgrade of DPIRD's facilities would help the department to run more efficiently?
A: I have no doubt that a modernised and more fit-for-purpose facility absolutely helps organisations such as ourselves to feel confident and well supported in the work that they do.
I personally think it is one of the most important things that we can do to help the journey of the agency to be the best that it can be.
There is no deadline for us to be in new facilities but we are actively working to address some critical gaps in our laboratory functions which are absolutely vital to our key food industry functions, including biosecurity.
We are pushing hard to achieve a clear path for that particular part and then we will look at what are the best options for relocating other parts of our organisation.
That doesn't have to be in one place and it certainly doesn't have to necessarily be in the metro.
I think there will be a range of pathways to being in a better set of facilities that supports us to do our best.
Q: What do you see as the future direction for the WA agriculture sector?
A: The State government has a clear focus on finding the best opportunities to improve our State's economy, which means building on and complementing the strengths we already have in resources and energy to give a greater sense of resilience.
Agriculture and food is the second biggest trade sector and major employer, particularly across our regions, so it is well acknowledged by the government that it is an important sector now and has great growth prospects based on long-term increasing demand for high quality, well-sourced food.
In the context of COVID-19 it's pretty clear that despite some challenges, food, agriculture and primary industries have been amongst the most resilient sectors.
By and large the farm sector has continued, the fisheries sector has kept going fairly well and that puts us in a good place to be a key part of the recovery.
I think opportunities lie ahead with strong growth and demand globally in the requirements for food to be increasingly produced with integrity in terms of food health, food safety, food provenance.
WA is a highly professional, stably-governed State and that puts us in a great position to improve our competitive advantages in food and take more than a fair share of that growing global demand.
We are at the tail end of completing the State's first primary industry plan which is a statement of how we think the State government needs to focus its efforts to best support that growth story for our sector.
Q: You were the founding chief executive officer of Wunan - an Aboriginal advocacy group based in Kununurra and over 12 years helped the organisation to acquire more than $15 million in commercial assets. How did your involvement in this area come about?
A: I happened to be in the north doing some work in and around the Ord Irrigation area.
I had done a little bit of work around native title and fell in with some outstanding local Aboriginal people who were interested in how to build a more economically-based future for the people as opposed to a welfare-based future.
They wanted to enable Aboriginal people to seize their own destiny and be masters of it.
Over that period of time, and I still work closely with some of those people, I had a terrific experience of strong and visionary aboriginal leadership that wanted to make sure their people had the sorts of choices that other Australians enjoy while maintaining a strong and deep sense of heritage and connection to their country.
That was a terrific experience for me and in many ways it shaped a lot of my thinking about the broader regional development task.
Q: Given your previous experience, what do you think are the main challenges facing indigenous Australians today?
A: One is for us as a society to front up to the important challenge of reconciling ourselves with Aboriginal people and making sure that their place in our future society is much more central, empowered and successful than the past since European settlement.
Just last week we saw the announcement about trying to remove the ways Aboriginal people happen to be so over-represented in terms of incarceration.
At a more tactical level, people are brought up to have the capabilities needed to navigate through their lives successfully and that largely starts with education.
Everybody should have the opportunity to have a crack, be successful on their own two feet and know that there is a reward for effort and enterprise, as that gives people the reason to strive and thrive.
I think some of the settings in our regional communities aren't always consistent with people being encouraged to do their best.
Q: Having spent a large part of your professional life there, what was your favourite aspect of living in the Kimberley?
A: Whether you're out on the water catching fish, or in the ranges and gorges exploring, to live in that sort of country is an amazing experience
The Kimberley has a rich social environment in the sense that you have Aboriginal culture, history and population, some extremely challenging development issues and it's a raw part of our country that it is broadly undeveloped, so you can engage in some incredible activities.
Whether that's in local government, development of the farming sector, the tourism sector - there are enormous opportunities to roll your sleeves up and make a difference.
Q: You have worked in private, not-for-profit and government sectors. How have these roles compared and what have been the main challenges working in each sector?
A: One of my observations in going from the private sector into the government sector, I think there is broadly a view in the community that the private sector is sharper and harder working.
My experience in the public sector is that it is extremely complex, as you have multiple players pushing and pulling in different directions, so it can be interesting and challenging.
Our public service and broadly our politicians work extremely hard to deliver good results.
It's not always easy and it sometimes looks strange from the outside, but I can assure you, from the inside, the system is working as hard as it possibly can to make the most of any opportunities for our State.
Q: What prompted you to join the WA Regional Development Council in 2012 and move into government?
A: I was in the east Kimberley working and had some things I thought were important in terms of development for the north and at the time, the regional development agenda was at an interesting stage.
They were doing some significant things including the Ord development which continues to be a priority for the new government.
Getting involved with the council was a way to both learn more about the governance approach but also to make a contribution to the thinking and shaping of priorities.
Through that experience I got to know a bit about how regional development was being approached by that government and some of the areas I thought we might need to think about strengthening.
That role led me to put my hand up for director deneral at DPIRD when the opportunity arose.
Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?
A: I never thought about it that much, I just figured you explore life and see what's interesting and meaningful and that's how I steered my way through things.
There are always plenty of interesting opportunities I've found.
Q: Which professional role have you found the most challenging in your career and why?
A: I found the start-up role with Wunan as an Aboriginal development outfit probably wasn't the most challenging but certainly the most meaningful and purposeful and particularly working with the people I was at the time.
In terms of most challenging, it has been a real step up to take on the new department where we brought three agencies together and the histories, legacies and complexities that entails.
I don't think I would have been able to stand up to those challenges had it not been for the great group of people that I have around me here, in terms of my executive and some motivated and public spirited members of staff.
Q: Who has been your biggest influence, professionally and/or personally?
A: Personal and professional weaves into each other in roles l such as mine.
My most important influence has certainly been my mum and dad who have been unswervingly supportive and always pushed us out there into the big wide world and encouraged us to have a crack.
Certainly my family as well, who I started in the east Kimberley and particularly my daughter Savanna who passed away two years ago and has been an amazing part of our lives.
She taught us a lot about life and adversity and how you can make the most of it.
Q: Growing up on a farm in Cranbrook - how do you think your agricultural upbringing affected your views on agriculture?
A: Growing up in the country does give you a particular take on the world and probably helps you to be fairly pragmatic, down to earth and able to solve your own problems.
That is an important skill that I think a lot of our farmers have in common.
Back in the seventies and eighties when I was growing up, I was going to spend a year or two on the farm.
It was pretty tough times and I think in 1987 there was a shocking drought, so my dad wasn't particularly encouraging me to pursue a career in farming.
I look back on that now and there has been so much growth since then - farming has gone ahead in leaps and bounds, which is really fantastic.
Q: What has been the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
A: Things can look pretty daunting and challenging but usually they become a lot less scary once you sink your teeth in and get across things.
Keeping things in perspective and having an attitude that you can deal with whatever is thrown at you is probably the main thing I have learned through the past 30 to 40 years.
Q: What are your professional goals?
A: I don't have too many professional goals myself, but I do have quite a bit of ambition for the department.
I want to make sure we take the opportunity to build an organisation that is modern, forward looking, connected with our industries and communities and can make a difference to our economic opportunities, while being valued by our stakeholders for doing that well.
I don't think we are there yet but I'm certainly very determined we will get there together.