2021 was a big year for politics in WA

By Bree Swift
December 31 2021 - 4:00am
The Nationals WA leader Mia Davies became the State's official Opposition leader when the number of Liberal members in parliament were decimated by Labor's landslide win at the State election.

THIS year was a big one in the world of State politics, with the McGowan government obliterating the number of the State's Opposition members in parliament, The Nationals WA being thrown into the spotlight as it became WA's official opposition party and an electoral reform bill gliding through both Upper and Lower Houses, despite Premier Mark McGowan previously stating it was not on Labor's agenda.

Immediately following Labor's landslide victory, which many attribute to the party's smooth handling of the pandemic, Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan told Farm Weekly that if given the opportunity to have the agriculture portfolio again that she would "grab it with both hands".

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And she seems to have done just that, focussing much of her efforts on selling carbon farming to WA's, sometimes dubious, grain and livestock farmers through the ALP's $15 million Agricultural Climate Resilience Fund and $15m Carbon Farming Fund.

At the time of being re-elected Ms MacTiernan said climate change, biosecurity and animal welfare legislation were challenges for the industry that needed to be addressed.

Nine months on and these priorities seem to remain front and centre for the department.

The Nationals WA leader Mia Davies became the State's official Opposition leader when the number of Liberal members in parliament were decimated by Labor's landslide win at the State election.

In June this year, an 18-month review provided a series of recommendations to improve the animal welfare regulatory system in WA and the State government announced that it would modernise the Animal Welfare Act, calling for expressions of interest for an inaugural Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in September.

"I don't think this is something that farmers should be concerned about - we need our farmers to be seen by the community to be very mindful of animal welfare, as I know they are," Ms MacTiernan said.

Speaking at the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) agricultural industry update late last month, Ms MacTiernan said she expected to have a draft of the new bill ready by the second quarter of next year, with a view to get feedback from the industry and have the Animal Welfare Act legislation completed by the end of 2022.

"It's an important initiative for the industry and we want to work with you to make sure we get it right, that it's practical and is also going to protect our industry," Ms MacTiernan said.

Perhaps the minister's most controversial comment this year was her recent suggestion, at a carbon farming forum, that in some regions, up to 20 per cent of agricultural land could be used for tree planting.

Acknowledging that her comments had caused a "great deal of consternation" within the sector, Ms MacTiernan said it was DPIRD's job to work with industry and to also "look at what is coming over the horizon and work with farmers to drive new frontiers".

"That means that occasionally you have to throw new concepts and ideas out there, most of which have come from parts of the farming community," Ms MacTiernan said.

Liberal MP for the South West region Steve Thomas was a vocal opponent to the Electoral Equality Bill 2021, which passed through both houses of parliament last month.

Despite objections from agricultural advocacy groups, including WAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington, she continued to drive home the message that there were huge potential benefits available to the industry if it is to become part of the solution to climate change and participate in carbon farming strategies.

"If we look at what building a strong biological system can do in terms of improving our market positioning and what that can do in terms of helping us control costs, we see agriculture as having enormous potential to be part of the solution to the climate change problem," Ms MacTiernan said.

"We think strategic tree planting and biodiversity can be a source of income and absolutely help our farming community meet the goal of carbon neutrality which is going to be such an important player in the market."

Transport Minister Rita Saffioti also had a busy year, with the Department of Transport conducting roadshows to raise awareness of the proposed regional Agricultural Supply Chain Improvement (ASCI) road and rail investments and seek input from the community to help plan their future investments.

A proposed $200m package one of the ASCI program, jointly funded by the State and Federal governments, was announced in May 2021 and included a $160m contribution from the Commonwealth over four years.

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As part of the package the State made a $22m commitment to upgrade four rail sidings at Moora, Brookton, Broomehill and Cranbrook.

"The rest of the package will cover a range of freight infrastructure projects, with a view to complement existing investment programs, including the $187.5m Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network program," Ms Saffioti said.

WA Premier Mark McGowan speaking at the WAFarmers Livestock and Grains Forum in June this year.

However patience seems to be wearing thin for Wheatbelt farmers waiting to hear the outcome of a business case for the potential reinstatement of some, or all of, the State's Tier 3 grain rail lines, more than a year since it was first announced by the State government.

With electoral boundaries within the Wheatbelt region re-drawn so that the Tier 3 grain rail lines sit within the Federal O'Connor electorate, Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union WA branch secretary Craig McKinley said earlier this month that it could be used to the project's advantage.

"It puts considerable electoral emphasis in the Federal election on the seat of O'Connor, so that will add some political weight to this money," Mr McKinley said.

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"The State government needs to take ownership of this money and do something before the Federal election for the seat of O'Connor, bearing in mind that $200m has already landed.

"If the State government languishes, no doubt the Federal government will make an announcement and steal their thunder."

Meanwhile, taking on the role of the opposition has been a big adjustment for The Nationals WA, which had traditionally been regionally focussed with the majority of its policies, such as its Royalties for Regions program.

When it was declared that the Nationals were indeed the State's new official opposition party, its leader Mia Davies was quick to reassure both WA's city and country counterparts that neither would be ignored.

Highlighting that if the State's key sectors, mining and agriculture, continued to thrive that the whole of WA would thrive, Ms Davies said there was an opportunity for the party to elevate some important regional issues so that WA could recover from the pandemic stronger than ever.

This year Liberal MP for the Agricultural region Steve Martin raised concerns over the State government's response to a review of the Animal Welfare Act and its 52 recommendations.

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"That will be on the back of regional development and a better understanding of what it means to live, work and invest in those regional communities," Ms Davies said.

Nationals MP Vince Catania narrowly avoided defeat to Labor in his seat of North West Central in the March election, while party colleague, Geraldton MP Ian Blayney, lost his seat as well as Warren Blackwood MP Terry Redman, who was narrowly defeated by Labor in a shock loss.

One of a few Nationals' candidates who easily retained his seat, holding 43.05 per cent of the vote compared to the ALP's Bradley Willis who had 26.55pc, was Roe MP Peter Rundle.

At the time of his victory Mr Rundle said his motto had been to "turn up" and he seemed to have done that this year, most recently successfully campaigning for the State government to commit to a full inquiry into the regulations and guidelines for the State's School Bus Services (SBS).

Mr Rundle said the SBS guidelines, which were formulated in 1999 and decide where a bus stops and who is an eligible student, were "outdated and unworkable".

After getting off to a shaky start, it was uncertain if the Liberals and Nationals would work well together as the Opposition, however since the election the parliamentary members seem to be doing their best with limited resources.

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Respective Liberal MPs for the South West and Agricultural Regions Steve Thomas and Steve Martin, who were both re-elected, have been vocal in various debates in parliament including the veterinary bill and Animal Welfare Act.

However the sheer number of ALP members on the government benches has meant that several significant bills have breezed through both houses - and whether that is a good thing or not is yet to be determined.

Much concern has been raised over the momentous Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill, which passed through parliament earlier this month.

Agricultural advocacy groups including the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA), indigenous stakeholders and the State's Opposition parties condemned Labor members for rushing the bill through parliament without giving its stakeholders and constituents an adequate amount of time to consider and discuss the complex legislation.

Mr Catania, the Shadow Aboriginal Affairs MP, said Labor had rammed the highly sensitive and important bill through parliament, ignoring proper process and that extensive meetings needed to be held before its rules were finalised.

Just as controversial was the introduction of the Electoral Equality Bill 2021, which passed through both houses in November and will decrease the number of regional representatives in parliament.

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The electoral reform bill has drawn widespread criticism from regional and agricultural stakeholders as well as the State opposition, as it means that from the 2025 State election onwards, the vote of every Western Australian will now be equal in the Legislative Council.

"Labor did not give Western Australians the chance to have their say on this before or after the election, they've just used their massive numbers to do what they like," Ms Davies said.

"There was no consultation with regional Western Australians or stakeholders - instead the law was rammed through parliament, as a priority by Labor who put a gag order on debate.

"This is a dark day for regional WA - their voices have been silenced, they have been refused a seat at the decision-making table and their representation has been killed off."

There's nothing like a Federal election to add more fuel to the fire though and with one due by May next year we look forward to seeing what promises are made and hopefully fulfilled in the regions.

After all, it is the State's agricultural sector, along with the mining industry, that has kept WA's economy going strong, in spite of the pandemic.

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