Farmers' Friends stick to the issues

13 Oct, 2012 03:00 AM
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Nola Marino, Jock Laurie and Dick Adams at the project launch.
Nola Marino, Jock Laurie and Dick Adams at the project launch.

FAR from the vitriolic theatre of question time, in a small committee room in the back stalls of Parliament House, a new initiative was launched which aims to reconnect politics with rural and regional Australians.

The Parliamentary Friends of Primary Producers project is designed to increase the quality of information exchanged on key political issues concerning farming and regional Australia.

The multi-party forum also seeks to engage politicians with little understanding of rural issues and connect them with industry groups and leaders when critical debates unfold.

National Farmers Federation (NFF) president Jock Laurie was invited to address the new group’s launch where he told the nation’s political leaders how farmers and rural communities felt isolated by the current political debate.

“There’s a fair amount of disbelief in regional areas about how parliament’s been operating in the last 24 hours,” he said.

“In many ways they’d just like you to sit down and focus on some of the issues that are really important…. not only to the rural community but the Australian community.”

Mr Laurie said the political handling of the live exports issue had been extremely damaging to northern Australia over the past 18 months.

He said it was also disappointing to see how other political arguments were unfolding around wheat export marketing and foreign investment.

Mr Laurie said the various political parties seemed to agree in principle on most issues.

But ongoing party political arguments, fuelled by poor information, continued to stifle positive policy outcomes for regional Australians.

The one hour launch was attended by about 50 MPs and Senators along with staff and advisors from other leading political figures, including key Ministers and Shadow Ministers.

Some of the politicians already shared a keen passion and understanding for rural and farming issues, including Liberal Senators Bill Heffernan and Sean Edwards, National Party Senators Fiona Nash and Bridget McKenzie, Liberal MPs Alby Schultz and Rowan Ramsey and National Party MPs Mark Coulton and Darren Chester.

Members of the Liberal party’s Federal Regional and Rural Committee, including chairman and WA farmer Brian Mayfield, were also in attendance.

However, there was a notable absence of any independent MPs or Senators.

WA Liberal MP and primary producer Nola Marino is a founding partner of the Parliamentary Friends of Primary Producers, along with Tasmanian Labor MP Dick Adams.

Ms Marino said the new group planned to meet regularly and convene when critical issues arise like animal welfare and live exports.

That would give parliamentarians from various political parties and persuasions an effective forum to ask important questions of representative groups like the NFF.

She said pro-active efforts were about "keeping accurate information at the centre of debates and making sure everyone gets the same information".

“It’s up to us to try and encourage as many members who are not from rural and regional Australia to be part of this group as well, so they get to ask the important questions."

Mr Laurie said State and Federal parliaments each had individual members who were strong supporters of rural issues but lacked an effective cross-party representative group.

He said a lot of debate was focused on party politics rather than the actual issues which frustrated farmer groups.

“I think it’s important that all the people who actually do support agriculture are prepared at times to stand up and support it on principle rather than on some of the party political stuff that goes on, because I really think that does a fair bit of damage to the debate out in regional areas,” he said.

“The live export debate is a very good example of where we’re starting to lose it.

“There are many people in that debate who simply don’t understand... the work that’s been done to improve animal welfare in the live export trade over the past 10 to 15 years; and how that improvement will continue to happen.

“There’s real frustration about that uninformed debate.”

Mr Adams said the changing nature of technology and media would also have an impact on policy making for rural and regional areas in future.

Senator Heffernan said 10 or 15 years ago, what the NFF said was “bible in the bush - but I’m not so sure it is anymore”.

Mr Laurie said that was a “fair comment”, but he stressed the NFF had been working to rebuild trust with stronger presence in Parliament House and through sound policy development.

He conceded some of the blame for poor policy outcomes rested with farmers and farm groups across Australia who were “really bad” at working form a unified position.

He said the wheat export marketing debate was a “very good example” of an issue that had “blown out” due to different lobby groups presenting different views to Canberra.

“The biggest trouble with the grains industry is they don’t have a united voice,” he said.

Mr Laurie acknowledged the different voices and lack of an agreed position made it much harder for politicians to achieve satisfactory solutions.

NFF chief execuitve officer Matt Linnegar said the lobby group was seeking to bring together other sectors of the supply chain to help develop more effective policy positions.

He said if the NFF communicated issues to parliament, where common interests converged for the various groups along the supply chain, such as labour issues, “I’d imagine that would get a fair bit of traction in this place”.

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