WESTERN Australian rural Liberal MP Nola Marino is a dairy farmer and has been described by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbullo as a “legend”.
But few people would know much about her character or political deeds, especially advocating for the Australian farm sector, outside of her Forrest electorate in the state’s south.
Ms Marino is the chief government whip in the Lower House and also co-convenes the Parliamentary Friends of Primary Producers in Canberra with the Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon which hosts intermittent events to promote the sector and communicate policy issues.
Normally media shy but never fearful of tackling the big issues behind the scenes, Ms Marino talks to Fairfax Agricultural Media about her life as a pioneering figure in the WA dairy industry, before entering federal parliament in 2007.
She also highlights her thoughts and feelings about Australian agriculture and politics – including protecting the state’s remaining 160 dairy farmers who are based in her diverse electorate.
“What is your rural and agricultural background?
“I’m a dairy farmer from Harvey in the South West of WA. I started my life in the transport industry in Brunswick running a small business and my dad was a pioneer in transport, in earthmoving and heavy haulage and cartage. After I got married we bought our very first dairy farm, on the day that we got married, so we had a massive amount of debt, very little equity and it was a rundown property that needed a hell of a lot of work. But my husband and I worked hard together to build a business and we’re still in dairy farming and so is our son and grandson. It’s been very hard work but we’ve loved what we’ve done.”
What’s your electorate of Forrest like and its agricultural pursuits?
“It’s quite a mixed electorate these days. It runs from Yarloop in the north down through coastal areas like Bunbury, Busselton and Margaret River and right down to Augusta and in-land to places like Donnybrook. It has everything from the majority of the state’s dairy farmers – about 160 dairy farmers are left in WA and they’re in my electorate. There’s fair bit of fruit and vegetables growing in places like Donnybrook and down the Myalup strip there’s a lot of vegetables growing there and of course beef production. Forrest has a very strong and very effective forestry industry as well and a number of abattoirs operating processing beef and for lamb. There’s an abalone farm operating on their own manmade reef, off the bottom of Augusta and there’s a small number of sheep in the electorate. There isn’t much - apart from broad acre cereals and grains - that isn’t produced in my electorate and some of the best quality products in the world produced by my region. It is a fabulous place to represent and I’m a passionate fan of the products that we produce and the people who produce it.”
WA’s largest beef producer Harvey Beef is located in your electorate, owned by mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest – does he come knocking on your door looking for your support, given his interest in agriculture and exporting to China?
“It’s more like me banging on his door. It’s great to have an Australian owning Harvey Beef and someone who is committed to WA and local industry and business. That’s a real positive from our point of view and from any farmers’ point of view that’s a positive. He recently opened a floor where he has added special cuts in cryovaced packaging that they are being delivered to about 40 different markets and that’s a really good new supply chain innovation. I’m hoping there are even more opportunities for local farmers in that space, as they move that product along. It’s great having Harvey Beef and V&V Walsh in my electorate and we also have other very good abattoirs doing some very good work and making great products for different local and export markets.”
Why did you choose the Liberal Party to pursue your political career?
“Basically I share the core beliefs and the principles of the Liberal Party of reward for hard work and individual initiative and focus on family and business, and small business in particular. Those values are very much the same ones me and my family share. Encouraging people to have a go is really important in this country and I see so much of that attitude in my electorate. We live in a can do part of the world.”
“How did you first become involved in politics?
“I was involved in an industry where politics and political decisions had an impact on what we did, and my fellow farmers, so it was important for me to get involved early. I became a representative on a number of industry boards and bodies and took an active role in the dairy industry. In the early days, that meant standing up in a room full of 500 farmers and having your voice heard which wasn’t necessarily easy. And I was one of the few women at that time, who was also physically working on a farm. I loved the work and coming from a transport background I was very happy when I got my truck licence and could do some of the more serious work that needed doing. I was President of the Milk Industry Liaison Committee for years which introduced marketing for the dairy industry and we did things like taking milk to the showgrounds in Perth and holding tastings at local shopping centres and venues, encouraging local consumers to not only try but buy these fabulous WA products. They were an amazing group of women who worked very hard to promote the industry and also some of our local manufacturers.”
It’s a tough time for your dairy farmers and others - what are you doing to support them with the challenges they’re facing?
“At the moment we’ve got a lack of processing capacity in WA to manage any oversupply of milk or whenever the milk volumes change. I see that as the biggest issue. We used to have the processing capacity but that all changed during the Fonterra years of buying (WA based milk processor) Brownes. The majority of our milk goes into the domestic market but we also need to export it, so we do need good markets and we do need the capacity to manage those milk volumes at the time that we need to manage it. That’s really the focus now – in trying to retain as many of our farmers in the industry as we can because they are very, very efficient farms in this area, producing some of the very best products in Australia. We need to be working on the marketing side of this issue very hard and primarily we need to be managing processing capacity for the existing milk supply and looking at markets where it can be sold. I work very closely with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce in this space and will continue to do so.”
How urgently does the problem need to be rectified?
“Quickly. We’ve got farmers coming out of contract in the next few months and another trench coming out of contract in January, so we really need to deal with this issue of managing the milk volumes and manufacturing for it, very effectively and efficiently.”
You’ve been in Canberra for a decade now, how have you seen the treatment of agriculture progress in that time and has it changed?
“I can be a little parochial and say that since we’ve come into government the importance and value of agriculture is now sitting much higher and is more well recognised on the government’s agenda. The fact is we have the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce holding the agricultural and water portfolios. Agriculture is vitally important to this country and its economy and so we need strong voices in parliament advocating for the sector. This is a house built on numbers and the majority of the people live in the cities and that means we need to make sure we always have very strong and genuine representation by those of us who actually work in agriculture, understand it and are passionate about it. In all of our standing and select committees and in our back bench committees, there is a group of us who work really, really hard and very well in this space. If you look at the number of members on our side of politics, who are rural and regional representatives, we’ve really got the biggest proportion and daylight is second.”
With the recent loss of strong rural and farming leaders WA like Senator Chris Back and others like Bill Heffernan and Andrew Robb in recent times, and you don’t have a genuine regional voice in cabinet at the moment, are the rural Liberals falling behind the Nationals in this advocacy area?
“We certainly make sure that our voices are still heard. Chris Back is a great loss. He was the first veterinarian elected to parliament and his real life experiences in the agricultural sector have been incredibly useful to all of us for the policies we’ve been working with and developing and delivering. Chris will be very greatly missed and he is a man of enormous common sense, but it means that the rest of us must keep stepping up and making sure that those voices keep getting heard.”
Are you concerned about a potential change of government in a couple of years’ time and the impact on Australian farming?
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen but we’ve seen how agriculture has been treated historically by a Labor government and the small number of members who are genuinely committed to this space and the outcomes prove that. It’s critically important to have a government that’s able to represent rural and regional Australia properly and is absolutely switched on, which is what we are.”
How have farming representative groups like the National Farmers’ Federation managed their affairs and lobbied for the farm sector, during your time in politics?
“The challenge with the agricultural sector is the diversity within it. It’s very important to have a national body that basically represents as many of those diverse sectors as possible because one of the challenges in this place is finding the more collective answer to a problem and making sure that what you do, or the decisions you make, represents what the majority of those engaged in the industry or sector really want most. We always get submissions and ideas from representative groups and bodies. But that’s why having people who are actually involved in the industries themselves, like we have, with people in the grains sector (like O’Connor MP Rick Wilson), or dairy farmers like me - there is a group of us from right around Australia - you can also balance that point of view with real life experience. We’ve got such a diversity of representatives and we pretty much will cover-off on most of the sectors. That’s the strength and that’s the opportunity that goes with it.”
What’s one of most disappointing or challenging issue that you’ve had to live through in the past 10 years in politics?
“The Indonesian live cattle ban of 2011 was just appalling and we saw such an enormous amount of damage directly and immediately caused to our own people, especially cattle producers in northern Australia. It was ill-conceived and the damage it did, even to our trading partner in Indonesia, was unnecessary. We stopped the Indonesian peoples’ primary source of protein - but then what it did to our farmers was felt immediately right across the board right down to beef prices in the south-west of WA. It was just like hitting a brick wall and it was just an appalling decision. There were groups of us including the Chris Backs of this world who were trying to give them (former Labor government) the answers that they needed at the time, but they refused to listen to that advice.”
During your time in politics, what is a goal you’d like to achieve?
“I want to continue underlining the importance of great quality food and the amazing people who grow it. I am very committed to the farmers and their families and often they are under-valued and under respected. But they do an enormous and fantastic job of feeding people with great quality food and they also produce fibre and they just get on with it quietly. So much of what they do underpins so many regional economies and that is often underestimated and under-valued as well, in politics. I have enormous respect for my fellow farmers in Australia who are small business people, running commercial enterprises, making tough decisions every day and we need to do what we can to sup-ort them in this place. We cannot lose sight of their value and importance of that to our nation and so I want to ensure we stay focussed on that, at all times.”