29/04/2013 - 15:40

Gillard the farmers’ friend

29/04/2013 - 15:40


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The prime minister’s aid package for farmers has carried the day when compared to the Barnett government’s more modest offering.

The occasions on which Prime Minister Julia Gillard has outpointed Premier Colin Barnett – at least in the eyes of Western Australian voters -– have been few and far between.

But the federal government has clearly carried the day on assistance for struggling wheat farmers.

The state's $7.8 million package was modest by any standard. Compared with the Commonwealth's $60 million plan – even allowing for Canberra’s bigger revenue-raising capacity – it looked mean spirited.

Which is surprising given the National Party’s influence within the state government. The Nationals have traditionally looked after farming interests and federal Labor has had a poor rapport with many rural areas.

Maybe it reflects a change in the Nationals' focus as it now divides its attention between agricultural and resources rich electorates. But more about that later.

The state’s $7.8 million assistance package is designed to operate at three levels. First, grants of up to $25,000 are available for farmers who meet strict criteria and are putting in crops. Those leaving the industry can get $20,000 to help with living and transition costs. Rural counselling services and social support services will also be provided in shires hit hardest by drought.

As Mr Barnett and his Liberal Agriculture Minister Ken Baston were being urged to loosen the purse strings, along came Ms Gillard with a more generous $420 million national plan.

It included $60 million in concessional loans to ease debts for WA farmers and encourage investment.

Not surprisingly, the Commonwealth move was much better received, as low interest loans will help farmers put in their crops. The rationale is that the crops will provide the revenue to repay the loans and allow farmers to get back on their feet.

But there is one key proviso – that rain falls at the right time. 

Farming, it seems, has always been a precarious industry in WA. Reliable rainfall is confined to the south-west corner of the state. In many other places its consistency is, at best, fickle.

In the 1960s, coalition ministers were proudly announcing that 1 million acres were being opened up to farming each year. Good on paper, of course, but the reality was that the expansion was into increasingly marginal land. Sadly, these light soil areas are hit hard when rainfall is below average. And that seems more frequent.

I recall about 10 years ago when the eastern parts of the Wheatbelt were stricken by drought well into July.  The prime minister of the day, John Howard, came west to attend the state Liberal Party conference, then flew next day to drought-stricken Lake Grace to speak to farmers.

Miraculously, it started to rain and spirits lifted sharply, coinciding with the Howard visit. It eased the pressure on the Commonwealth to come up with a special package. That’s the luck of the draw.

One question, which must be asked, is how the two assistance packages could be so different?

First, Mr Barnett and Mr Baston went on a fact-finding visit to see what the problems were and to speak to farmers. Their modest package was carefully targeted. But some farmers branded it “an insult”.

On the other hand, just to show you can never please everybody, NSW Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, while acknowledging that the federal package would provide some relief, added that “it does not go far enough”.

Senator Sinodinos also queried the presence of maverick Queensland MP Bob Katter at the federal announcement and whether the government was seeking to “cosy up to Mr Katter”.

With the election less than five months away, that, of course, is possible. His preferences could be very handy.

One of the features of the WA decision has been the low profile of the Nationals. Eyebrows were first raised when the Nationals lost the agriculture portfolio, previously a non-negotiable role, to the Liberals, after the March election.

When I mentioned this to a retired Nationals minister, he seemed surprised. “Best thing that could have happened,” was his response. “It means you don't have to attend any more of those ‘misery’ meetings when times are tough.”

There might have been an element of jest in his comments. But it could also reflect that the portfolio is less significant than in the past, and that the Nationals have broader horizons after winning resources seats, such as Pilbara and Kalgoorlie, for the first time.

Another factor is the federal poll. While the Gillard government’s prospects are being widely written off, Labor will not go down without a fight. And a generous aid package for farmers could be thought of favourably in the party’s regional seats on the eastern seaboard on polling day.

Ironically, that's good news for WA farmers doing it tough in regional areas where Labor voters tend to be few and far between.

Especially, when Nationals leader Brendon Grylls says it’s not the state’s job to bail out battling businesses.


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