05/12/2006 - 22:00

Nanny state killing the bush

05/12/2006 - 22:00

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State Scene has a rather soft spot for Western Australia’s, indeed Aust-ralia’s, farmers, farming communities, rural townships, and most things associated with rural economic life.

State Scene has a rather soft spot for Western Australia’s, indeed Aust-ralia’s, farmers, farming communities, rural townships, and most things associated with rural economic life.

A major reason for this is that agricultural endeavour played such a key early and ongoing role in the emergence and development of a modern Australia.

Another is that most of my childhood and all my teenage years were spent in a central Wheatbelt town that is, unfortunately, now a quarter or less the size it was then.

However, this sentimental predisposition hasn’t meant aspects of farming activity are immune from criticism.

For instance, State Scene has for years criticised the fact that WA’s farm belt – that huge triangular tract of land between Geraldton, Esperance and Augusta, the South West Land Division  – hasn’t been systematically surveyed geologically so that extensive, as opposed to iddy-biddy, mining proceeds.

There’s no reason mining should only be a dominant sector in the regions beyond the South West Land Division, that is, the Kimberley, Pilbara, Mid-West and Goldfields.

Farming organisations and their backers, including the National Party and the Liberal Party’s rural wing, have played key roles in blocking the emergence of mining employment and wealth-creating ventures, moves that have contributed significantly to the overall ongoing decline of WA’s rural townships.

It’s worth noting that the Wheatbelt has mineral resources worth extracting, including talcum at Three Springs, oil and gas in Dongara and environs, mineral sands in the South West, and gold at Lake Grace.

Gold was also found near Katanning; gemstones are known to exist in still-undetermined quantities in the Dowerin area; high-quality quartz exists at Gabbin; and platinum near New Norcia.

What else beyond an abundance of salt and gypsum WA’s farm or wheat/sheep belt may have remains unknown primarily because of long-standing farmer opposition to mineral exploration across homestead or back paddocks.

That said, it’s important to take cognisance of the fact that our farming sector – non-coastal population centres – have been battling the odds on several other fronts, ones generally ignored by city slicker suburban-based politicians and one-eyed activists.

This point was recently driven home to State Scene by Louise Staley, a research fellow with Melbourne’s Institute of Public Policy.

Ms Staley has published an essay titled, How to Destroy a Country Town, in which she highlights a series of overlooked impediments for rural communities.

She says farmers and farming communities are being stifled by a vast array of regulations.

“Restrictions on farming practices, from native vegetation laws to limitations on pest and animal management, to bans on GMOs, are limiting the capacity of Australia’s farmers to compete globally against heavily protected competitors and emerging agricultural powerhouses who operate without restrictions,” Ms Staley says.

“Compliance costs are now so high that farming families no longer have the time to participate in community groups in the way they once did.”

A major outcome of the vicious circle of pre-occupation with regulations is the reduction of services available to rural communities, such as “emergency services, informal mental health support and additional facilities”.

Little wonder a recent government report concluded Australian farmers “are showing signs of becoming increasingly subject to regulatory control” with this negatively impacting upon farm viability.

And the Productivity Commission has released several reports criticising what Ms Staley calls the nature and level of regulation.

“Over the past 20 years, the deregu-lation of the Australian economy and the removal of many cross-subsidies have had significant impacts on rural Australia,” she says.

“Reforms such as the removal of tariffs and the floating of the dollar brought strong gains for primary producers.

“However, there has also been a net reduction of hospitals, schools, local councils, banks, supermarkets and rural services.”

The major reason for such departures, State Scene hastens to add, is, of course, population decline; and it’s because of this that I’ve urged geological surveying of WA’s farmlands.

If workforces were boosted then township populations would rise in occupations other than farming.

Large numbers of statutory marketing bodies have been abolished “and with them, minimum farm gate pricing in dairy, eggs and other commodities”, according to Ms Staley.

Ms Staley says a typical farmer now needs licences or certifications for “chemical handling, gun ownership, heavy vehicle operation, moving farm machinery on roads, baiting foxes and rabbits, rabbit warren ripping, fire break and stubble burning, and dam and bore construction.”

That’s a hefty list.

“There are regulations specific to the dairying, cropping and livestock industries, such as cage sizes for chickens, the banning of GMO crops, and restrictions on live export of sheep and cattle,” she says.

 

“To add to this are the native vegetation regulations, which require new plantings of trees, sometimes in the ratio of 40 to every one old tree removed.”

All these are costs and burdens to farmers and rural communities, which they bear, and presumably the public benefits at no public cost.

“Rural communities suffer a triple whammy: lower, or more variable prices for what they produce, fewer local services, and a marked increase in regulation,” Ms Staley says.

And this growth in regulation cuts into the time available for participation in voluntary community groups.

Farmers are too busy finding out if they are complying, worrying they may not have complied, and being bogged down under a mountain of paperwork.

Ms Staley focuses upon rural fire-fighting activities, which have traditionally been a voluntary service.

“In the past, most farming men were members of their local brigade, as were their wives,” she says. “Usually, men fought the fires and women operated the base stations, prepared and delivered food and drink, and acted as treasurers or secretary of the brigade.

“Two regulatory changes have had a profound impact on this model.

“First, all fire fighters need to obtain minimum skills certification by attending a six-week course and passing a test which does not recognise prior fire-fighting knowledge and skills.

“Second, food-handling rules have eliminated the role of the Country Women’s Association and Red Cross groups in preparing food for the fire fighters.

“The women can no longer take food out to the fire because they haven’t done the minimum skills training.

“Now, to put on a luncheon, at least one person must be a licensed food handler and bakers of goodies for cake stalls have to list the ingredients in order of magnitude on the labels, in the same way that multinationals like Nestle do with their products in the supermarket.

“While labelling a cake may appear minor, the woman doing it probably now works part-time off-farm for additional income, does the books for the farm, including the GST, Workcover, and superannuation paperwork, and may work in the fields, particularly at harvest time, driving the header or moving field bins.

“The cake label could well be the proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ in causing her not to go to the effort of baking.”

Ms Staley accepts that scrapping regulations is difficult since there will always be someone defending retention.

That said, she says that, as a first step, community minded policy makers should “recognise explicitly that their regulations can have unintended consequences, and may in fact constitute the latest and most deadly attack on rural communities”.

State Scene chooses to highlight these examples so our state politicians, and/or city-based activists who put demands upon politicians to further regulate farming, cease doing so or think twice before urging imposition of ever more controls via state parliament.

It’s easy to scream and shout loudly for imposition of greater controls over people living far, far away, who are attempting to make a living.

But such screaming and shouting imposes costs in time and effort upon those distant battlers who the screamers and shouters rarely appreciate.

One reason Ms Staley’s essay struck a chord was that, having been a farm labourer for several years, I inevitably experienced the implementation end of over-regulation.

True, that’s more years ago than one cares to recall, but it appears the intervening decades have resulted in such matters becoming even more onerous for those seeking to make a living from the land.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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