Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Pollies: step up or step out”

25 July 2014

There’s an old joke about an investigator from the Federal Department of Employment arriving at a farm following claims the grazier wasn’t paying proper wages.

The investigator drives through the gate to the homestead, where the grazier has just pulled up for smoko.

“I need a list of your employees and how much you pay them,” the investigator says.

“Let me think,” the old grazier replies. “There are my stockmen who have been with me for six years. I pay them $900 a week plus free room and board.

“There is the cook who has been here for 18 months. I pay her $700 a week with free room and board.

“Then there’s the half-wit who works 19 hours a day and does about 90 per cent of the work. He makes $10 per week, pays his own room and board and I buy him a bottle of rum every Friday night.”

‘”The half-wit!” exclaims the investigator. “That’s the bloke I want to talk to!”

The old grazier wipes the sweat from his brow and tilts his head towards the investigator.

“Well, old mate, that would be me!”

The joke for many is art imitating life.

Life on the land is getting harder and harder for family partnerships and small corporate enterprises.

It is not uncommon to hear some weary landholders say they don’t expect their sons or daughters to remain in the family business.

Even that joke about the old grazier is now probably showing its age. These days it’s harder to find graziers that can afford to employ anybody.

Instead, more often than not, it is family members pulling the extra weight – the kids on break from school; the grandparents who have already battled costly succession planning; or the wife who somehow manages to juggle farm work with home duties and a job in-town.

Commentators have long predicted the decline of the family farm. Yet the agriculture sector has managed to defy the odds with each passing decade.

Despite the fact that iron ore and coal have long surpassed wool and wheat as the guideposts for Australia’s economic direction, agriculture is increasingly returning to the forefront of economic public policy.

There is some speculation that suggests economic growth in Asia – which will push the continent to account for as much as 70 per cent of global middle class food and fibre consumption by 2050 – will bring additional revenues of $710 billion (in 2011 dollars) to Australia over the next four decades.

These are very encouraging figures. But the earning capacity of each farming family will only increase if the sector’s foundations and fundamentals are strong.

The new Senate has generated a lot of commentary and headlines this month as it tests out its new found notoriety.

But once the upper house wakes from this media bender, will it be the electorate left with the hangover?

Having sat in the parliament for the past fortnight, it is concerning to think there is an increasing potential that the apparent instability in the new-look Federal Senate could entangle the process of government in bureaucratic brinkmanship.

As each piece of legislation is blocked by a Senatorial Mexican standoff and each major government decision is scuffed by prolonged debate, so too are the intended cost savings for the small business and household budget.

This is wasted time that the average farming family cannot afford. For my money, this is a pox on our own house.

Rural debt has skyrocketed 75 per cent in less than a decade and farm gate returns are in alarming decline. No week goes by without some rumour of more properties unable to be re-financed.

The times call for swift and pragmatic policy that focusses on tangible outcomes. The public are sick to their back teeth of politicians not doing our job.

It will be difficult for my new Senate colleagues, of all political persuasions, to not become ensnared by the political grandstanding and power plays that is actively applauded by the Canberra press gallery.

But Australian voters are tired of personality and ego driven politics.

The majority of those among the new Senate crossbench have politically-conservative leanings – some have rural knowledge – and it is these individuals who should respect the clear mandate delivered by the electorate.

Antagonistic attitudes and obstructionist politics will only further strain the hip pockets of farmers at a time when their budgets are already at breaking point.

And rural Australians will neither forgive nor forget such political games when they next cast their vote.

I say to my colleagues, right across the chamber – do your job or do the nation a favour, and go home.