Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Breaking rural debt’s shackles”

22 August 2014


There are many graziers and farmers across the nation who would argue that drought and debt are not the biggest problems facing the bush.

There is no doubt communities are being crippled by certain contract agreements with banks and their associated, and oftentimes, unreasonable penalty clauses.

The desperate need for decent summer rain is also destroying confidence, especially in our northern beef industry.

In the repeated rush to roll out knee jerk public policy, we neglect that other ‘D’ word – debate.

And we overlook it to our own peril.

Solid seasons will improve the market. Restructuring debt issues will enable farms to reconfigure their business outlook.

But a lack of clear debate in the rural sector undermines these gains and increases doubt and uncertainty.

When I speak about debate, I am referring to how rural industry and communities collectively work towards generating wealth and prosperity.

I refer to the open exchange of ideas by stakeholders with a shared vested interest.

When debate prospers, the group is able to reach a conclusion or outcome, with each of the participants understanding how this endgame was reached.

This position can then be taken to key decision makers who can act with the knowledge it reflects a majority view.

The fact is we already have this system in place between landholders, peak industry bodies and rural MPs.

A distant observer with no knowledge of agriculture would argue this long standing communication chain should make rural industry a formidable bloc in parliament.

Yet it is difficult to argue that is the case.

Simply put, peak industry bodies are not open and transparent enough with the agriculture sector about their decisions and decisions and landholders have often stopped demanding answers.

As the ongoing Senate Inquiry into Grass-fed Beef Levies has quickly established, many graziers do not trust, nor wish to participate in, their peak industry bodies.

And it is to their own detriment.

I have just completed a week-long tour of Western Queensland, holding meetings in shearing sheds, machinery sheds and community halls between Toowoomba and Mount Isa.

Whether it is kangaroos, wild dogs or access to rail – it becomes glaringly obvious as you travel across western districts speaking with people on the frontlines of industry that we are all in furious agreement that there are significant problems hindering economic growth in agriculture and rural communities.

However, it is less clear what channels of communication are in place that enables the farmer to confidently lobby the rest of his industry mates to push government to bring about change.

Many of the peak industry bodies would struggle to argue, under scrutiny, that they are the true voice on their sector.

From the point of view of the politician in Canberra, it is similarly unclear who government should be speaking to about industry concerns, given the freefalling memberships of peak industry bodies and sheer number of rival splinter groups.

There is also not the necessary coordination between rural politicians and peak industry bodies to actively campaign for public policy.

This hinders the public policy decision making process and further stifles debate for a sector where there are only ever a small handful of politicians that show any interest in rural affairs.

Unless we begin to address these problems with debate and communication in our rural sector, I am concerned that Australia will simply not be prepared to capitalise on the spoils of the Asian Century.

Our geographical proximity to these Asian markets should not be translated to mean these nations will always trade with us.

We need to promote a new debate, which places the cynicism of the past actions behind us.

If our agriculture sector is ever going to be able to service the economic promises we are making in these free trade agreements, we need peak industry bodies that can truly speak on behalf of their sector and can also better coordinate with rural politicians so that we will collectively roll out a swag at the door of any relevant minister’s office and refuse to leave until we have achieved a result.

We need to reenergize these peak industry bodies, through government support and higher participation among landholders, if we are going to confront this battle head on.

We should all be in furious agreement that things cannot go on in their current form.

There are genuine efforts in motion to re-lay these foundations.

However, perhaps the greatest tragedy is that it takes a crisis in debt and drought to begin this important conversation.

While we work on these urgent drought and debt issues confronting the bush, we must also be working to iron out the long term structural and communication creases.

It will take honest and openness from every corner of the sector.

But the stakes are too high for us to not take action.