Sunday, May 05, 2013

Helping WA's Farmers: Here's One Suggestion.

Immediately after the March 9 state election, re-elected Premier Colin Barnett stated his desire to pay more attention to the plight of WA's farmers, many of whom were doing badly. Low milk prices, poor seasonal conditions, restrictions on the live animal trade, high labour costs, competition for labour with the mining industry, an aging farm population, loss of services as rural populations decline: clearly, many farmers were finding it hard to make a profit.

I don't have answers to all of the problems facing our farmers, but one issue has been quietly ignored by successive governments. I explained this issue and provided a solution in an email I sent to the Premier on April 10. I have yet to receive an acknowledgement or a reply, so I have to ask if the government is really serious about helping farmers. Here's what I said to the Premier:

Attention: Premier Colin Barnett
cc: Hon Albert Jacob, Minister for the Environment

Dear Premier,

May I congratulate you on your strong win at the March 9 election? It's pleasing that you have a clear majority in the Legislative Assembly to allow you to govern without the uncertainties that currently exist in our federal Parliament.

In recent weeks, you have made public statements of support for farmers who are doing it tough in the wheatbelt. I wish to raise with you an issue that is a legacy of the Gallop government and which is causing significant financial harm to a small group of genuine farmers throughout the south west land division of WA.

One of the great injustices arising from the time of the Gallop government during its term from 2001 to 2005 was the clearing ban imposed on private property owners in WA. As you are aware, I was the shadow minister for the environment at the time and I was basically lied to by the then environment minister Judy Edwards who said the ban would have a low impact on the farming community. By the time the extent and impact of the ban became clear in about 2004, I had resigned from the Liberal Party for reasons that I'm also sure you're well aware of. Nonetheless, the fact remains that between 50 and 200 farmers have from 25 to 75% of individual farming properties covered in native vegetation and hence incapable of providing them with an economic return on the financial investment they or their predecessors made when purchasing the land.

The problem therefore is three-fold. First, these 50 to 200 farmers are unable to earn an income from land for which the owners had a reasonable expectation of being able to turn into economically productive farms at the time of purchase.

Second, if these farmers are attempting to manage their areas of native vegetation to protect environmental values, they are paying money out of their own pockets to protect assets which were determined by the Gallop government and hence, by implication, all successive governments including your own, to provide public benefits.

Third, if these farmers are unable or unwilling to allocate money to adequately manage the bushland remaining on their properties, then the public of WA are losing environmental values from native vegetation which an act of Parliament had deemed to be worthy of protection by imposing a ban on clearing.

It is my understanding that, of the 50 to 200 farmers seriously disadvantaged by clearing bans, many (possibly a majority) are in the midlands area along the Swan Coastal Plain between Gingin and Dongara. However, a significant number are in the central and eastern wheatbelt where financial pressures are the greatest.

I believe the Royalties for Regions program is ideally suited to paying compensation to this relatively small number of farmers affected by the clearing ban. Your government, possibly through a Parliamentary committee, could urgently investigate the seriousness of this issue with a view to buying from aggrieved farmers those parcels of bushland which are currently a financial millstone around their necks. Clearly, some minimum conditions would need to be imposed on such land purchases, for example, the minimum area of bushland on an individual property title would need to be at least 50 hectares and would need to constitute at least 25% of the area of the property. The option of paying these farmers an amount of money per hectare to manage their bushland should also need to be considered, together with a government subsidy to fence off bushland from productive farmland, recognising that fencing is undoubtedly the largest cost facing the owners of bushland on private properties. It may even be desirable for government to buy suitable parcels of bushland affected by the clearing ban and then pay adjoining farmers to manage the bushland on an on-going basis.

To act now to correct this injustice will be seen by the WA community as a decisive, fair and positive way of helping farmers in need, while also protecting the environmental values of remnant bushland in farming areas that have generally been extensively cleared over the past 100 years.

I commend this suggestion to you.


Bernie Masters
Member for Vasse 1996-2005

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