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Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry
29/01/2016
Agricultural innovation

WEISE, Mr Michael, State Coordinator, Australasia-Pacific Extension Network

[14:47]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Australasia-Pacific Extension Network. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. I now invite you to make an opening statement, and then we will follow that up with some questions.

Mr Weise : Thank you very much. The Australasia-Pacific Extension Network is the peak body for extension professionals across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, and we have a membership organisation that drives the professional capacity building of our members and also advocates for extension across stakeholders to help them understand what extension is. It is often thought of as something that is put on the back of a house, but extension is actually much more complicated than that. Quite simply, if I am at a barbecue and try to explain this thing when people say, 'Oh, what's extension?' I say, 'Well, teachers and lecturers get paid if a student knows something or can do something; an extension professional gets paid if the target group actually change their behaviour.' So they might have to know something and be able to do something, but it is actually the change in behaviour and adoption which is the key ingredient to extension.

I just thought, because you might not have the same set of experiences in the room, I would say that I have been sitting on the board of the Great South Coast Group, which is the equivalent of a committee for Gippsland or a committee for anywhere else that tries to bring all the shires together. So I have a regional development understanding.

CHAIR: This is the RDA committee, is it?

Mr Weise : It is not specifically the RDA committee, but it mirrors the region, in south-west Victoria, and we try to drive a regional strategic plan which is in place for the Great South Coast, as it is called. The other role I have is that of chair of the local TAFE. I have a vocational education background, and that is basically how I ended up in Australia 18 years ago, delivering extension for the government department here in Victoria, after spending seven years teaching in the UK.

That is my introduction. I would like to point out the findings that we put in the paper, but really I am very happy to answer the questions you put to me. Hopefully, I can refer to the agricultural innovation white paper that came out four or five months ago, which put forward a very strong view of extension as part of the innovation system.

CHAIR: I will start off. On page 3 of your submission, you talk about the issue of industries developing their own extension capacity because we have seen all state governments retreat, through their agricultural departments, from what they have done there traditionally, or for 30 or 40 years, I suppose; I do not know what they did before that. It made me reflect on the fact that, for the one that I am most familiar with, which is the GRDC, there is quite an investment in extension already, and there is a thing that operates under the GRDC called farming systems groups—which I think have been a very good innovation—and that is not so different from a group that we were talking about earlier, with the Alpine Valleys dairy project, in that these are groups of farmers covering a geographical area who work together on the problems within the group, with support from GRDC programs. Perhaps they could do better, perhaps we could put more resources into them, but that is certainly a good starting point. So is that what you are talking about, or are you talking about something more like TAFE and that you would bring more than one of these industries into it? So we would not have just the grains industry; we might have Meat and Livestock operating in that space as well.

Mr Weise : I do not know the grains industry that well. In the north of our region, we have grains producers, pulse producers as well, and they have their own Southern Farming Systems group that they pay into, they match some of their funding from GRDC and they manage to drive trials and disperse new information to members.

But one of the things I thought, with that overview I have of our region, is that we actually do not group together the resources for innovation. Regional Development Victoria are very keen to drive innovation in industry across regional Victoria. That pool of resources is not tied in with the department of ag, as it used to be called—it is now the department of economic development. It is not tied in with that. It is not tied in with the RDCs and it is also not tied in with TAFE funding. I heard Michael say earlier, with the place based projects, that you might end up having a regional food-and-fibre industry development plan which included an attempt to pool those resources together and but actually painted a picture of where the innovation might take the whole of the industry in the region, rather than possibly just the single-commodity approach. Anyway, that is a thought.

CHAIR: So it is about formalising relationships between the various industries?

Mr Weise : I think there are a lot of similar—

CHAIR: And trying to form a bigger mass.

Mr Weise : That certainly was one of the recommendations in there, and I would back that up, and most of my colleagues would as well.

Ms McGOWAN: Can I ask a follow-up question. Does that exist—a regional food and fibre development plan?

Mr Weise : G21, which is the area around Geelong, has started to build one, but it is more the small, bespoke businesses that are around Geelong and the peninsula, rather than broadacre, larger commodities. But, no, I am not aware of such a plan.

One thing I would tie into that is that the Regional Australia Institute have recently done some work—I am going to struggle with this—in northern New South Wales somewhere around what the development would be of a particular region if we left it to itself and what it would be if we then drove innovation and better coordination through the industry. That report demonstrated that they would actually be above the average rather than below.

CHAIR: If left alone?

Mr Weise : No, if it was left alone it would be below the bar; if they worked together more and tried to drive innovation it would be above average. I am sorry, I do not have the reference with me.

CHAIR: It would be a very difficult thing to benchmark, wouldn't it, because stuff bleeds in by osmosis whether you like it or not.

Mr Weise : The RAI have managed to do those competitiveness indexes, haven't they, for each of the regions across—

Ms McGOWAN: That is Jack Archer, isn't it?

Mr Weise : Yes, I think so.

Ms McGOWAN: We might just keep an eye on it. I do not know if they did a submission for us—

CHAIR: Not that I am aware of. Jack Archer does not ring a bell.

Mr Weise : If you would like me to send you through the reference for that so you know which region it was, I could do that.

CHAIR: Okay.

Ms PRICE: Given you wear a couple of different hats, Michael, when we were in Wodonga yesterday, we heard from more than one witness that we have a big problem here—we are from the federal government, but, of course, everyone is focusing on the Victorian government—in Victoria. We do not have a car industry anymore and agriculture is going to put us on the map and that is the future for us, but those in the city and the government do not see that. From your perspective, do you agree with that comment? You do not have to answer it—

Mr Weise : In Warrnambool, we had Fletcher Jones and a woollen mill that were very vibrant employers of people and drivers of the economy, and they disappeared, but still people migrate from other parts of Hamilton and the region to Warrnambool. There are reasons for that, because there is a service, but I have councils in our region who put—and I know the figures—$3.3 million a year into tourism, yet nothing into food and fibre. I have a real issue with even the regional communities understanding the value of food and fibre to the regions, let alone people in Melbourne and the bigger cities.

Ms PRICE: This is what we found interesting with the alpine valley group of people we met yesterday—because they have got local government representatives in their steering group. They said it was not just from a tourism perspective but they were understanding the importance of those industries to the health of those communities.

Mr Weise : The issue is that regions do not have an ambassador for food and fibre to advocate for the industry, whereas tourism has an executive officer for the regional tourism board.

Ms PRICE: Is tourism easier somehow? You have got the ocean or the beautiful scenery, which we saw plenty of yesterday. It is just like, 'We've got it; just tell people about it and they'll come.' You just need a few hotels and a good place to eat. A tourism project is just so much easier to sell, as opposed to food and fibre.

Mr Weise : Food and fibre is 60 per cent of our economy in the region. It would be more in other regions, as well. We have the Great Ocean Road going through our region, but I am here to talk about APEN generally.

Ms McGOWAN: One of the things I know about APEN is that it is a national organisation with a bit of the Pacific. I am interested in leadership. One of the big challenges we have as we develop this innovation is the leadership and where it comes from and how we provide it. Could you give us your ideas on leadership from what you have observed about Australian agriculture. It just seems to me that at the extension pointy end you are the reciprocal of the R and the D and everything else and you have got to do a bit of the marketing as well. What observations have you got about how we might move forward, in leadership, in this innovative space?

Mr Weise : I would almost go back to what I just said around regional leadership, the ambassador for the food and fibre industry, because, in a way, if the goal is to increase the value of food and fibre in your region or in the state or in Australia—if you want to do that through innovation—you need to have people producing the food, the processes for innovating and adopting new change and, then, you need the research and development to generate products to push down that tube.

Firstly, you need a good firm view around what it is we are trying to achieve; then, using regional leaders, perhaps through this regional planning scheme, to advocate for the industry; and, then, using extension staff capable of assisting the farmer organisations to take a leadership role in this, because I do not think having somebody from, necessarily, government or an RDC coming in and saying, 'You should be doing this,' is the right way of going about it. You create local groups, learning groups—'participatory groups' is what we describe them as. I have seen a lot of change in my extension career take place through the groups leading themselves, in a way, but it needs the facilitation to happen. The GRDC are quite good at setting up regional groups and they help change the leaders of those groups.

CHAIR: It is a very good extension model. Some are more motivated than others, but it works well. You do not need them everywhere, but they set the pace and others follow. It is good.

Mr Weise : There is a role for leadership in the extension world as there is in the research world. There is a bridge between the two, in the development, but it is important to have the farmer leadership and the regional leadership as well.

CHAIR: The point that you made, and I brought this up with a number of witnesses that came along, about reduced bureaucracy—we hear it all the time: governments need to get out of the road, and this government has had a concentration on trying to reduce red tape, green tape or whatever. On the other hand, we hear people say, 'But we've got a great regulatory system in Australia. It ensures that we have safe food and that we are able to advertise our clean green food overseas and certify it back to the farm gate,' and all those good things that are of benefit. Everybody says 'reduced bureaucracy' but do you have any specifics on where we should focus that attention?

Mr Weise : I have to declare an interest, here. I am, actually, a food auditor. I carry out audits on food. When I am working with farmers, around auditing their properties, I say that the reason we are doing this is to ensure we have a market for our products. You have to pull up a couple of really poor examples of other countries to say, 'That's why we do this.' When it is explained to people, they understand that.

CHAIR: So you do not have any specific for us to tilt at.

Mr Weise : No, I have not. I have not been around with an audit of red tape in government. I am confident you do your best to minimise it.

CHAIR: I am of the same opinion. We need less interference; allow us to get on with things. And yet, often when people say, 'This thing's driving me nuts,' I go, 'It's probably there for a reason.' We talk it through, and I say, 'Write me a letter and tell me what we should get rid of'—and I do not get many of those back.

Mr Weise : No, you wouldn't. Quite often, farmers are very pleased to see you, even though you are an auditor, and they have had to produce some paperwork for you, because it is quite a lonely job being on the farm. I remember when I worked on farms for a number of years—you kind of do believe that people elsewhere have got it really cushy, and you are working hard and nobody else is. Sometimes it is quite easy to paint a picture that you are a bit hard done by and they have all this red tape. Often, if you are a practical person, it is not the paperwork that you are necessarily very skilled at, but you are motivated to be skilled at it, because you would prefer to—

CHAIR: By comparison, I have a 74-page booklet in my office on how to check the exit lights! If there are no further questions, I now declare this public hearing closed.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 05