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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21447

Senator FERRIS (6:12 PM) —This year the National Farmers Federation celebrates its 25th anniversary, a quarter of a century as the single national voice of Australian agriculture. The creation of the NFF in July 1979 was the culmination of a very long quest by Australian farmers for unity. In fact, before the NFF was formed, a federal government of the day could choose any one of 26 farmer representative bodies. Tonight I would like to reflect on the 25 years of the NFF, the importance of farmers speaking with one voice at a national level, and the significant achievements that the NFF has made during its life.

Former president Donald McGauchie in his foreword to Tom Connors's book To Speak with One Voice wrote:

The history of farm organisations is the history of Australia.

I agree. The history of farm organisations is inextricably intertwined with our political, economic and social history. Politically active farm organisations in Australia originated about the time of the great shearers strikes and the growing militancy of bush unions during the late 1800s. The Pastoralists Federal Council, the first federal farmers organisation, was created in 1890. Farm organisations evolved during the formation of the nation at the time of Federation when centralised wage fixation and the protection of Australian industry behind large tariff barriers defined the national economic environment. Farmer organisations participated in the creation of the Country Party but subsequently moved away from direct affiliation. For most of the 20th century the defining feature for the politically active agricultural communities was sadly not unity but division. Up until the creation of the National Farmers Federation no single unified voice for Australia's primary industry existed. In fact, the divisions that existed between the `farmers' and the `graziers' extended well back into the 1800s. This divide was very deeply rooted and some may say those tensions still exist to some extent today.

That division was based on social and educational differences and encapsulated quite differing approaches to economic issues such as pricing and protection. Tom Connors notes in his book on the National Farmers Federation that the extent of the divide left many observers of rural Australia in the 1960s and 1970s to conclude that a united voice for agricultural Australia was in fact an impossibility. This inability to speak with one voice was identified from an early stage as a great disadvantage for the farming community, especially in contrast to the well-organised and largely unified trade union movement. In fact, Tom Connors recalls Labor Prime Minister William Morris Hughes in February 1918 telling a group of wheat growers of the need for a unified voice. He said:

I can bring into one room three men who represent all the labour of Australia ... I have preached to labour the necessity for organisation ... and the wheat industry like every other, must save itself by organisation.

How true. But, despite this division, the desire for a unified voice remained, and in 1979 the National Farmers Federation was born. Tonight I would like to pay tribute to the work of those who turned this need for unity into a reality and to some of the significant milestones achieved by its leaders over the last 25 years. During the 1980s and 1990s the National Farmers Federation was a key participant in the national push to deregulate the Australian economy. Successive NFF presidents, such as former defence minister the Hon. Ian McLachlan, were a driving force in the push for economic reform. Connors quotes the Business Review Weekly that wrote in 1984 that Ian McLachlan has `lifted the power of the rural lobby ... to a stage where the federation is a powerful intellectual force in the national debate'.

I joined the National Farmers Federation in 1984, three weeks after Ian McLachlan was elected president. I remember the day well, and I am very grateful for the opportunities that working with that very talented team offered me. My personal recollections include the 25 legal actions which were required to break the draconian tally system in the meat industry and to enable workers at the Mudginberri Station meatworks the opportunity to negotiate directly with their employer and not with a union official hundreds of kilometres away in Brisbane. I shall never forget the look on the face of Jack O'Toole from the meatworkers union as he confronted the clear possibility of a final court judgment that broke not only the tally system but the financial base of this very inflexible union itself. It was a milestone indeed for the meat industry and of course for Australia as well.

It was perhaps the Mudginberri meat dispute and the live sheep dispute a year or two earlier that led former President of the ACTU and then Prime Minister Bob Hawke to comment of president Ian McLachlan that he was the toughest man he had ever negotiated with and that farmers were very fortunate to have him negotiate on their behalf. And who in the farming community will ever forget that crisp winter's day in 1985 when more than 40,000 farming families came to Canberra to protest at the Hawke government's tax summit where the wheels fell so spectacularly off Paul Keating's GST tax cart? There is no doubt that the last 25 years have shown just what can be achieved by farmers when they speak with one voice.

One of the most consistent policies advocated by farmers over the years has been that of fairer and freer trade—fairer and freer next week than last week. The formation of the Cairns Group of free trade advocates during my term at the NFF was an important achievement and one which has grown in both stature and membership since 1985. How puzzling, then, that the National Farmers Federation leadership should have expressed disappointment in their first press release when the free trade deal was announced between Australia and the United States. What on earth would the dairy industry, the livestock industry, the horticultural industry, the fishing industry and the wine industry say to such a statement, particularly when a senior National Farmers Federation executive was in the negotiating team? Let's get it straight: 97 per cent of all manufactured exports will enter America from Australia duty free on day one and 66 per cent of all agricultural products will be at the zero tariff rate from day one—a deal worth billions to our agricultural primary producers and exporters. Disappointment indeed! As a member of the Senate's committee selected to investigate this historic and great agreement, I am looking forward to discussing the NFF's claimed disappointment when the federation appears before the committee.

Perhaps one of the great milestones of more recent years, certainly since I have represented South Australia in this place, has been the reform of our waterfront. I would particularly like to recognise the leadership of my old friend Paul Houlihan and the former president Donald McGauchie in leading the evolution, if not the revolution, on our coastline which has given Australia among the most efficient waterfront terminals in the world.

The National Farmers Federation has also been an important nurturing place for both professional and support staff. Two colleagues of mine, the Hon. Ian McLachlan and former senator Winston Crane, served the Australian parliament in distinguished capacities, and a number of administrative staff are now in senior positions in this parliament. The former Federal Director of the Liberal Party and strategist for the victorious 1996 campaign, Andrew Robb, is a former senior executive; and David Trebeck, a senior economic consultant in Canberra, is also a former executive. They are colleagues and they are friends.

For 25 years the NFF has represented Australia's farmers at the peak level across Australia, and perhaps it is true and appropriate that they represent a group of individuals who have been fundamental to our history, our culture and our prosperity: Australia's farming families, who endure the joys and heartbreaks of life on the land for the benefit of all Australians. (Time expired)