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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
10/10/2008
Natural resource management and conservation challenges

CHAIR —Welcome. Before we go to questions, do either of you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr McMillan —Perhaps I could just make a brief statement just to overview the submission, which was fairly brief in its own right.

CHAIR —Yes, if you would, please.

Mr McMillan —A general statement to start is that we are extremely supportive of the NRM process. We are equally as supportive of the regional NRM process as it operates in Western Australia. We have a bit of an issue with funding to projects that clearly provide defined outcomes. It makes it very difficult for us when we approach the state treasurer come budget-time to convince him to continue matching funding or however the formula is worked if we cannot demonstrate something that has been happening on the ground. From our point of view as a stakeholder representative body, we would like to see improved communications from the NRM groups so that we are more aware of what they are doing, what they are achieving and what problems they are having. Certainly, there is a real need to recognise that there is a decline in volunteerism across the state, and I suggest probably across the nation, in rural areas. That is creating problems for everyone in the whole food chain of NRM, including ourselves. I will leave it there.

CHAIR —Thank you. While we are talking about depopulation of our rural centres and rural areas, just very briefly can you explain to us why there is or has been a depopulation?

Mr McMillan —Why there is a depopulation?

CHAIR —Yes.

Mr McMillan —In my view, it is the profitability or the terms of trade of farming really in Western Australia. As you are probably aware, we do not have big country towns like the eastern states do, especially New South Wales and Victoria. We are limited fairly much to only a couple of large country towns. They are not self-sustaining and are very much dependent on the agricultural sectors to keep them going. As I have said to other people, farmers are actually the best at depopulating the country areas, because they just keep buying the next-door neighbour’s property. The next-door neighbour leaves and they do not employ anybody else to take over, and so you just get efficiencies and larger scale farms. It is something I lament and I do not like to see. But until we change or even get another income source, I can see it continuing down the line. But at some stage we are going to have to hit the roof somewhere, I think.

CHAIR —I do appreciate your answer. It is not very often that we do hear that. Farmers are becoming far more efficient, too—with bigger machinery and so on. Thank you for that. Just before I go to other senators, I do not make it a habit of asking too many questions, as I like the senators to have as much time as they can. But, Mr McMillan, as part of the introduction to your submission you are quite critical of the limited time you were given to provide a submission. How long did you actually have?

Mr McMillan —Two days from when we got the formal notice.

CHAIR —I just want to be clear. This was referred to the Senate on 26 June. I am of the belief that it was about a week after when we went into print requesting submissions. Normally the secretary is very efficient in contacting concerned groups. Two days from, what, yesterday or today?

Mr McMillan —The letter we received from Jeanette Radcliffe was dated 6 August. We received it on 12 August, with submissions due on the 14th. I rang Jeanette when we got it and I made it very clear that I did not want to be shooting the messenger in that regard, because I am well aware of the shortage of resources that your committees operate under. But we are in the same boat. As much as anything, it was probably an expression of frustration on my own behalf. At that stage I had 10 submissions due by the end of August and to get lumped with another one with two days notice is a big ask.

CHAIR —I will come to the defence of the committee, because they are such a hardworking and diligent bunch. There is no doubt about that. But it did strike me that we do not get that too often.

Mr McMillan —That is why I rang Jeanette, to explain the comment.

CHAIR —In that case we will have to get our Green colleagues to stop all these references from coming to the committee so we can catch up. I do not have to introduce Senator Adams; she is probably one of your members. I will hand to Senator Siewert.

Senator SIEWERT —I am interested to hear your comments in terms of the WA Farmers Federation Australia supporting the regional delivery of NRM. I presume therefore that that is the approach of the regional groups?

Mr McMillan —That is correct.

Senator SIEWERT —It seems to me that one of the things we may risk with Caring for our Country is that we have a de-emphasis on the regional approach, because it is—and you have just heard us talking about it—going to be a competitive approach to NRM from now on. You also say in your submission that you do not have a lot of information on the Caring for our Country program. I suppose this is a double-barrelled question. Do you have any concerns about the new arrangements in terms of what they may mean for regional delivery? But I suppose overarching that is: what discussions have you had with the government about the new program?

Mr McMillan —I have probably learnt more in the last five minutes of the previous witnesses than I learnt leading up to that, because all we had literally seen in our office was the information coming out of DAFF in Canberra. We are having a briefing below representatives from the NRM groups and the ag department next week.

Senator SIEWERT —That is at state?

Mr McMillan —At a state level. We will certainly be a lot wiser at the end of it. One of the frustrations that I have always found in dealing with NRM is that the more people you ask about how a program works the more different answers you get. When we get members ringing us saying that they have seen another young bloke in a white ute driving around and they wonder what the hell he is doing out there, it is very hard for us to provide an answer. This is the whole communication thing. It makes a rod for our backs because I do not need any more work, but we really need to be better informed so that we can address the concerns of our members when they are raised with us.

Senator SIEWERT —Whose responsibility do you say it is to keep you informed? Is it the NRM groups, the state government, the Commonwealth or a combination of the above?

Mr McMillan —A combination of all of the above, I would suggest. The thought that I have had leading into this is that it would not be such a bad idea, I would imagine, that once or twice a year all of these regional NRM groups would get together in Perth to talk about their programs and the issues they are having. It would not be that hard to have a half-day stakeholder forum.

Senator SIEWERT —I have just heard Senator Adams say—and I thought this from experience—that they do, but if they do obviously they are not telling you and you are not being invited to that?

Mr McMillan —That is right, yes. We get glossy publications from time to time that give us an idea of what they are doing, but it is not the level of detail that we need to actually respond to members’ problems.

Senator SIEWERT —The point there is that there needs to be more active engagement with producer organisations?

Mr McMillan —We would certainly appreciate that.

Senator SIEWERT —Some of the issues that have been raised today have gone a lot to the lack of consultation or lack of information around Caring for our Country, and your submission says the same thing. I know that you have just said that you are meeting with the NRM groups, but some of the NRM groups still are not clear about it, I do not think. To be fair, all of the arrangements for Caring for our Country have not been bedded down yet. That is a mild understatement. You have had no specific dialogue, though, with the Commonwealth about Caring for our Country?

Mr McMillan —No.

Senator SIEWERT —Did you ever have that with NHT1, NHT2 and MAT?

Mr McMillan —That is probably a little bit before my time.

Mr Park —I think the whole introduction of Caring for Country has been quite bad because, as you have just reiterated, we certainly on the ground still do not know what the structure is going to be and how it is going to go. Disruption is being caused by not having funding for a year. I think one of you asked the last speakers, ‘What’s going to happen if you don’t get any money?’ I think they have already experienced that and will do until the next lot of money from Caring for Country comes through. I think the state has had to pick up some of that. For the whole NRM—and I first remember it from about 1978, 1975, when we started doing these sorts of things, forming catchment councils and that sort of thing—the enthusiasm has waned because I think probably increased cynicism has crept in. Certainly we were all a bit wide eyed and idealistic when we started off in the mid or late seventies. Andy mentioned volunteerism earlier. People are getting tired of volunteering, I suspect. In relation to your question earlier about depopulation, one of the things that is happening in country areas is everybody is getting tired because they are doing more and more, and not only on the farm; there are fewer people to run football clubs and community organisations. NRM is no different from any of them. The thing that keeps that enthusiasm going is some sort of success. There has been some success, but especially through the first NHT tranche the nitpicking that went on about private and public good really did sap a lot of enthusiasm for that sort of thing. We had a fair bit of nitpicking on, ‘Oh, well, if you’re going to get a private benefit out of this, we’re not going to be able to do it.’ When we actually analysed NRM and keeping things going for heritage-type things, almost by definition there is going to be a private good for farmers to be doing some of this NRM-type work. That really did sap a lot of enthusiasm.

Senator SIEWERT —What forums do your organisations and farmers then have to actually communicate that to government?

Mr McMillan —I guess part of my role is looking after all the environmental aspects of farming. I sit on a dozen various stakeholder reference groups around Perth. I have been to Colin Heinzman on a quarterly basis. I have not had a chance to talk to Colin about it specifically, but certainly Dale’s predecessor, Garry English, who would be pretty well known to most of the people here—

Senator SIEWERT —I know Garry well.

Mr McMillan —Garry was very passionate about the whole thing, and we still maintain a level of contact and I know that he is still involved in the process. Without having that direct input, we are getting it in through the side door, but not a lot appears to be happening once it is getting in there.

Mr Park —But just on a general basis, farmers are more and more bombarded by information from everywhere, and NRM is just one of those. We are getting more and more on marketing and we are getting more and more on all sorts of regulations that we have to do. The round filing system is used fairly regularly on the stuff that comes into farmers’ houses. A lot of it does not get read. A lot is printed and a lot of people are putting time into putting glossies out and that sort of thing. Farmers are probably worse than most but then they have probably got more to read. I often say to Andy, ‘If you want us to read it as farmers, keep it to one paragraph.’ I get a hell of a lot of stuff through my post that is pages and pages long. The best you do on it is you flick through it and, if something catches your attention, you read it. The information overload is quite incredible.

CHAIR —I take it that the round filing system is normally the green one with wheels on it—the filing cabinet?

Mr Park —That is the one. That is the reality. Unfortunately, that is what we have to come to grips with. All of those—as I was saying before about those groups and the lack of people—are trying to get their message out to fewer and fewer people, which means more and more information for each of those people, and they do not have the capacity to take it in.

Senator SIEWERT —I suppose it is then: how does government best canvass your views or get information to you? It is sort of like a catch-22, isn’t it?

Mr Park —It is.

Senator SIEWERT —On one hand—and I am not having a go—there is the comment, ‘Well, we don’t have enough information about Caring for our Country’, but then it is being binned. What is the best way for government to get your views and your input on what is absolutely essential? You cannot deliver Caring for our Country without having farmer input.

Mr McMillan —Send it through the office to me I guess is the easiest way and then I will break it down into one paragraph that Dale needs to digest.

Senator SIEWERT —So, communicating through the various federations and—

Mr McMillan —Yes, absolutely, through the head office. Our communication approach for our members is pretty effective. So, yes, if it comes in through the head office we can do a précis on the information that comes through and make sure that it is communicated.

Senator SIEWERT —I take it to date from your comment that that has not happened for Caring for our Country?

Mr McMillan —No. We are obviously hopeful that, as Caring for our Country is bedded down, it will happen. But it does concern us because at the moment all we have is speculation. I have members who are on the regional NRM groups ringing me up and saying, ‘Well, do you know what’s in it? Do you know how this is going to impact us?’ This is what I am hearing.’ That is the last thing I enjoy hearing. This is what I am hearing. It is reds under the bed stuff, which is very hard to deal with.

Senator SIEWERT —Is it just a matter of information giving or would you prefer to be involved in a dialogue about how the program will be delivered?

Mr McMillan —I think dialogue is important up front so that you have the face-to-face experience with it. I would cite an example of when the regional NRM groups were first put on board there was a day-long session down at Fremantle that we attended. It was absolutely mind-blowing the amount of information that was put across there. Even the NRM groups staggered to comprehend it all, because at the end of it they were all asked for their opinion. Virtually to a man they stood up and said, ‘Well, look, this is all good stuff, but we’re actually going to need a lot of help to manage this.’ That is the last big engagement that I have actually been involved in with this whole process.

Senator SIEWERT —How long ago was that?

Mr Hills —Whenever the NRM groups were established.

Senator SIEWERT —Was that the one in the Tradewinds?

Mr McMillan —No, I reckon it was down at one of the yacht clubs.

Mr Park —It would have been a while ago.

Mr McMillan —It was.

Senator SIEWERT —You have made a comment in your submission that WA farmers is confident that the existing NRM model will be able to deliver the new program. Are you therefore saying that you think the NRM model is developed enough that it is mature enough to be able to engage?

Mr McMillan —I guess the comment there is more in relation to our knowledge of the people concerned in the process. I would know a member a member or two from all of the groups, and they are all very capable people in the NRM field. We have confidence in that process.

Senator SIEWERT —I do not think you were here at the beginning of the discussion we were having with Mr Heinzman and Mr Hills. There are two things. You were here for the competitive tendering. The other thing is that the state governments do not have to be matching funds any more; tenderers do not have to do matching funds. I am interested in your opinion about that. Secondly, what in your opinion should happen if regional groups are not successful in their tenders?

Mr McMillan —That would really exacerbate one of the major problems with community engagement, which is the discontinuation of funding. In between funding rounds that level drops off and people walk away because they are not being funded. They do not come back. What you are proposing or what is being proposed under Caring for our Country is going to make that a whole lot worse. I do not know the strength of character of a lot of the administrators, like Damien, I guess, as to how long before the frustration gets to them, but I could see that as being an absolute nightmare, particularly given the resource issues of competing against government agencies. That is one of the common threads that have come from farmers who are engaged in the NRM process; there is far too much money going to support government agencies and it is being taken up in administration costs as opposed to hitting the ground and actually demonstrating something useful. All I am seeing in what was discussed earlier on is a formalisation of the current process that is really a hindrance to good outcomes and gives the government an excuse down the track to actually walk away because they cannot see evidence on the ground.

Senator SIEWERT —Have you ever been engaged in the bilateral process?

Mr McMillan —We have been briefed on the process. Yes, in the lead-up to the last rounding for NAP/NHT we were briefed as to how the negotiations were being progressed by both state and federal people, but we have never been actively engaged in the process and, to be honest with you, I am not too sure that we would want to be.

CHAIR —Senator Adams, do you have any questions?

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I do. Congratulations, firstly, on your new appointment.

Mr McMillan —Thank you.

Senator ADAMS —Mr McMillan has been appointed as the new chief executive officer of the Western Australian Farmers Federation.

CHAIR —So you do know how much she owes in—

Mr McMillan —No. She employs my wife now, so I am quite happy with that arrangement.

Senator ADAMS —Moving on. I was going to actually mention that. She is a very good employee. The South West Catchment Council gave evidence earlier. I do not know that you caught up with the first part of their evidence?

Mr McMillan —No.

Senator ADAMS —Having come from a small community that is very involved, I know there are six subregions in that South West Catchment Council, and there are a lot of problems from the grassroots people, as you were saying, especially coming from Kojonup; it is the same people in the same things who are trying to do the same projects. But with the new Caring for our Country these projects are obviously going to be cut back and they are going to focus on much larger projects. Then, of course, we have this competitive tendering. A number of these organisations are very concerned. But the south west catchment has agreed that it will do a review to find out exactly how it can deal with its subregions. I would hate to see some of these projects getting tipped over, because there are some very good projects and some very good people, as Mr Park has alluded to, dealing with these particular projects. But if they are not funded they cannot keep going. The feeling in that area is that a large number of staff are employed by the south west catchment, the council, in administration and the money is going into that rather than going back into on-the-ground projects. I have a letter from one of them commenting on that. My question to you is: how are you going to keep the communication up or really get yourselves focused with these groups, with the larger councils? I think it is really important that you do. Your newsletter that comes out every week—and the one paragraph—that is really good; it does not take long to read that one page. I certainly appreciate it because it gives me a good overview of what has going on during the week in the rural areas. Somehow you are going to have to get a process or someone within your office to be able to work with this as it is being bedded down. Will you be able to do that?

Mr McMillan —I have no doubt that we can do it. It is simply a matter of having the information. You are quite right that the Friday Beyond the Farm Gate is our most effective communication tool with our members. You have probably noticed over time that we will put in a plug, if you like, for a particular group or a particular project happening somewhere. It is simply a matter of having the information coming in from the groups and we can disseminate it, either in short detail there, and we have the page in the Farm Weekly, or we have regular commodity updates and through our normal zone process.

CHAIR —Is that information supplied only to your members or to the whole farming community?

Mr McMillan —Only to our members.

Senator ADAMS —I still get it, though.

CHAIR —I was just going to say that I am not quite sure how Senator Adams comes by that.

Senator ADAMS —It still comes to my office.

CHAIR —You are hanging yourself, Senator Adams.

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I know, but still that doesn’t matter.

Mr McMillan —It is important that our decision makers are informed as well.

CHAIR —I agree.

Senator ADAMS —I try to keep up.

CHAIR —How many sheep do you have now?

Senator ADAMS —None; we have just sold our property. Anyway, as I say, I think at the moment with an organisation like yours—because the information just does not seem to be getting back down to our grassroots people—it is so important that they know what is going on.

Mr McMillan —We are as challenged as any NRM group as far as the volunteerism goes, too.

Senator ADAMS —I know.

Mr McMillan —Dale is literally a volunteer and all of our people are, and we struggle at the moment to have people put their hands up and say, ‘Yes, I want to be a zone president. Yes, I want to be elected to your executive.’ That is an issue that we are really struggling with at the moment. It is not just NRM or other footy clubs or whatever, it is at every level.

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I am aware of that. Anyway, with the South West Catchment Council, they are doing this review, so that is certainly that I will certainly alert you to when we get it and maybe you can chase them up.

Mr McMillan —Yes.

Senator ADAMS —Secondly, we have had a group of Indigenous organisations giving evidence earlier today. Are you aware whether within your organisation you have any Indigenous groups representing you, or are you involved in any way with their land management areas?

Mr Park —None really at all. We are very much membership based. I do not know of any Aboriginal members we have. We have very little contact. I have contact on another basis, just as a farmer, but certainly as an organisation we—

Senator ADAMS —They are a group that feel quite disenfranchised as well, not being involved. As they said, ‘That is our country so it is really something that is encompassing everyone.’

Mr Park —In my area they have fairly large tracts of land that they would have native title claims over.

CHAIR —What is your area, Mr Park?

Mr Park —Badgingarra, which is north.

Senator ADAMS —That was their comment. They have come up with, I think, some very good issues and it might be something worth following up. We could give you a copy of their submission. It is not on the internet. It was handed to us this morning. It might be something to have a look at.

Mr McMillan —We would certainly be interested. When I saw the agenda for today’s hearing I noticed that the three gentlemen concerned are all former facilitators. I do not know whether there is anything in that at all, but I was well aware of the structure of the NRM groups. The feedback that I had had from a couple of our members involved in the groups was that the contribution of the Indigenous people was extremely good. But obviously there is a frustration with the process, otherwise they would still be current facilitators.

CHAIR —I think money came into it as well.

Senator ADAMS —Yes, it did.

CHAIR —And that is on the public record.

Mr McMillan —But that is a volunteerism issue in itself. There has to be an incentive for these people to maintain involvement, from the Indigenous people up to Dale’s level.

Senator ADAMS —I do not have any further questions.

CHAIR —Senator Hutchins, do you have a question?

Senator HUTCHINS —No.

CHAIR —Gentlemen, before we go—and this is not to do with this inquiry, but I do appreciate your time being here—how is the season looking? Hang on, that is a loaded question. On the front page of the West Australian newspaper we normally see dust blowing through a farmer’s hands; how bad it is going to be. Then a week later we find a farmer standing in paddocks looking lush and everything is looking good. Can you give us an on-the-ground report? Some are terrible and some are good.

Mr Park —What is the old saying? It is like the curate’s egg; good in parts. When you try and describe even Western Australia but certainly all of Australia in one word, as to whether the season is good or bad, it is impossible.

CHAIR —Let us just talk about WA.

Mr Park —WA is the same. This year, for instance, where Senator Adams used to come from—she tells me now she has sold off the property—they are having a wonderful year down there. It has been absolutely magnificent and it is probably the same story right up into the Great Eastern Highway. South, just about all the way along south of the Great Eastern Highway, except Esperance, which has had a slow start, but I think it has picked up since then. They have had a pretty good year.

CHAIR —So the good parts are good?

Mr Park —The good parts are good. Yes, even in our own case, for instance, the first germination we kept going through was the third germination we had had for the season. We had fairly heavy rains in December, which was unusual in that it stayed cloudy for four or five days, so we actually got a germination. That early in the summer we can usually get away without getting a germination from summer rain. But by the time we did get rain—and it was early, 1 May—we were on our third germination. We then went for quite a long time before we got the next rain. We kept that germination and lost the fourth germination, so things were pretty thin. Then we got a brilliant July. We got eight inches in July, which was magnificent. Then we got virtually no rain in August. In our sandy country that played merry hell. Then we have had a reasonable September and I am hoping we are going to get a reasonable October. That might turn into a reasonable year. You go only 50 to 100 kilometres east of us and some people in pockets are having a reasonable year; others are really quite desperate. Go further north to the northeast, which has been traditionally quite bad over the last four or five years, they actually got quite a lot of summer rain, good subsoil moisture, managed to fluke a few rains through the growing season and they are looking at actually having a pretty good year. Northampton is the same. After two particularly bad years they are having a pretty good one.

CHAIR —This committee actually did go up to Northampton not long ago, or we had a subcommittee travel up to check out some pasture cropping.

Mr Park —Describing it all in one word is impossible. It is anywhere and everywhere. I think the thing that really is playing on farmers’ minds at the moment is the very fast escalation in input costs that we have suffered over the last 12 to 18 months.

CHAIR —We are very well aware of that.

Senator ADAMS —Fertiliser and chemicals.

CHAIR —We won’t mention fertiliser.

Mr Park —That is right. We are looking at, yes, fertiliser tripling in price. When they paid that first hike in prices, most of those farmers had not actually seen the high price in grain at that stage.

CHAIR —There is another committee looking into that, so we are not allowed to talk about that. But we do know.

Senator ADAMS —Can I just ask one question on the frost? How badly have crops been damaged by that?

Mr Park —Again, it really depends on where you were. I was talking to people from Meckering the other day and they were estimating they lost 80 per cent of their crop. Frost to me is the nastiest of all, because you have actually spent almost all of your money. The only bit of money you have not spent is actually harvesting it. It is the cruellest blow of all. It is not good.

CHAIR —So, if your grandson said, ‘I want to be a farmer, Pop’, you would whack him around the ear and send him back to school?

Mr Park —Actually, I have a daughter who says she wants to be a farmer. She is in Derby at the moment doing her grad year for nursing.

Senator ADAMS —Keep her doing that.

Mr Park —And she probably will come back to farming.

CHAIR —Throw money at her—whatever she wants—to continue her studies.

Senator ADAMS —Send her on to a nurse practitioner. Get her to do her masters.

Mr Park —My generation, we all wanted to go back farming and it did not really matter what our fathers said. And they did. They all said—

CHAIR —Because he knew better. That is right. We all know that one.

Mr Park —But this next generation is saying, ‘No. Well, look, we’re not going to put up with the pain.’ It worries me. What is going to happen? We are going to need fewer and fewer farmers because things are going to get bigger and bigger. But that just makes more and more problems for the people who are left on the land.

CHAIR —Yes, of course, and those communities understand that. On that, Mr Park, we still manage to smile, like you do, so we take our hat off to you. Thank you very much—and, to Mr McMillan, congratulations. What was the appointment you got, sorry?

Mr McMillan —CEO.

Mr Park —He is now the boss.

CHAIR —You’re the boss? We can take it out on you now if it all goes to custard. Thank you very much, gentlemen. We appreciate your time.

Proceedings suspended from 1.29 pm to 2.28 pm