It has been 21 years since former Minister for Agriculture Monty House launched the Rural Leadership Program as part of the $10 million Progress Rural Project.
Monty’s vision was to equip emerging leaders living in regional WA with the skills required to have their voices heard where it mattered.
He argued that the future of WA’s rural communities and the agriculture sector were dependent on the degree of energy, commitment and local leadership skills that could be generated in the regions.
These words ring as true today as they did in 1996.
What were you doing in 1996? If you were in nappies then don’t answer, it’ll only make me feel old.
I was in first year university, studying Biological Sciences and hoping to become a Vet.
For those that don’t know my background, I am originally from Wyalkatchem, my dad’s family own a wheat and sheep enterprise. I did my primary school years at Wylie, high school in Perth.
My father was heavily involved in the National Party, and I remember being invited to a cocktail function at the Minister’s office with a small group of young National Party members.
I’m not sure the significance of the opportunity struck me at the time.
In fact, I’m certain it didn’t. I was 18 and there was free wine and canapes.
But I was in the room with the Minister, his advisors and senior members of the Department of Agriculture for two hours.
I’d like to say I seized the opportunity, that I turned up with an idea I wanted Monty to take on and develop… and in our Donald Trump ‘post-truth’ world I could give you some ‘alternative facts’, but we’ll chalk that up to being an experience, and move on.
At the same time Monty was pursuing this initiative, the telecentre network, now known as the Community Resource Centre Network, was also born.
It was widely recognised that regional communities were being left behind as the new and exciting ‘world wide web’ phenomenon developed.
Hendy Cowan, then Leader of The Nationals, provided funding to allow each rural community to purchase computers, connect to the internet, and brought the information highway to regional WA.
It was around the same time that Max Trenorden, the Member for Avon, later to become leader of The Nationals, was pursuing Bendigo Bank in an effort to introduce the community banking model to Western Australia as the major banks withdrew their presence and support in regional WA.
Twenty years later, the CRCs in every community play an incredibly important role.
And the Bendigo Bank model has empowered communities to own and manage their own money, delivering dividends for customers and the community.
The discussions and decisions to pursue those policies and initiatives were well before my time … but I know their origin was here in the heart of the Wheatbelt as a result of a discussion or conversation with people just like yourselves.
Whether it was at the local footy game, a grower meeting, a discussion at a Shire meeting or over a beer at the pub – I couldn’t tell you.
Looking at your program today I can see the Conference has covered far more than technical advice and information sharing to improve your business on-farm.
The age-old maxim that ‘no man is an island’ is especially true for our agricultural sector and the communities that rely on its success.
You will rarely, if ever, hear me talking negatively about our sector.
It doesn’t mean I don’t understand the challenges we face.
In forums like this, we should discuss all aspects of the industry.
In my office, in grower group meetings, at Field Days or business events.
In public forums, where potential investors are connected, watching, waiting. Where our financiers are watching, waiting. And where our future workforce and partners are watching and listening – I will always take the opportunity to present the best version of our sector.
It has been pointed out to me that the agricultural sector is not the only sector to suffer disappointment and failure on occasion.
That if you’re in the mining game … looking for the next big ore load … you drill a lot of holes before you hit pay dirt. If ever.
They will never tell you how many holes they drilled that turned up nothing. But they’ll talk about the one that did.
I’m biased, but agriculture has a far more exciting story to tell.
Sustainable, innovative, linked to the most basic of human needs of food and clothing.
Please don’t think I’m anti-mining, I am not. It is an incredibly important economic driver for our State and national economy, and there are some synergies and opportunity to develop new agricultural enterprises alongside mines.
Agriculture will need to develop stronger linkages with the broader community if we are to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.
We need to position agriculture as a growth opportunity where Australia has a global competitive advantage. We need to tell our stories with pride and recognise our champions.
And the leaders of the sector need to understand and engage with the political sphere.
Governments, now more than ever, cannot set policies in isolation to their constituencies.
The cynicism of all things political, the lack of trust for those that take on a public office, a willingness to punish at the ballot box … it does not bode well for a sector that always needs a long-term view.
Withdrawing from the debate, concentrating on your business or your community, dismissing the political context we live in will lead to further isolation.
It leaves voices that are not representative of your sector, that don’t share your values or aspirations, to claim the space.
Mum and Dad have just returned from Canada and the US, and they visited the JFK Library. Mum bought me JFK’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, written in 1955, called Profiles in Courage.
In the foreword, he laments the fact that the public have lost faith in the political system, quick to criticise without understanding how it works. What it takes for good policy to succeed. What it means to have political ‘courage’.
These words ring true sixty years later.
Given the right policy settings, I am confident of the role that Australian agriculture can play in expanding markets.
But it does require honest engagement. It does require the energy and understanding of a generation that success is dependent on more than your own expertise and talent.
It’s not enough to be the best, or to think that you are right and the public ‘simply doesn’t understand’.
And it’s not enough to say, I raised that very important issue with my local Member of Parliament, my job here is done.
Just like a relationship with your bank, your financial advisor, or farm adviser, they work best developed over time, engendering trust and mutual respect.
Those relationships work best when you understand the context in which each other operate. When they work well, you have the space to explore new and innovative ideas.
It’s no different when engaging with us.
Politics is personal, we do it because we enjoy the opportunity to shape policy and debate to benefit the communities we represent.
We relish the opportunity to give something back.
And the best outcomes are delivered in partnership.
The best example of what happens when this approach is not taken is the live export debacle.
Crisis management in politics looks like that. An absolute bloody disaster, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.
Not every policy decision made by those in our Parliaments will have the same ramifications, but it must certainly spur the sector and those of us that are passionate about its future to make sure we get the foundations right.
Just as an investment into the telecentre network, the pursuit of a community banking model and a Rural Leadership Program sent ripples into our communities to deliver dividends 20 years ago, you all now have the chance to shape the next 20 years.
Be heard. Be active. Be brave.
The tide is turning. There is a changing attitude toward agriculture.
When I talk to the rising stars of the industry there is an electricity that wasn’t there five years ago.
There is data available suggesting those who study agriculture-related courses are securing full-time work at a rate which far outstrips other professions.
Technology and innovative thinkers will continue to drive efficiency and productivity … but I urge you to apply as much energy to building and maintaining links with key decision makers, understand how their system of decision making works and use it to your advantage.
My commitment to you is that my door is open. I am not a farmer, I don’t have an agribusiness degree. I am not immersed in the intricacies of the sector every single day.
Tomorrow I’m talking about childcare models that suit our Wheatbelt communities. The next day I’m in discussions about aged care and how we create and fund models of care that keep our parent and grandparents close to home. Today, I’m talking about agriculture.
That doesn’t mean I can’t learn more, or connect you to people that walk through my door to further build the ‘coalition of willing’ that will buffer the sector from challenges and put in place policy that will enable you to grow.
Although slightly daunting, it is up to us, no-one else, to harness the potential we know exists.
It will take some courage from both of us to get it right. Don’t assume that we know all the issues you face … walk up to us at the footy, the bar, when you see us down the street … phone our office or send me an email.
I am interested in what you know, what you think works, what you think should be done – whether its agriculture or any other issue you may have.
But I can also talk about the footy (don’t mention the Dockers), or show you a photo of my niece and nephew, or complain about the weather.
I am simply a girl who grew up in the Wheatbelt that wants the best for her communities – the titles and roles I’ve picked up on the way give me the opportunity to help. Please make use of us.