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The 2009 George Wilson Oration

I congratulate the Nuffield Farming Scholars Association Council for deciding to honour George Wilson and the idea of an Annual Oration would I’m sure have privately delighted George although his public response may have been – “what bloody nonsense.”

For me it is both a great honour and a serious responsibility, I thank you for both. George always looked to the future – and I hope I am doing that tonight.

I want to start by qualifying what I am about to say by admitting that I may be wrong and some of my facts maybe a bit rubbery – I want to make this qualification because I am tired of people pretending that everything they say is factual or based on fact and when questioned they are not prepared to accept that they may have lied, been misinformed or are wrong – it’s a current phenomenon – used not only by politicians but by interest groups trying to push a particular cause and now the media have adopted a word for it, it is known as spin.

Most Australians have quite quickly learnt to recognise spin and largely ignore it.  The French put it this way, “The clowns who govern us are putting on a show.

Further background to my later comments is this – for some time I have been lecturing my long suffering friends about my concern that politics is becoming a profession – and that importantly we will be more poorly governed because of this trend.

Recently I found support in no lesser source than the English Economist Magazine who of course expresses it more eloquently than I can, so let me quote.

“Some mature democracies especially Britain, United States (and I think Australia) are seeing a new phenomenon: the rise of politics itself as a profession. In the old days politics was something you went into after doing a real job.”

The article goes on:

“a penumbra of quasi-political institutions, unions, consultancies, lobby firms, political back offices have increased the job opportunities and training ground for would be politicians. This has produced an in-bred class that lacks, proper connections to the outside world.” – “For good or ill, politics is becoming its own profession.” – end quote.

This trend may not be bad, and in any case the system I’m sure will always throw up exceptions who will “think”, as they say, “outside the square.

But if politics is your chosen career then if you don’t get re-elected your career is finished – so you are likely to do what you think is popular and not take so many risks – as was clear in the TV show “Yes, Minister.”

So with this background let me turn to an overview of agriculture and particularly food production in Australia.

In this lucky country we have:

  • always had the most urbanised population in the world
  • second, food has always been plentiful, accessible and relatively cheap and
  • third, we have been and are wealthy enough to import any food the urban population thinks it needs, and it has been available.

This leads me to concentrate (briefly you all hope!) on two broadly related issues which I think are fundamental to the future of farming in Australia.

They are agricultural R & D and the farming communities relationship with Governments.

Okay you say we know research is important and we talk and read a lot about this subject – BUT my point is that it is fundamental and our urban based politicians don’t seem to know or understand that agriculture research is really important.

For the last decade State and Federal Government have been winding back and/or narrowing agriculture R & D in Australia while in many parts of the world expenditure has been going up – sometimes dramatically – e.g. rice.

Why is this?

First, because in Australia’s urbanised population politicians are frightened by small but vocal, well organised and funded radical environmental and other groups, and some of these oppose research into issues such as genetically modified crops and animal welfare, and want significant Government research money spent in diverted to unrelated areas.

Second, urban politicians do not understand or believe that the world and even Australia could face food supply problems, the threat to the considerable national income earned by agriculture in Australia, and the complexity and opportunities of science needed to meet these future challenges, which of course are sometimes long term and therefore of little interest to career politicians who have an election coming up.

It has been estimated that in the next 50 years the world must produce more food than has been produced in the whole of recorded history.

As with the many competing fields of research the issues are complex and costly and therefore priorities are difficult to resolve.

For the urban politicians, medical research is perhaps the biggest, most expensive and most important area – but there are many other issues competing for political attention and limited, because it will always be limited, funding – so agriculture, even though one may think food should be top of the list – and it should be of course – will always have to fight for its share.

New crop varieties – salt resistant and perennial wheat, different fertiliser needs, transport, handling and processing using new biotechnology and other sci-fi developments to deal with a whole range of challenges and opportunities will be needed as the worlds fuel supply diminishes, population increases, land availability declines and climate changes.

Added to these basic scientific research needs, hi-speed, hi-tech computing availability will be fundamental to improved food production and delivery and to R & D activity in rural areas – where the research should take place – not in the city based Universities.

Even the Pacific Region boss of IBM has spoken of the need to ensure that there is a focus or broadband investment outside the main cities to avoid a city/country divide.

And in the USA and Europe, and I suspect in Australia, quality broadband connectivity will increasingly aid decentralisation and people who wish to move to rural/regional areas – a desirable development which should not be ignored by politicians.

It is a serious oversight by successive governments that no regional based University accounts for more than 1% of the total national R & D expenditure, yet regional Australia accounts for 90% plus of agricultural production – and would you believe the NSW Government is closing down regional agriculture research stations!!

Australian governments should not assume that we will always automatically have a plentiful supply of good quality fresh locally grown food as our population increases, climate changes and energy becomes more expensive.

Quite dramatic changes are likely in the foreseeable future – and some have already occurred.   For example Singapore imported all its rice needs from Thailand – but last year the Thai’s, for many reasons, without warning embargoed all exports.

  • India was recently a major sugar exporter but this year is an importer.
  • Brazil is using sugar cane to produce ethanol because it pays better.

And our government and urban population should not overlook the fact that Australian agriculture is also still and should remain one of our most important export income earners – which helps to support the urban lifestyle.

There is much more that could be said about research – but I want to move to the related issue – what do we do in the future to meet the R & D and the many other challenges facing farming in Australia.

I suppose first we have to face what an American writer has called the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in our political system and cities.

Let me go back briefly to the days when I actually did some work! – long ago!  When I started as a political lobbyist in Canberra in 1973 there were I think less than 10 recognised groups and individuals who could be regarded as full time professional lobbyists.

When I retired in 1991, less than 20 years later we estimated that there were over 600 professional lobbyists.

In Washington D.C. – where I went in 1985 to look at the rules that should apply to lobbying operations – there are now 12,500 registered lobbyists – about 3,300 working on health care and about 2,800 working on climate change.

If you add up to total number of staff, attached to these groups there are about 170 people working to convince every single number of the US Congress and Senate of their particular view.

Despite some of my perhaps not very positive remarks about my many political friends – I know that this level of special well researched, well presented material on any given subject which pushes every possible outcome for a given problem makes life very much more difficult for any politician to come to a decision – life was not meant to be easy.

But what all this highlights for the rural community is the need to get onto the playing field – for farmers it is absolutely vital that they have a well funded, very professional, very focused and unified lobby group working consistently at all level of the political system.

Incidentally I sold my company in 1991 – so I’m not promoting anyone!

As I have tried to show the need for this increased focus is clear – rural industry is in serious competition with many other sectors of the community who have easy political access and who have important life effecting needs – but none, I would argue is more important than sustainable food production – what good is a perfect health system if you are starving? – but on current evidence many of our politicians don’t see this.

On top of this the range of issues are increasing in complexity.

The good news for farmers is of course that the demand for food and fibre will increase – but so will productivity and quality in other countries – and we must not lose any of our markets to South American or European countries.

We want to avoid the situation – which I think we may already face – which is to be ignored and/or downgraded by government – because of the political belief that farmers will always be there working away whatever Government’s do – so that we become followers – not leaders in the agricultural world – or even worse, peasant farmers.

At the 1983 Nuffield World Conference in Canada amongst other things I said in my paper was that to farm in Australia “the fundamental requirement for a farmer was not finance, not intelligence, not physical strength – but optimism – which by definition incorporates an interest and a desire to look to the future rather than the past.”

I think this is still true.

In the same speech I was able to claim with some certainty that Australia lead the world in many areas of agriculture research and development – I think sadly this is less true now!

To summarise – I believe we need a new and invigorated approach to increased, better focused, popular and politically supported food R & D in order to keep Australian farmers profitable, sustainable and secure.

To do this we need a better organised, better funded, better co-ordinated and united national approach – and we need to get going now.

In my view in recent years farmer organisations have not thought hard enough about the long term future challenges and opportunities and have been somewhat bogged down by shorter term internal political issues.

Perhaps the farming sector should review the role and structure of the NFF – and think about setting up two complimentary organisations.

The NFF to deal with political policy issues and a separate body possibly called something like the Rural Industries Research Institute (RIRI), which would be the peak body for advising Governments and others on R & D priorities and funding for the farming sector.

But in doing so it is always sensible to look at why a particular organisation emerged before you get rid of it or change it too dramatically – look at the Australian Wheat Board as an example.

The RIRI would not itself undertake basic research – but would have enough intellectual capacity to evaluate research proposals and options to help to co-ordinate research activities between government departments, universities and industry.  Most importantly it would be equipped to lobby effectively for the chosen projects.  The RIRI would obviously have to be owned and largely funded by the farming sector.

Unity in the rural industries – at least at the government level is paramount – because “divide and rule” is champagne for bureaucrats and politicians.  But also scale and size is important, and as unity gives size – it becomes fundamental to success.

I am the last person to want more boards and/or committees – but it seems an inevitable direction.

I know farmers – even the well organised ones who are in this room are sometimes either cash poor or time poor or both – but Nuffield could be – perhaps should be the leaders in the business of at least setting the agenda for the future and then in good management terms delegating the running to others.

I know ideas can be dangerous, but I hope I have said something that at very least give room for thought.  Nevertheless, I will conclude with a quote from my favourite political commentator – Machiavelli – “I am not interested in preserving the status quo. I want to overthrow it”.

Ian MacIntosh AM
13 October 2009

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