Weighing into the agri-politcs debate. Where have all the brave leaders gone?

Colin Bettles Canberra Comment this week The Changing Style of Agri-politics is creating a lot of comment on twitter and so it should

An excellent piece that puts the elephant in the room that is leadership capacity (or perceived lack of) in agriculture in the spotlight where it needs to stay until we address it and rectify it

Colin begins by lamenting what he sees as the end of the era of

crusty old agri-politicians in tweed jackets who once spear-headed Australian farming…… who sparred like gladiators on regional news pages and radio airwaves over die in the ditch issues ……. or perhaps what I’m really lamenting is the diminished opportunity to write such sensational stories.

 Colin’s further reflections go well beyond his desire to write more sensational stories and he makes a lot of very serious observations that all need to be addressed

A number of people have also tweeted Andrew Campbell’s piece in The Conversation from 2012 on Rick Farley.  What happened to brave leaders? A look at the life of Rick Farley. I read the biography on Rick Farley that prompted Andrew’s article.  I loved it.

Andrew as lucky enough to be part of team Farley and he reflects on the qualities that made Rick’s leadership style a success

Farley brought competing interests together, listened deeply and patiently, worked from clear principles, helped people to understand each other’s perspective and to find common ground, and often delivered results that everyone could live with. Farley usually negotiated deals that represented real progress, but more importantly, that left a legacy of better relations between competing interests. Invariably, he earned the respect, trust and admiration of those he worked with.

As a farm industry leader, Farley often brokered unexpected alliances. He positioned the NFF in principled, leading positions in national debates on economic reform, land management and native title. Farley ensured that the NFF was a crucial player in the Mabo debate rather than remaining outside and damning the whole process like the Coalition and the mining industry.

My reply to this series of tweets was “we do have brave leaders, what we don’t have is 21st century thinking” and the question that was then asked is what did I mean by this

A little bit of background on my expertise in this space

In the last 10 years I had a ‘career change’ moving from a management job in retail to being a 24/7 farmer and also moved in agri-politics circles and representative roles both and state and federal level and I can definitely understand why young people who put their toe in the water in the agri-politcs space more often than not then run for the hills

Why do I say this?

Firstly, I moved from a job that paid very well to a role that at times put severe strain on the purse strings and if you are going to do things for love then its pivotal it be good for the soul. It certainly wasn’t good for my soul and that is why so many of our smart farmers don’t do it.

There are lots of reasons for this beyond the financial cost involved and many of my thoughts may be different to others

As a start I don’t believe the current agri-politics model doesn’t work anymore for multiple reasons

Firstly, as Colin says

An alleged contributor to the rate of apparent agri-political decline has been the financial and emotional strain placed on representatives in trying to balance running a commercial farm-business and still serve family needs, while mostly volunteering their time to address altruistic industry needs.

And then, having sacrificed valuable hours and dollars to serve industry’s big picture causes, they suffer multiple face-palms from fellow farmers or industry commentators who do little more than grumble from the sidelines.

Secondly agriculture is very different to what it was 30 years. Farming in the 21st century is very specialised. Whether you are an organic or conventional farmer, whether you believe native vegetation laws are a good thing or an impost, whether you are a dryland farmer or an irrigator. In the dairy industry whether you supply the export market or the domestic market or feed TMR and house your cows or have a pasture based system.

We are even precious about the word farmer. We have graziers, pastoralists, grain fed or grass fed beef producers and wool producers, cotton growers et al

These diverse farming systems and specialisation mean today farmers know a great deal about their industry and their farming system and bugger all about other industries and their farming systems.

This leads to representative farmers coming to the policy making table with blinkered views. This leads to a focus on the best outcomes for their individual businesses and the farming environment they operate in.

Pot kettle black methinks when the farming sector’s common opinion is its consumers that need educating about agriculture. Maybe we should start in our own backyards first. Until we do our farmer representative committees will continue in the main to consist of farmers who struggle to come to grips with understanding that what we need is big picture thinking, holistic mindsets and outcomes that are good for the agriculture sector as a whole.

Thirdly like Gregor Heard I too have firsthand experience that the agri-political succession planning has largely failed.

His theory suggests young farmers have been repeatedly denied opportunities to advance through representative channels due to initiative-blocking by older, conservative, agri-political hacks.

Maybe that’s just a subtle way of saying up-and-comers with talent and initiative have subsequently shown-up and threatened others already sitting on various agri-political thrones, resulting in Machiavellian skills being used to kill-off the challengers.


Another suggested reason for this alleged agri-political deficit has been the younger generation’s disenchantment with fractured representative structures and in-fighting of various leaders; especially when they’re belting the living stuffing out of each other in the national press, with gusto. Source


Yes, indeed we have to be realistic and acknowledge the current model isn’t conducive to developing future influencers.   On top of this staff who work for State Farming Organisation (SFO’s) and National bodies are inundated with white papers, green papers, senate reviews, state government reviews, water policy reviews, animal welfare policy reviews et al – it never stops.

I am yet to sit on a farmer committee who has done a strategic plan, identified their vision and passion and the projects they want to work on. We are continually trying to make good decisions in the dark and I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel.

As Gregor says we shouldn’t be surprised that 24/7 farmers of all age groups who are active beyond the farmgate are attracted to progressive farmer/producer/grower groups that provide an environment that allows farmers who share a common vision and commitment to interact and learn from experts and each other.

This is where the 21st century thinking comes in. A lot of the problems we have we share with the rest of the world

These days’ community surveys continually show people are self-absorbed and have blinkered views. Front of mind is them and their families and the income that supports their lifestyle.

There is also no shortage of people in the corporate world who feel threatened by youth or have misogynistic views about women in leadership roles.

And youth today want different things. See previous post here. Whilst they are passionate about farming they see the value of a higher education, they understand the importance of having a world view, coming back to the farm with a corporate mindset, the need to have a secure complementary incomes to support the volatile world of farming. They understand why Rick Farley achieved so much through his collaboration and cohesion model .

Ultimately no matter how brave you are you can’t be a brave leader in isolation. Rick Farley was surrounded by thought leaders

I believe there are many people in agriculture like me who think that life is for learning, that people want to grow, they want to be part of a success story.

This starts with listening to people like Mick Keogh and doing what he says

“Agriculture urgently needs to communicate its very positive potential to the Australian community instead of constantly emphasising its problems,”

We also need to communicate this to each other

If we are going to achieve this, then we have to turn the way agriculture thinks and acts on head

We have to stop this mindset of only telling government what we don’t want.

We have to learn (and want to) take the solutions to table.

We have to learn how to take the rest of the supply chain with us.

We have to create a leadership environment young people want to be part of and can thrive in.

We have to genuinely want to be part of a success story.

We have to use the same thinking and methods that the 21st century corporate  world uses to build successful business.

Looking forward to the feedback and further suggestions this post will generate

Some further observations from the bright mind of Professor Shaun Coffey  Purpose is the game of champions, and subservience to purpose is a proven path to success

Leadership guru Zoe Routh put the big picture advocacy issues beautifully in a recent evaluation of the Young Farming Champions program

  1. Social trends
    Globally, urbanisation is on the increase. This means that young people are seeking employment in the cities rather than pursuing a career in agriculture. As a result, the agricultural sector is ageing considerably. There is also a rising trend of retirees choosing rural
    retirement options. (see “Rural Migration Trends and Drivers – Networked Rural Councils Program, December 14, 2012). Rural areas and industries are being populated and serviced by an ever-increasing ageing population. Promoting agriculture as a viable and fulfilling career option is critical to the sector’s and various rural regions’ future survival.
    Social media is also increasing the need for transparency for all organisations. Perceived ethical transgressions or wrong-doings are broadcast immediately around the world. Social expectations of business, rural or otherwise, is that they must meet social expectations of what is ethical. The challenge for agriculture is to be leading the public conversation about sustainable, ethical and responsible farming practices in industrial and global contexts.
  2. Technological trends
    Technology has advanced farming practices considerably. Many agricultural professionals attend college and university before embarking on agricultural businesses. Running a farm is
    now far more than ever an advanced and sophisticated scientific and technological enterprise. This story of agriculture is missing in the mainstream.
  3. Economic
    Agriculture is big business. Corporate farming dominates and now foreign investment in agricultural holdings is also growing. Developing Australian stewardship and advocacy for its
    own food and fibre production will help protect one of the nation’s key assets long-term.
  4. Environmental
    Climate change and drought pressures continue to apply pressure on farming communities. Water access and use continues to be a contested topic amongst various stakeholders. Environment variability affects mental health of many farmers, putting pressure on the region’s resilience.
  5. Political
    Agriculture remains a political force due to its representation in rural and remote areas, as well as for its economic power. However, advocacy for the long-term viability of the sector is largely left to each industry’s respective agencies.
    Colin Bettle also wrote about the collapse of agripolitics (Dec 19, 2015, ). He cites the growing pressure to manage on farm issues and economic viability as a key priority. Australian farmers seem reluctant to equate advocacy and agri-politics to economic success of their sector, unlike their American counterparts.
    Encouraging integrated advocacy with an economic focus will be key to many industries’ futures.
    Decisions in agriculture that affect the supply system are largely being driven by large corporate suppliers and consumers, not government regulation. This affects the style and approach of leadership interventions, needing a more business and community orientation.




Author: Lynne Strong

I am a 6th generation farmer who loves surrounding myself with optimistic, courageous people who believe in inclusion, diversity and equality and embrace the power of collaboration. I am the founder of Picture You in Agriculture. Our team design and deliver programs that inspire pride in Australian agriculture and support young people to thrive in business and life

2 thoughts on “Weighing into the agri-politcs debate. Where have all the brave leaders gone?”

  1. Hi Lynne,

    Here is the conundrum. People who tell others want they want to hear are rewarded in the near term and deliver little. Brave leaders often have to tell people what they don’t want to hear and are dismissed as ‘out of touch’.

    Taking people where they don’t really want to go is exceptionally difficult. They often realise in the end after much heartache and disappointment.

    The world of three word slogans and pandering to self interest is paralysing and threatens our enviable way of life.

    Plenty of need for brave leaders to weather the storm of negativity that casts a gloom over exciting prospects for Australian agriculture.

    1. Too true Jeremy
      There is also that added problem of the isolated nature of the sector. Traditionally there have been few opportunities to ascertain if others share your views. Social media is helping and not helping
      Social media sometimes attracts people with too much time on their hands who dont want to hear what you are saying especially if it is positive and are prepared to do everything in their power to drown you out. Social media also lets you get your vision out there and there is no shortage of people who avoid the bullies and make personal contact.
      We have a lot of work to do. Zoe Routh has just done an excellent review of the Young Farming Champions program which I will email you. She makes a lot of great points on how to nurture our future influencers and how industry can better invest in them
      Thanks for joining the conversation Jeremy and a merry xmas to the world of Rice

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