August 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Fracking and food security

By Amanda Lohrey

The Greens chase the farming vote

In 1997, Merrill Lynch executive Peter Whish-Wilson stood at the window of his office in the South Tower of New York’s World Trade Center and decided to give up his career in banking. When four years later a Boeing 767 flew into the tower, Whish-Wilson was back in Australia planning his life as a vintner in northern Tasmania. The return to his roots coincided with a proposal by Gunns Ltd to build one of the world’s largest paper mills in the Tamar Valley, a project that threatened not only the Whish-Wilson vineyard but the viability of agribusiness in one of the nation’s most fertile regions. It made an activist of the ex-banker. After playing a prominent role in the successful public campaign to halt the mill, Whish-Wilson replaced Bob Brown as Tasmania’s second federal Greens senator in June 2012, alongside party leader Christine Milne. The decision to endorse Whish-Wilson over other contenders was taken as a signal that the party was serious about rural issues and engaging with business.

In March this year, Milne and Whish-Wilson were guest speakers at a Greens fundraiser, hosted at an idyllic property on Tasmania’s east coast. Those assembled included many farmers and business people; there was scarcely a dreadlock in sight. Milne addressed the gathering on the subject of food security, taking as her theme the now famous prediction by US pundit Lester R Brown that food is destined to become the new oil. Global warming, population increase, widespread soil and water degradation, loss of land to urbanisation and the conversion of food into bio-fuels are creating conditions for the inflation of food prices and a scramble by governments to buy land beyond their own borders. Meanwhile, the degraded quality of food has become a factor in increasing obesity and public-health costs.

Milne cited the success of Tasmanian farming’s “clean and green” marketing strategy, which she and Brown had first promoted in the late 1980s, as participants in both Labor and Liberal minority state governments. Reforms included a halt to the use of growth hormones in beef cattle. Since then the Greens have become a national force while a depressed and despairing rural sector has felt increasingly besieged.

Whish-Wilson, a big, blokey man with a quiet gravitas, told the story of how as a young banker he had read the Greek philosopher Epicurus, which had led him to question his notion of the good life. It prompted an engagement with the concept of enlightened hedonism: the Epicurean principles of friendship, self-sufficiency and the minimisation of harm. But it was not enough just to protest against unsound projects like the proposed Gunns pulp mill; much of the ill-will that arose out of environmental politics was because the major parties lacked policies for alternative economic opportunities, and he felt he had something to contribute.

Some weeks later, I meet Milne and Whish-Wilson in the Greens office, which looks out over Hobart’s chilly waterfront. I begin the interview by asking Milne how her leadership differs from that of Bob Brown. A dairy farmer’s daughter who remains involved in the family farm in Tasmania’s Meander Valley, she says one of her priorities is “reinvigorating the party’s conversation with rural and regional Australia”. In Milne’s view, the Greens and primary producers are natural allies.

Though the Greens are represented on more and more regional councils, making inroads into the rural vote federally is a tall order, not least due to farmers’ traditional distrust of the party as a coalition of young forest ferals and leftish urban bohemians obsessed with gay marriage and decriminalising drugs. Recent developments have mitigated this image to some extent, and of these the most potent has been the coal-seam gas issue. Milne reels off a list of rural communities she has visited in which the prospect of coal-seam gas mining has provoked a sense of betrayal. She describes having dinners with farmers where “we spoke the same language and I think it was a bit of a surprise to them to find they were comfortable with me”.

Wherever she has travelled, she says, farmers tell her “that they had voted Liberal or National all their lives and now when they needed Coalition members to help them, they were nowhere to be seen. There was a lot of resentment about the fact that [former National Party leaders] John Anderson and Mark Vaile had made money as part of the executive structure of coal and coal-seam gas companies.” Farmers are also angry, says Milne, about NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s ban on all coal-seam gas activity within two kilometres of residential areas, which came after energy company AGL announced plans to frack for coal-seam gas beneath thousands of homes in south-western Sydney. “In outlying communities, the O’Farrell move is being interpreted as a cynical attempt to buy urban votes in marginal electorates.”

When it comes to food security, Milne is also keen to stress the Greens’ policy on foreign investment in Australian agriculture. The current government is prepared to sell “half the Eyre Peninsula” to the Qatari government while more than a third of Western Australia’s water licences are foreign owned. She refers to Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s extolling of Australia’s “very open” foreign investment regime to members of the Gulf Co-operation Council in September last year. “Australia,” declared Carr, “cannot only export food to the Gulf countries but they can buy land in Australia and have the food cultivated for them.”

Milne is not happy. “I don’t think we should be selling any land to another country,” she tells me. “Why would you? I have nothing against the Qataris. They … are up-front and operating within the current law [but] the Foreign Investment Review Board doesn’t keep a register so we have no idea who owns what. At present, we have only simple government guidelines on foreign investment with a $231-million threshold [before the purchase may be reviewed by the board]. So what people do is buy two or three properties that are less than this so you cannot keep track of what is going on.”

The Greens want to see every purchase over $5 million scrutinised by the board, according to a set of public-interest criteria. In various forms it’s an issue that has persisted in Australian politics since colonial days, and one that might appeal to voters commonly described as redneck: it’s our country, not theirs. But Milne and Whish-Wilson are wary of playing the patriotism card. “There is an issue of how to get that message right,” Milne says. “People ring up and congratulate us on our foreign-ownership policies and then go into a rant about Muslims.”

Other issues heading the Greens’ agenda include assist-ance for local farmers to compete with foreign imports, greater accuracy in country-of-origin food labelling and the promotion of farm-gate selling along with support for Labor’s national broadband network policy as an enabler of direct marketing, so that the duopoly of the supermarkets might be circumvented. The major parties, argues Milne, have no food-security policy, and research and development have been progressively cut back over the past three decades. The Greens propose setting up an independent bio-security authority to deal with threats from the pests and diseases that will come with climate change. “One of Australia’s problems at the moment is that we are afraid of the wrong things. I smile to myself when Tony Abbott talks about securing our borders, when what we most need to defend our country against are pests like Asian honey bees and eucalyptus rust.”

Whish-Wilson offers an example of fear-mongering from his recent visit to Tasmania’s Agfest. “The Liberal Party had a massive stand with a big pull-down screen saying the Greens’ carbon tax will cost you as much as a Holden ute each year.”

Which, says Milne, is “all very well, but climate change is going to cost them the farm”.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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