HE may seem like an unlikely voice of reason standing between warring farmers but Palmer United Party WA Senator Dio Wang wants to halt the ongoing antagonistic polarisation of rural communities, over Genetically Modified crops.
Senator Wang was elected in 2013 for the PUP and while higher profile former party members Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus split and turned independent, he maintained loyalty to the political brand first started by mining magnate Clive Palmer.
During this year’s campaign for re-election, he’s toured regional areas like Mount Barker in the south-west, Broome in the north and York and Northam closer to Perth, listening intently to voters’ concerns, including those aired by the farming community.
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media this week, he said a “hot topic” that’s been raised with him by non-metropolitan voters leading into the July 2 poll, was GM products.
Senator Wang said organic farmers were “really keen to talk about it” having been largely prompted by the recent landmark legal claim involving Kojonup organic farmer Steve Marsh against his GM canola farming neighbour Mike Baxter who won the property rights test-case.
“The way I see it, GM is just like the climate change argument,” Senator Wang said.
“After years of polarising debate, people either seem to fall either into the category of believer or non-believer.
“But first of all what I’ve been telling organic farmers is, it’s scientifically proven that GM product is safe.
“Secondly, there’s no point in the organic farmers attacking the GM farmers because organic produce commands a higher premium and higher price and potentially higher profits, so the market forces will work it all out anyway.
“Australia has a reputation of being clean and green and the buyers and importers of Australian produce are after this high end of the market anyway.
“If organic produce is really good, there will be more GM farmers converting over to organic farming to make higher profits, so there’s not much point in arguing whether GM products are good or bad.
“It’s up to the global market to decide and the farmers individually to decide, which crop works best for them.”
Senator Wang said on the back of the Marsh v Baxter case some farmers wanted to reintroduce a ban on GM crops like canola while others said they simply wanted to promote organic produce.
But he said he had stressed to them that if the market was good enough, “there will be more farmers producing organic anyway”.
“Again, it’s just like the climate change argument; you can find believers and non-believers and you will find more people who believe in renewable energy than climate change,” he said.
“But rather than polarising the community, both sides need to find common ground.
“My argument is, none of us are scientists so let’s not pretend we are so wise in arguing about GM or non-GM crops; let’s argue about the market.
“All farmers are business people so they understand the market better than the science behind GM so let’s just focus on the market and choosing which products benefit the individuals.”
In Mr Baxter’s legal victory, judgements consistently said GM plant products have been declared safe for human health and the environment while farmers have gradually adopted the technology since its introduction commercially in 2010, in WA.
Despite that evidence of economic and environmental efficacy, the WA Labor party has promised to reintroduce a ban, if elected next year.
Senator Wang said the specific issue of the current WA government’s move to repeal the GM Crops Free Areas Act in this term of government or Labor’s plans to ban GM again, hadn’t been raised with him during his rural travels.
But he slammed the ongoing politicisation of farmer issues, like cropping biotechnology.
“In general I’m sick and tired of politicians telling farmers what to do,” he said.
“Farmers understand their businesses better than politicians so again let’s leave it to the farmers and the market will dictate which crop the farmers choose to grow.”
Senator Wang said rural constituents had also raised the backpacker tax issue with him consistently.
He said he believed working holidaymakers should pay some form of taxation, for using public services in Australia.
But the 32 per cent introduced by the Coalition in last year’s budget, that’s now been deferred to January 1 next year pending a review, was too high, he said.
“It’s just a stupid decision to hike the tax and 32pc is too high,” he said.
“The reason farmers are hiring backpackers is due to the lack of workers in their local area but a tax on backpackers is really a tax on farmers because in the end the farmers have to increase the pay to attract the backpackers.”
Senator Wang said of the 27 federal politicians representing WA, he was the only one independent of the major parties which had enabled him to work on the GST issue over the past couple of years and establish a Senate committee to investigate implementing a national integrity commission.
He said concerns about the inadequate internet coverage, NBN and mobile blackspots had been raised at every meeting he’d attended.
“Lack of good quality infrastructure is one of the reasons why kids are leaving rural towns and going to live in the city; there are not enough doctors and not enough schools,” he said.
“The concern I have is, farmers are doing it tough already and if their children decide to not return to the farm and run the business, how will the older farmers remain motivated because they’ll eventually need to hand the farm over to someone else?”
Senator Wang said the WA government must also change its attitude towards the AvonLink passenger service and had a fundamental duty to support public transport rather than expect it to be profitable, per se.
He said the train line was important for people living in the regions travelling to and from Perth regularly for school or medical reasons and for disabled people who struggled to access bus services.
It also provides tourism options for overseas visitors to WA outside of Margaret River and Perth to experience the natural beauty of rural locations, he said.
“The State government should drop the idea that this particular public service should be made to return profits and they should keep funding it,” he said.
“We seem to have a PM who’s keen to hop on a train now and then so if the Commonwealth is serious about public transport, particularly to rural locations, it should fund the AvonLink or come to some joint funding arrangement with the WA government.”