Katharine Murphy, political editor
Sat 30 Jun 2018 00.48 BST
National Farmers’ Federation head Fiona Simson says people on the land can’t ignore what is right before their eyes
• Podcast: Why farmers are getting behind the science on climate change
Out in the bush, far from the ritualised political jousting in Canberra, attitudes are changing. Regional Australia has turned the corner when it comes to acknowledging the reality of climate change, says the woman now charged with safeguarding the interests of farmers in Canberra.
Fiona Simson, a mixed farmer and grazier from the Liverpool plains in northern New South Wales, and the president of the National Farmers’ Federation, says people on the land can’t and won’t ignore what is right before their eyes. “We have been experiencing some wild climate variability,” Simson tells Guardian Australia’s politics podcast. “It’s in people’s face”.
“While we are a land of droughts and flooding rains, absolutely at the moment people are seeing enormous swings in what would be considered usually normal. They are getting all their rainfall at once, even though they end up with an annual rainfall that’s the same, it’s all at once, or it’s in so many tiny insignificant falls that it doesn’t make any difference to them.
“And the heat. We’ve had some record hot summers and some weird swings in seasons”.
Simson acknowledges there are “always going to be some outliers who are going to have some wild ideas” in farming or in any other sector of the Australian economy but she says “overwhelmingly, I think it’s got to the point where the science is very acceptable”.
The shift under way in the bush has filtered through to lobbyists lane in Canberra. Only a few years ago, when the then Labor government put a price on carbon, legislating a market mechanism to drive emissions reduction at least cost, the NFF rose in full battle cry against the heresy. But now, the NFF stands at the front of a phalanx of business groups trying to support the Turnbull government through the deeply fraught business of landing the national energy guarantee.
Simson isn’t trying to pretend black is white. She acknowledges the Neg looks a whole lot like the emissions trading scheme that her group shouted down only a couple of years ago. “I think the Neg for us is some sort of ETS potentially. It certainly talks about carbon and putting a value on that. There will be a price on that and there we go.”
She says it’s time to see the climate change-driven transition under way in the energy market as opportunity, rather than something to resist. “I think farm representation and farmers generally have come quite a long way in their attitude to climate, and climate change and climate variability and dealing with all of these things, and accepting some of the facts behind the science.”
“We have turned quite a corner ourselves, and our approach now to this is quite different than it was in those days [when Labor pursued emissions trading], when the [previous NFF] leaders chose that path.”
She is supportive of the efforts of the agriculture minister, David Littleproud – a next-generation Queensland National – to reset the resting disposition for the Nationals on climate change and energy. Littleproud is happy to acknowledge that climate change is happening and he characterises the shift to renewables as “exciting”.
But the Nationals are lagging their communities on the issue. The party remains split on climate change and energy, and on the Neg. Some are trying to cook up a coal transition fund as the price of supporting the policy, but if that’s the price of entry, Labor federally and the Labor states might veto the framework before it can ever get off the ground.
Simson says dissenters need to get out of the road of a settlement. Consensus needs to be reached because the damage inflicted by the last decade of policy warfare is going to take time to unwind, and the key to unwinding the destruction is policy certainty. “I have some sympathy for [the Nationals] because I know that our sector has had some wide-ranging discussions to come to the agreement that we have.”
“But at the end of the day, that’s their job”.
She says politicians “need to stop picking winners. This is not about coal versus renewables … it’s a bit like a farm, we are probably going to need a bit of everything. Surely, let the market decide is the best way rather than one politician thinking what’s going to be the technology of the future”.
Simson notes that Australian farmers love markets. They are entirely comfortable with competition. So the same rules should apply to the energy market. “For us it is very important that the policy be technology neutral, and let the market decide.”
She says politicians also need to understand that voters have had enough of the internal intrigues and the brinkmanship. “People are really frustrated at the moment with the politics, whether it is internal politics and infighting within the parties, or whether it is party against party. People are wanting now to have outcomes. People are facing skyrocketing energy prices. Some of my members are facing bills triple what they were a few years ago.”
So while there are still questions to answer about the detail of the policy framework, the Neg must be approached as opportunity. Simson says affordability, reliability, technology neutrality is fundamental, and the farm sector needs a tailored solution where emissions reduction can be built into the core of the business. “We think there are a lot of opportunities for small-scale energy generation and it’s already happening”.
“We would particularly like to take advantage of some of the heat generation that some of our intensive industries are using. For example, the pork industry has been amazing at capturing methane and then using that as energy generation – all the manure, the slurry going into the pits, having the methane captured and then driving a lot of the technology.”
“Things like that on farm are amazing opportunities.”
She says farms are often at the end of the power grid and are not well served by the status quo. She says the Neg framework could allow farmers to band together, and small communities to band together, to build their own energy infrastructure.
“We can work with this general framework. There is lot of opportunity”.
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