Mr Hoey, a dairy farmer at Wonthaggi, Victoria, said it was important to maintain a good relationship with government but remember ADF was paid to advocate for and support its farmer members.
“The balance needs to be right but ADF should be able to, without fear or favour, challenge the minister or the government regardless of their political persuasion and push back if they think that the government policies are not right,” Mr Hoey said.
“ADF is not the cheerleader for the government. If the Minister is going to get offended by an advocacy group trying to hold them to account, then that’s the Minister’s problem, they need to toughen up.
“There needs to be a reset across all of agriculture and across advocacy in a lot of other areas.”
Mr Hoey said he’d seen ministers from both sides of politics be “too easily offended” in the 15 years he had been working in federal advocacy.
Currently ADIC Sustainability Taskforce chair, Mr Hoey is also an ADF national councillor, has served two terms in 2006-08 and 2009-11 on the ADF board and held many other advocacy roles.
Fractures among farmers
Mr Hoey said the industry itself was more fractured than it had been for a long time, with plenty of disagreement about the direction it should take.
Unless there was greater goodwill within the industry, it would struggle to attract new entrants and grow, and while ADF could not directly control the culture, it could have influence.
“I’m not sure whether one thing led us to this point, but I guess two sayings in life are fairly applicable,” he said.
“One is that the rubbish you walk past the day becomes the standard you set for tomorrow and the other one is that bad things happen when good people sit by and watch.
“There are plenty of really, really good people in this industry and I think we need to pull together and start calling out some of the bad behaviour so we can get ourselves on the right trajectory to grow the industry and build confidence.”
That culture was among the factors, Mr Hoey said, causing labour challenges for the industry and the underlying reasons were complex.
“If you went into any secondary school and said to Year 12 students that, with a couple of years’ training, that there’s dairy industry jobs with up to $80,000-100,000 salary package, they probably wouldn’t believe you,” he said.
But it wasn’t just a lack of awareness about the salaries on offer or work-life balance concerns deterring young people from considering careers in the dairy industry.
“It doesn’t help either, when, for the last five, six, seven years or so, the only headlines we ever see about the dairy industry is all the negativity,” Mr Hoey said.
“If you’re looking for career prospects, I’m not sure the industry has set itself up to be an employer of choice.”
People for growth
The lack of suitable labour, Mr Hoey said, was stifling growth.
“Even with the solid milk prices and seasonal conditions we’ve got, unless there’s a reliable and steady stream of skilled staff they can tap into, farmers always feel challenged as to why they would milk more cows, buy the farm next door and expand or grow their business,” he said.
Mr Hoey said the industry and government needed to identify and remove barriers to building stronger regional workforces.
Training also needed to be prioritised as he said the TAFE system had been largely dismantled without an adequate replacement.
No going back
Even if the labour problems could be solved and milk prices continued to be strong, Mr Hoey didn’t expect the milk pool to return to previous highs.
“When you look at the pressures around urban sprawl, development, competition for land, and rainfall variability now, it’s pretty hard to see any of the regions, with the exception of Tasmania, getting back to where they had their production back in the early 2000s,” he said.
“Growth for growth’s sake is not sustainable. It has to be on the back of profitability.”
Those extra pressures meant the dairy industry needed to build resilience and find ways to smooth the peaks and troughs.
Governments could help with water, climate change and employment policies.
“We need to make sure government is not slowing progress down and that they’re responsive when issues arise rather than taking six months or nine months to respond,” Mr Hoey said.
“By then, the issue is gone and can’t be fixed.”
The dairy advocacy system also needed to become better at communicating its policy positions with grassroots farmers, he said.
Part of the difficulty was that farmers couldn’t be direct members of ADF, forcing it to rely on the state organisations to be the messengers.
While direct membership should perhaps be considered, it hadn’t been successful in the past.
“We tried that years ago and the state farming organisations pretty much rebelled and stopped it from happening because they were afraid of losing their revenue base from the farmers,” Mr Hoey said.
A lack of funding constrained ADF’s effectiveness, he said.
“There has to start being a recognition of the reality about how much money’s available,” Mr Hoey said.
“If it’s going to remain a voluntary organisation, how many people are prepared to sign up?
“Sometimes that’s just going to be about runs on the board too, people will become members when they feel that they’re getting the wins, but the hard thing with advocacy is that when they do have a win, all farmers get the benefits, not just those who are members.”
Mr Hoey is among a field of six candidates competing for two business director roles at the November 25 election.