What happened to brave leaders? A look at the life of Rick Farley

Will we see another lobby group leader who genuinely wants solutions? AAP

When was the last time the head of a national lobby group led a national initiative in the national interest, way beyond the comfort zone of the majority of their constituency?

Where are the national leaders of industries and other sectoral interests who can challenge our sense of what is possible? Who can appeal to our enlightened self-interest, to our better selves, with a clear moral sense of what’s right?

When did we last see a peak representative body deliberately and strategically reach out to its perceived opponents, seek to understand their position fully, and commit to work together to find a way through?

“A way through” is the apt title of a new biography of Rick Farley, former English and drama student, journalist at the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, adviser to Dr Doug Everingham (Minister for Health in the Whitlam government), and executive director of the Cattlemen’s Union of Australia and the National Farmers’ Federation. Farley was architect of the national landcare program, member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and member of the National Native Title Tribunal. Most importantly, Farley was an honest, trusted broker of agreements on some of the most intractable resource use and access issues in the country.

That sketch of an unusual professional trajectory itself hints at an extraordinary life. Rick Farley’s life and contribution to Australia was unique, and richly deserving of a scholarly biography.

Farley’s story has been told, not by an established political biographer, but by an historian and a landscape architect, Nicholas Brown and Susan Boden. The historian’s skill in systematically seeking out primary sources complements the landscape architect’s understanding of the importance of place. The relationship between people and country was a recurring theme in Rick Farley’s life.

This book is a richly detailed chronicle of the main currents and some of the dominant personalities in agri-politics over the last 40 years. This was a time when Australia dismantled protection, deregulated industries and its financial system, floated the dollar and reduced tariffs, exposing many farm sectors to unfettered (some would say unfair) international competition and considerable social stress and dislocation.

“A way through” offers perceptive vignettes of some of the landmark rural conservation and land-use issues of the late 20th century. These include land degradation and salinity, the management of the Australian Alps, the sensitive cultural heritage issues of Lake Victoria in south-west NSW, and the Cape York Heads of Agreement process, of which Farley was particularly proud.

In these and many other instances, Farley brought competing interests together, listened deeply and patiently, worked from clear principles, helped people to understand each others’ 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.

His skill and courage in bringing his elected council members with him into territory where the bulk of the membership may have been uncomfortable appears unmatched by Canberra lobbyists these days.

The partnership between Farley and Phillip Toyne, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, was a politically potent combination that turbocharged the nascent landcare movement in Australia. Like many good ideas, it seems sensible and inevitable with hindsight, but at the time it required imagination, true leadership and trust between Toyne and Farley, who challenged both their organisations.

Rick Farley’s story - through 20 years of leading farmer organisations, then ten years of increasingly intense engagement in native title and reconciliation issues and overlain by national roles in landcare - weaves together strands of professional achievement and personal struggle.

The trite “work-life balance” doesn’t begin to describe the pressures Farley endured for so many years, and the strains these placed on his family, his relationships and his sense of self. Brown and Boden capture these tensions evocatively. By the end of the book, the reader feels the exhaustion and burn-out that probably contributed to Farley’s aneurysm and collapse on Boxing Day 2005, and his tragic death in May 2006 at age 53.

Nicholas Brown notes at the outset of the book that many interviewees contrasted Rick Farley’s passion and political fearlessness with today’s leaders. So does Laura Tingle, who says on the back cover:

“From the perspective of our current ugly politics, Farley seems as if from another century … a person who found a connection with people who trusted him and respected his approach to finding solutions where others found only conflict.”

I can’t help but wonder what value Rick Farley could add now, for example in the clashes between miners, farmers and environmentalists over coal seam gas developments, and the underlying long-term tensions between food production, energy and aquifer protection.

How would Farley handle the rampant anti-science misinformation of the celebrity climate change sceptics?

Someone with Farley’s negotiating skills, and credibility among mining corporations and Aboriginal leaders, could deliver enduring benefits from the resources boom and the carbon market for Indigenous people, for rural communities and the environment.

Rick Farley, like the late Peter Cullen, was gifted in speaking truth to power, in cogent language that political leaders and their constituents could “get”. How we miss those clear, far-sighted voices in debates over how best to share the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin. How we miss their ability to understand and empathise with all sides and cut to the essence, to find a way through to a better place.

In Rick Farley we lost a real national leader, one of the most significant Australians of the late 20th century. Sadly, surprisingly, he has never been recognised with an Australian honour.

This excellent biography illuminates an extraordinary contribution and a fascinating man. I hope it gains wider recognition for what Farley achieved and the paths he blazed.