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As ‘Tortuous as a Ludlum Thriller’

by Nicholas Brown,
History Program, Research School of Social Sciences, ANU

In his condolence motion following Rick Farley’s death in May 2006, Andrew Robb observed that Farley’s greatest skill — especially as demonstrated in crafting the Landcare initiative in 1989 — was in ‘shaping, shifting and influencing’ the attitudes of often ostensibly conflicting interests to define common ground. Such an achievement, Robb noted, might seem ‘now conventional wisdom and nothing to be debated’. But Farley’s significance in gaining acceptance for such processes, in principle and practice, should not be taken for granted, and is at the core of the biography I am writing of him with Susan Boden.

The Farley Robb had worked with at the National Farmers’ Federation, the ‘stiletto man’ who engineered the political impact of that organization in its most crusading days of free market crusading in the 1980s, had also come to epitomize by the time of his death a capacity to build partnerships over some of the deepest divides in Australia — over land, race and the environment. If Farley, tragically dead at 53, seems an unlikely figure for historical analysis, then that (to take Robb’s point) might be because we need to rethink the conventions that connect history and policy.

Born in 1952, Farley worked at one remove from the institutions of government customarily associated with policy formation, but did so through a period in which the borders defining those institutions became significantly more porous, responding to the pressures of ideological change, new practices of leadership and communication, and a basic questioning of the structures of — in Paul Kelly’s enduring phrase – ‘the great Australian settlement’.

His first public offices were in organizations that introduced a distinctively radical agro-politics to Australia: the Cattlemen’s Union, (public relations director, 1975-78; executive director, 1978-85) and the National Farmers’ Federation (deputy director, 1985-88; executive director, 1988-95). Both organizations challenged settled patterns in the representation of rural interests, questioning ‘natural’ political alliances, mobilizing public protest, and articulating — in often confrontational terms — research-driven alternatives to policy orthodoxies. An unlikely recruit (he had left an English honours thesis on 1930s American crime fiction at the University of Queensland in 1971 for Nimbin and experimental theatre), Farley’s influence to a large extent fed on his incongruity as a public figure, morphing the social alternatives of the 1970s into those of economics in the 1980s.

There was a generational element to this transition, as Michael Pusey has noticed, but as much as it was about bringing the regimes of economic rationalism into government it was also about experimentation, about an openness to change that reconsidered the meanings associated with fundamental concepts of the economy, citizenship and politics itself. As Farley moved through the Canberra networks of political staffers, bureaucrats, journalists, industry bodies and lobbyists that defined government during the years of the Hawke ‘Accord’ and Keating’s ‘high wire act’ he embodied such openness, its style and transgressions. There was a deep pragmatism to his work, a fair degree of ego invested in the spin, and an elusive personality. But there was also a fundamental professionalism in serving a constituency. Landcare provided a way of recognizing the profound challenges farmers faced in responding to the rising concept of sustainable development; alliance with the Australian Conservation Foundation, at first seeming unthinkable, the best way to secure that assistance from a government pledged to consensus in public, and aware of the necessities for restructuring in the bush.

Farley’s work, so often pursued through the interstices of these networks, and from the ground up, brings a historical dimension to accounts of policy that are good on taxonomy but not so strong on experience and contingency. Landcare may well have depoliticized the public sphere of debate over environmental management, and as a ‘political entrepreneur’ Farley no doubt participated in taking causes that were once embedded in essentially collective and oppositional politics and framing them in the individualized discourses of a stakeholder society. But such identifications and personifications can have the effect, as Tim Rowse argued in his study of H.C. Coombs, of oversimplifying both ‘the problems intrinsic to twentieth-century liberal-democratic thought and practice’, and the energy subjects brought to, or derived from, often less than predictable careers and opportunities. The connection of history and policy needs to recover both this complexity and energy.

For Farley, unpredictability was often present. It came particularly with his engagement with Aboriginal policy, at first as the NFF’s delegate to the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation, then through his fraught if ‘heroic’ role in negotiating the Native Title Bill, and then — his position in the NFF having become untenable — as a consultant on native title and land use agreements. The contrast between Farley at the Cattlemen’s Union and Farley in this last mode is striking, as his work — now in the mode of contracting that in itself is a significant instalment in the history of policy – burrowed deeper into getting the best deal possible in negotiations over resources, land, heritage and the environment. This work was often conducted in gesture and talk, in trust and over long periods of time, and was easily corrupted by suspicion or temperament. Shades of Farley’s undergraduate thesis were evident in his account of life in ‘the Mabo spiral’, which produced ‘scenarios as tortuous as a Ludlum thriller’. Those scenarios, however, were also the stuff of policy at the levels at which, perhaps ultimately, it matters most. It is exactly their historicity that a life such as Farley’s helps us understand.

Citation: Nicholas Brown, ‘As Tortuous as a Ludlum Thriller’. Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/as-tortuous

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