A GREENS senator says he has learnt first-hand the challenges facing farmers, writes KATE DOWLER
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale was a vegetarian Melburnian just a few years ago.
But since moving his family to a small farm on the steep hills of Deans Marsh in 2007, the doctor-cum-senator has reverted back to eating meat.
"I wasn't a very good vegetarian anyway, particularly at barbecues," Richard said.
His reason for favouring vegies was borne out of concern about impacts of cattle grazing on the environment.
But now, he says, he understands "there is good management, and there is bad" in how livestock are run.
It is not his only view that has been influenced by living a rural life.
The senator says he now takes a "pragmatic approach" and has "realised just how hard farming is".
With his wife, Lucy, and two young boys, Richard has also battled the other challenges of country living, such as the threat of bushfires and a dearth of good telecommunications.
But they love it, and he said it has not taken long to fit into the eclectic rural community of Deans Marsh.
They run Belted Galloways, supplying Otway Prime, have a patch of agroforestry, orchard, vineyard, a 500-tree olive grove and a vegie patch. They have also restored eroded hillsides and planted many natives.
Senator Di Natale, who supports controlled burns on public land to reduce fire risks, has altered how he manages vegetation on the 20ha property since Black Saturday.
He has removed native grasses from near his off-the-grid, environmentally-friendly home, and cattle now graze under the timber lot.
"Being here (Deans Marsh) I reconnect to the environment in a more practical, direct way ... I can do stuff practically that makes me feel like I've made some contribution (to the environment)," he said.
In Canberra, he holds the Greens health, gambling and multiculturalism portfolios.
His passion is trying to reduce inequalities in society, which he "strongly believes" result in inequalities in health.
Richard said there "absolutely" remained inequalities in rural Australians' health standards compared with urban dwellers.
"But health is not just about health care, it's also access to education and employment."
To improve rural areas there needs to be more access to employment, education, and farmers "needed to be supported more", he said.
Some of his other "big goals" are achieving Medicare-funded dentistry, equal access to health care and further action on climate change.
Decentralisation is another key issue. Governments should have an "explicit policy agenda" to decentralising, he said.
"Otherwise we'll just have mega cities."
Senator Di Natale said fostering decentralisation involved greater planning for infrastructure and services.
"(However) governments have taken an ideological step away from planning, and have thought the market will sort it out", he said.
"That has never been my view. I think the market is just a tool, you've got to plan for the future you want.
"There are few things more important than producing food and fibre - and we're not doing enough to support farmers."
Senator Di Natale recently attended the Noorat dairy crisis meeting and said the dairy industry was an example of the hardships in many rural industries.
"We're prepared to throw money at manufacturing but when it comes to farming, we force farmers to compete internationally against other countries who are highly subsidised, making it very, very difficult for our farmers."
He said the Greens would like to give the ACCC "power to put the brakes on the supermarket duopoly, which Christine (Milne, Greens leader) has tried to get support from the major parties on. But they don't give any support because they are so captivated by the blind ideology that you can't interfere in the market."
Richard said that, when farmers were struggling to make a profit, it became harder for farmers to focus on improving the environmental values of their land.
He said the Greens were blamed "for many badly thought-out policies" on environmental issues, despite not being in power or being responsible for those policies that might have had unintended consequences.
Looking to the election, Senator Di Natale wanted the Greens to assist rural Victoria to "have a strong voice".
"We're trying to demonstrate we can be a voice for regional communities," he said. "The Nationals don't really represent regional Australia, they fall in behind the Liberals."
But according to medical professionals in country Victoria, the Senator is yet to have an impact.
Rural Doctors Association of Victoria president Mike Moynihan said his Association had not had contact with Senator Di Natale."The Greens don't seem to be very involved at all or take a structural approach to the provision of rural medicine," he said.