The Yukon Gold. The Austrian Crescent. The Irish Lumber and the Bintje. These are outlawed potatoes, just a few of the many varieties that are people are forbidden to grow in Western Australia. You see, unlike anywhere else in the country, potato growing in Western Australia is a regulated industry, like finance or petrol. A decision by the state government at the end of the Second World War has led to the establishment of a shadowy board of elites, whose Machiavellian schemes control every aspect of the potato market. They are The Potato Board, now rebranded as the Potato Marketing Corporation of WA. Haven’t heard of them? You have probably seen their work. If you’ve been watching TV lately you may have seen their Fresh Potato campaign in the form of the ‘Serve Up Some Goodness’ adds. They also attracted some media attention recently when potato grower Tony Gallati, owner of Spudshed Innaloo, gave away over 200 tonnes of potato in protest against potato board limitations. Yet as the majority of people don’t know of the board’s existence, the issue of potato regulation has stayed out of the limelight, simmering under the surface of public awareness.
The Potato Marketing Board (PMC) came into being after the 1946 Marketing of Potatoes Act, and they have effectively controlled the market ever since. Potato growing is tightly controlled, and restrictions placed on farmers almost seem to treat potatoes as an illicit substance. Growers must be registered at the board, and their farms must be licenced. They require a permit to grow an approved number of potatoes of an approved variety. Within seven days growers have to lodge a ‘Planting Declaration’. Transporting potatoes from the farm requires a ‘Notice of Harvest and Delivery’ form. The PMC controls who buys, sells, even who uses potatoes (hopefully my humble stockpile has escaped their iron grasp).
It doesn’t stop there. The Board holds the power to search premises and confiscate equipment believed to be supporting illicit potato crops. Appointed ‘Potato Inspectors’ can even stop vehicles if they suspect them of carrying over 50kg of spud. While it is unclear exactly what sort of qualification it takes to become a Potato Inspector, it is clearly a position of some power and prestige. How is this funded? The Board prides itself on receiving no state funding; they instead take commission on all potatoes grown and sold within WA. This works out to millions of dollars each year; in 2014, the cost of running this board was over 4.9 million, which included a $240,000 salary for the chairman. All this from a board controlled by only six members. Clearly, the PMC are no small fry.
But if you’re not a grower, why would you care? Nationally, around 66 varieties of potato are grown and eaten, but in WA, only 13 are allowed. And if you can tell your Royal Blue from your Ruby Lou, then being forced to eat watery Delawares just because you live in WA doesn’t sound like a fair trade to me.
It seems I’m not alone in this regard. In 2012 the WA Chamber of Commerce spoke out against the board, with spokesperson John Nicolau holding nothing back. “Plans to scrap the potato marketing corporation and free up the humble potato from excessive and anti-competitive organisation are long overdue”. A recent report by WA’s Economic Regulation Authority (ERA) found that the board were keeping prices high and damaging the industry in the process. They recommended deregulation. The ERA is not alone in condemning the board. A recent two page spread by the PMC attracted the ire of shadow treasurer Ben Wyatt, who declared the advertisement was a political campaign designed to justify the PMC’s existence. Leader of the opposition Mark McGowan also chipped in, saying that it “would be comical, if it wasn’t so damaging to the WA economy”. In 1993, the Potato Board, then known as Western Potatoes, began running their iconic advertisements featuring Con the Fruiterer, the images of which I have never quite erased from my memory. Despite the board’s efforts over the last twenty years, potato consumption has declined by 20% per capita in WA in the last decade and it seems that finally the chips may be down for the PMC.
There is still significant support for the board. The Marketing of Potatoes Act is reviewed every five years to assess its relevance and it has survived each assessment so far, with the Barnett government publicly committing to the PMC until the next election. In January 2015, the Shire President of Manjimup Wade DeCampo put out a media release in support of the PMC in the face of growing opposition. “Rather than paying attention to the outlandish statements made by a few people who know little about the industry or the Potato Marketing Corporation, the general public should be paying attention to the growers and the truth.”
Historically, there have been a little over 100 potato growing farms in Western Australia. The protectionism that the PMC can provide would certainly seem attractive to some of the larger established farms, especially those owned by board members themselves. The legislative seat of Warren (Manjimup) is a swinging seat. It is also a prominent potato growing area. No doubt PMC’s political powerbase around the area only serves to muddy the waters of this unwashed, soil covered issue.
As Con would say, “What, no western potato?”