Denis's cover image
Denis

Denis GINNIVAN

Year of Award: 1991 Award State: New South Wales Business > Rural And Regional
Farming > General
To study programmes designed to assist farm families and rural communities which are experiencing financial difficulty and high pressure for adjustment - USA, Canada
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Farmers in trouble was the topic of Denis Ginnivan’s Churchill Fellowship when he travelled from rural Victoria to the mid-west of the United States to study programs assisting farm families and rural communities experiencing financial difficulty. His 1991 Fellowship took him to Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and also to Ontario in Canada.

Denis was working part-time at the National Rural Health Alliance in Canberra’s Deakin West when I was the Media and Communications Manager there, and one afternoon we sat in the tiny tea room for a quick coffee while he recalled his Fellowship. He emphasised the value in actually going overseas, and said that emailing or phoning would not have had the same effect: ‘You see first-hand the trouble that they’re in; it has to be face to face or it’s a different relationship. I was there. There’d be two feet of snow, you couldn’t get out, the crops were ruined and the farmer in the next area, twenty acres away, had committed suicide the week before.’

Denis also made the point, echoing the experiences of many Fellows, that his Churchill Fellowship meant that he could be trusted. People perceived that he was a Churchill Fellow, not a journalist who might have been associated with a disreputable media outlet or someone turning up out of curiosity.

Denis observed that there were ‘surprising similarities between the North American and Australian farmers in attitude and identity as farmers.’ Continual pressure to change in a changing world affected farmers in both places. However the rural communities in North America and Canada were more engaged in the political process than Australian farmers. In the American and Canadian rural communities Denis saw the benefits of mediation in situations where the bank wanted to foreclose on a farmer’s mortgage.

When he returned to Australia, part of his report was published and taken up by legal professionals and MPs such as Tony Windsor. This led to the New South Wales Farm Mediation Act 1994 for efficient and equitable resolution of farm debt disputes. Other states soon followed.

The Act – at a time when 98 per cent of New South Wales was declared in drought – was a milestone for struggling farmers and farming families who were living in fear of being thrown off their properties by banks, without any attempt at mediation.

‘A mediator helps two people negotiate,’ writes Denis in his report. ‘Mandatory mediation creates a pressure valve, a “bridge”. It creates an expectation of being able to do something about the problem.’ Mediation is less expensive, it is confidential and it provides a moratorium on action by creditors, during which time an orderly and calm communication process can be established. The benefit for those involved is clear.


Excerpt from “Inspiring Australians” written by Penny Hanley (2015)

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