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Ian Causley cut sugarcane by hand when he began his career in the sugar industry … and played politics in much the same way: reflecting on his attitude in the political arena – towards fellow politicians and journalists – he said: “You’d either agree with me or violently disagree with me – I don’t think anyone had any doubt about where I stood – I made it very clear.” Image: Courtesy the late Ian Causley

RIP Ian Causley: man of cane, politician of stone

Ian Causley: I would say that there is probably no one alive today that knows as much about the Australian sugar industry as I do.

In July 2018, the Independent spoke at length with the late Ian Causley.

Ian Causley grew up in Maclean and was academically gifted. He won a scholarship to study at university, but had other ideas. “I didn’t want to be a school teacher or a doctor or anything like that,” he says. “So I came home and said to my father, ‘I’m giving up the scholarship.’

“He said, ‘You’ve got rocks in your head. So what are you going to do?’

“‘I want to earn some money; I’m going to go cane farming.’

“I cut cane [by hand] for seven or eight years … to save enough money to buy a cane farm. In 1961, we bought [the farm at] Warregah. I used to cut cane by day and I’d work at the farm at night on a little tractor, until I could try and pay off the debt.”

The 26-year-old was soon head-hunted by local sugar industry representatives. “A couple of older members came to me and said, ‘Look, we want you on the sugar executive,’ which was the management of the industry on the Clarence River. I said, ‘I’ve got a young family, I’m trying to pay off a farm, I really haven’t got time.’

“They said, ‘We know your education, we want you on the sugar executive.’” Causley was sceptical. “‘Young people like me don’t get elected to the sugar executive; you’ve got to have grey hair. Only people who had been in the industry for a good number of years get elected to the sugar executive,’” he said at the time.

“They said, ‘Look, let us worry about that. Can we put your name up for the executive?’ They weakened me in the end, I thought, ‘Ah well, I can’t win; it’s a pretty safe bet I won’t win.

Causley pauses, then says, rhetorically, “I was elected, wasn’t I?”

His participation in the sugar industry soon moved beyond “this local area” into the NSW sugar industry, and also into Queensland. “I would say that there is probably no one alive today that knows as much about the Australian sugar industry as I do,” he says. “A lot of that has been passed down to me from older people over the years.”

All up, Causley served as an executive in the sugar industry for 51 years, first being elected to Clarence Canegrowers executive and later the chair of NSW Canegrowers in 2009. He says there are “a couple of things” he regards as career highlights. “First of all, I was involved in the first mechanisation of harvesting on the Clarence – getting machines to cut the cane instead of men. I was involved in the committee that got the harvesters cutting cane.

“A few years later, there was the buying of the sugar mills; CSR said they didn’t want to stay in sugar any longer in NSW. So we had to look at our options. What would we do? Would we continue to grow sugar or would we do something else? We looked at the options and, at the end of the day, the most viable crop on these flood plains was sugarcane.

“So we had to scratch around and find the money to buy the sugar mills. Anyway, we borrowed money off the state and federal governments; and we raised money from the growers, which hurt … we didn’t have a lot of money. We were lucky though, I suppose. I don’t believe in luck, I think you make your own. We managed to survive, we had our tough times, don’t worry. Even going back seven or eight years ago, we went through some tough times, but we got through it. It’s a very solid industry.”

And it is his work in the sugar industry that Causley regards as his greatest achievement in life. “I set out to be a farmer,” he says. “I started off with 100 acres of sugarcane and we now have 700. I set out to be a successful cane farmer. I certainly achieved that and other things along the way, of course.”

His political life came with a disclaimer. “I never intended to be a politician,” he says. However, political awareness is part of his story; he recollects: “I suppose … even before I was involved in politics, I belonged to the Country Party from the age of about 25. I mean, you’ve got to be interested in politics, because politics affects every part of your life. I used to go to the party meetings and contribute, but had no intention of being a politician myself.”

Much like his enlistment into the ‘politics’ of the sugar industry, Causley’s years as a politician were substantial; and, he says, so were his achievements. “I privatised the irrigation areas; I set up the Sydney Fish Markets the way they are today, [and] also the new fisheries act, which this bloody [NSW Coalition] government can’t seem to get their bloody mind around; it’s not that bloody hard.

“I put the act in place and we had the lobster fishery up and running before we lost government [in 1996]. If we’d been in government for another six months it would have been okay, it would have been right.

“I think they were pretty big achievements.”

On the modern political ‘art’ of obfuscation, supported by a plethora of advisors found in most politicians’ offices these days, Causley answers with an ironic chuckle, but the irony was more directed towards his behaviour decades ago. “My answer to that is: I gave the answer whether they [journalists] liked it or not.

“When I was first elected in 1984, I had one girl, one lady, one electric typewriter and one ancient photocopier. That’s all we had. That was our office. Of course, politics wasn’t as pervasive as it is today. It was rather simple. I think I said to you on the phone the other day, ‘I didn’t have any press officers. In fact the leader of the Nationals in NSW only had one press officer. We only had one for the whole party!”

(Note: This an excerpt from a story, ‘Sweet Politics’ published in the September 2018 edition of Clarence Scene Magazine.)

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