A FEW weeks ago a small group of farmers and I decided that it was time to put action behind the growing chorus of voices calling for change in rural politics. Over the Christmas break we quietly launched the Country Party of Australia.
I am not writing to promote the principles and ethos of this Party. Rather, I am writing to dispel the myopic criticism that emanated from the Nationals' head office in relation to this new rural and regional platform. Apparently the Country Party of Australia and others like it could dangerously dilute the rural vote.
“The Nationals are ineffective and lack influence because many of the seats they hold are actually too safe”
I have spent an inordinate amount of time in Canberra walking the halls of Parliament House talking about problems faced by farmers competing in distorted markets and being exploited by monopolistic companies that control supply chains.
I have been dismayed at the lack of understanding about how the regional economy actually works and the lack of empathy from politicians and bureaucrats alike.
I have been forced to listen to apologists who justify their inaction in advocating for their rural constituencies by saying that they don’t have the numbers to be politically influential in Canberra. These same people have the audacity to suggest that we, who elect them, simply don’t understand the nuance of political process.
The simple truth is that the Nationals are ineffective and lack influence because many of the seats they hold are actually too safe.
Let’s follow the logic. The electorate I live in is a Nationals seat that is held with a massive margin. The seat is safely held by the Nationals due to rural conservative sentiment with no effective competition. This is in part because the National and Liberal Party have an agreement to not compete in the seat, but more so because there is no genuine non-aligned rural alternative.
This lack of political competition means that it doesn’t matter what the Labor Party offers, or what promises the Coalition breaks or fails to even make, the seat will be returned to the Nationals.
What is the point of either side of our political duopoly providing any meaningful political comfort or respite to this rural electorate? Simply, there is none.
“The political pork barrelling in marginal seats is numbing”
Many eastern state rural seats are taken for granted as Nationals seats, unless traded by the Nationals to the Liberal Party. Regardless, these seats are taken for granted and because of this we who live in them are taken for granted in the political process.
There is no point in either side of government doing anything beyond the barest minimum for these electorates because in the singular focus on winning government these seats are already given.
Often the barest minimum is more to be seen to be doing something for these electorates in times of hardship only to appear charitable in sympathetic urban voters’ eyes. There is rarely any real commitment to resolve the underlying structural problems that increasingly amplify any disruption to our sector.
Following this realisation that safe seats actually have limited political capital, consider how marginal seats are courted in the political process.
This is the political process that we are not supposed to understand.
Without going into detail the political pork barrelling in marginal seats is numbing. A simple example was the financial support provided to multinational car manufacturers to maintain operations to provide employment and industry in key seats.
In the meantime we have seen key political support for agriculture abandoned - or, worse still, horse-traded away with little regard for the viability of the sector. The social demographic of rural electorates is quickly shifting as these seats slide into the lowest socioeconomic classes in the country.
Rural and regional Australia is in a population decline. We will never get more seats in Parliament. The unconditional commitment of the Nationals to the Coalition means we will never get more political leverage unless these rural seats become more marginal.
The only way that we, rural and regional voters, will get more political attention is if our vote cannot be taken for granted.
Over 85 per cent of this nation’s wealth is originated from rural and regional Australia. If we are to be politically supported in a way commensurate with our real contribution to the nation today and into the future, it is essential that there is political competition for the representation of the sector.
We have seen an increasing tendency for many parties to pursue political agendas that are for the sake of the party and those within it, with little or no regard for the moral and ethical obligations that come from being elected to serve their constituencies.
The Nationals are no exception. They pursue an increasingly conservative and politically safe agenda deriving their political relevance from their place in the Coalition.
It is obvious that decreasing the margin by which rural seats are held provides far greater opportunity for political leveraging of those seats. The most crippling dilution of the rural vote is achieved by an unconditional commitment to a Coalition in which rural seats are taken for granted and rural politicians are subservient junior partners.
It is laughable that the Nationals should warn of the risk of diluting the rural vote from Parties like the Country Party of Australia.
Einstein’s definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome. It is time to end the political insanity and create genuine political competition to arrest the decline in the political leverage and influence of rural and regional politicians.