EVERYONE wants to know what Joel Fitzgibbon’s farm qualifications are following his sudden elevation to the federal Agriculture Minister’s post after Joe Ludwig resigned from Cabinet suddenly last week in the wake of Kevin Rudd’s successful leadership coup.
Well, like a few other newly appointed or re-shuffled Ministers, it seems the only real criteria or qualification needed for promotion to this latest ALP front bench was a political one – backing Mr Rudd as ALP leader and PM over Julia Gillard.
It appears agriculture is again being sacrificed to a short term political strategy that’s designed to rescue some ailing MPs from the approaching train wreck confronting Labor at the upcoming election.
The election is predicted to be a catastrophe for the government, regardless of the train driver - but the new leader’s temporary guidance could succeed in saving several endangered passengers.
However, to resolve some lingering curiosity here’s a basic summary of the new Agriculture Minister’s credentials, as outlined in an industry insider’s email circulated last Monday.
The 51-year-old Labor MP has represented the northern rural NSW electorate of Hunter since 1996, having succeeded his father Eric Fitzgibbon who held it for 12 years.
He lives in Cessnock - one of the electorate’s main towns - with his wife and their three children.
Hunter features a mixture of agriculture and heavy industry, dominated by coal mining, aluminium smelting and electricity generation.
It also possesses some of the country's best vineyards and richest beef cattle grazing areas.
In Canberra, Mr Fitzgibbon’s most recent parliamentary role was Chief Government Whip.
He has also previously served as Defence Minister under Mr Rudd but resigned in controversy in 2009 after breaching the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
An article at the time by Sydney Morning Herald chief political correspondent Phillip Coorey said Mr Fitzgibbon blamed his ministerial downfall on a series of leaks by traitors within his office and the Department.
But the article said the Minister’s demise was in fact “caused by the discovery that his office had helped his brother's health fund, NIB, lobby for lucrative defence work”.
Speaking on Mr Fitzgibbon’s controversial past during his Cabinet announcement on Monday, Mr Rudd said the new Minister had effectively done “four years in Coventry”.
“Joel has a passion for the regions and therefore a passion for agriculture and I think he is a very good fit for the portfolio,” he said.
“So I just say to people give Joel a go. He has been four years on the sidelines. I think everyone deserves to get a second chance.”
Mr Rudd’s words may have been distracted, subconsciously highlighting his own personal journey to political redemption, when he neglected to mention another key motivating factor behind the new Minister’s appointment.
Hunter is regarded as a safe ALP seat, held since 1910.
But at the 2010 election, Mr Fitzgibbon suffered a significant negative swing towards his National Party candidate Michael Johnsen, who has been pre-selected again for this year’s poll.
Mr Johnsen has promised to tackle his political enemy on the need for change after 100 years of the ALP in Hunter and carbon tax backlash, so an elevation in status for the incumbent could avert some damage on polling day.
Adding to the spin, Mr Rudd said the new Minister would be responsible for finding new future business opportunities in agribusiness and food production, as part of a new ministerial team committed to the regions and agriculture.
“He will bring a strong voice for the regions, a strong voice for agriculture, a strong voice of course for our forestry workers, and a strong voice also for our fisheries,” he said.
“This team has been selected on the basis of merit.”
That talk may sound promising but rural folk have seen that bait dangled before them many times before.
If the federal election is held on September 14, it’s almost impossible to see what can be achieved by a new farming regime in 11 weeks, which Senator Ludwig failed to finalise in two-and-a-half years of trying.
In typical blunt style, Shadow Trade Minister and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop separated the wheat from the chaff when she described Mr Rudd’s new Ministry as one that “rewards deceit, dishonesty and disloyalty” and is a “triumph for factional warlords”.
“They haven’t changed leader because they think Kevin Rudd is a better person or a better leader,” she said.
“They’ve only changed because of the polls.
“This has been what we’ve expected, more chaos, more uncertainty (and) more instability.”
Another curious short-term ministerial appointment included Tony Burke holding onto a front bench role - losing Water and Environment but gaining Immigration - despite allegedly supporting Ms Gillard’s leadership.
However, Mr Burke has form on the board in such votes because he supported Mr Rudd when he stole the party’s leadership from Australia’s current US Ambassador Kim Beazley in 2006.
Mr Burke was subsequently rewarded for backing Mr Rudd with the Agriculture Minister’s role after Labor won the 2007 election, at the expense of the party’s well-credentialed agriculture shadow and former Labor Tasmanian Senator Kerry O’Brien.
Mr Burke is regarded by some political analysts as a future PM but he was one of several senior ministers who publicly denigrated Mr Rudd’s leadership style in unforgiving fashion, at the time of his unsuccessful challenge to Ms Gillard in February 2012.
Rather than staking his political future on the outcome of the ALP’s latest leadership battle, Mr Burke only offered up his resignation, perhaps knowing it would eventually be rejected and for good reason.
Amid the leadership tensions, Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd found at least one point of agreement; that the young MP’s political talents are too rich to ignore, in comparison to demanding his loyalty, alongside a diminishing talent-pool.
“Late last night I had a phone call from him (Mr Rudd) saying that he didn't intend to accept the resignation, that he wanted me to stay on and also had a long conversation with Julia Gillard who was pretty unimpressed that I had put in a resignation and was asking me to stay on,” a coy Mr Burke said earlier this week.
Other significant Cabinet changes saw Mark Butler take over Water, Environment and Climate Change while Ballarat MP Catherine King became Regional Australia Minister, assuming the crown from Anthony Albanese via Simon Crean.
Richard Marles replaced staunch Gillard backer Dr Craig Emerson who resigned as Trade Minister in the wake of Mr Rudd’s ascent, paying the same price for genuine loyalty as Senator Ludwig.
Mr Rudd said the new Trade Minister would now need to urgently execute major free trade agreements, in particular with China, but it’s not likely to save any real face for the ALP.
Long before the appointments of Mr Fitzgibbon and Mr Marles, experienced senior agricultural industry members were asking why the ALP ministry couldn’t work cohesively to execute the raft of current opportunities, especially in trade.
On Monday last week, one industry source expressed extreme frustration at the continued lack of movement on finishing market access arrangements and deals for sheep and cattle trade, under the former Labor Cabinet regime.
“Trade opportunities are going begging but farmers are suffering as a result,” the source said.
“It’s embarrassing when you sit down for talks with officials from other countries and they say, ‘why cant’s we buy your livestock?’ and you have no real answer for them.”
National Farmers Federation CEO Matt Linnegar expectedly played the political game of speaking code in public, in welcoming Mr Fitzgibbon to the new role, adding all the expected platitudes to his public statement.
But instead of requesting an urgent meeting with Mr Fitzgibbon to brief the greenhorn minister about sensible policy decisions needed to increase investment in agricultural innovation, R&D, workforce needs, trade priorities and cutting red tape - just before he departs in maybe 11 weeks time - Mr Linnegar may well be privately craving talks with a new Minister or two while experiencing a fresh attitude and injection of action, following a change of government.