THE clash between Barnaby Joyce and Joel Fitzgibbon represents one of the most intriguing and colourful pairings in this parliament and a potential bonanza for Australian agriculture’s profile.
Everyone in Australia already knows the Agriculture Minister’s name which is a rarity for a portfolio that generally suffers from a distinct lack of visibility, beyond the farm sector.
In the last parliament, former minister Joe Ludwig was thrust into the public domain reluctantly under the controversial glare of the Indonesian live exports drama.
Most people knew the minister’s name but for all the wrong reasons - many of them not of his own making - and unfortunately few positive agricultural deeds rated any mention in the wider community.
Joe’s replacement, Joel Fitzgibbon, may have a diminutive physical stature but he carries a somewhat towering presence within ALP ranks, as one of the party’s key power-brokers.
Joel and Barnaby demonstrated their popular appeal by featuring prominently in a punk rock music video for Canberra band Super Best Friends and their song "Round and Round", released just weeks before the federal election.
The two rural MPs jigged alongside other high political luminaries such as Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Bob Katter, Nick Xenophon and Canberra’s leading media faces, showing a lighter side to our political landscape.
But they’ll need to do more than just lip-sync in a three minute video to leave a lasting impression on a sector that’s promising a bright future, but with some seemingly dark clouds hovering above.
National Farmers’ Federation chief executive Matt Linnegar said the NFF had always demanded strong agricultural voices to hold key posts in the two main political camps and the current set-up provides two of the biggest names in the game.
He said that scenario would help raise the sector’s profile in the general community but only time would tell whether that converted into genuinely improved policy-making decisions.
“It’s a great outcome that we’ve got two high profile people in the minister and shadow minister’s role,” he said.
“Both Joel and Barnaby, in their own different ways, have their hearts in the job which is another positive for agriculture.
“But only time will tell exactly what this high profile achieves.
“It may create a positive outcome if there’s a strong clash of ideas and debate on where to take agriculture into the future and how to get there.
“At worst it could turn into a political sideshow but I don’t think it will because both men understand the importance and opportunities associated with agriculture and our farmers.”
Mr Linnegar said he’d seen early evidence of Mr Fitzgibbon’s pledge to work in a bipartisan manner with his counterpart on issues like live exports.
He said the pair may have slightly different positions in terms of regulation, with the Coalition wanting to cut red tape burdens and Labor seeking to increase oversight, to appease internal politics and concerns around animal welfare.
The NFF boss said he believed the minister and shadow would also share a bipartisan commitment to work together on drought reforms, biosecurity and research and development (R&D) funding.
Battle lines were drawn on R&D funding this week when Mr Fitzgibbon challenged Minister Joyce to explain how the Coalition would deliver on a key election commitment to inject an additional $100 million into Research and Development Corporations.
“I invite the minister to, sometime in the near future, reaffirm the now government's commitment to that $100 million promise,” he said during a speech in the House of Reps.
Mr Linnegar said the shadow minister’s challenge was “fair enough”.
But he didn’t think the Labor MP’s views on R&D were altogether different from the minister, with both supporting preserving the overall rural R&D budget and seeking to increase it when and where possible in future, to help generate increased farm-profitability and innovation.
He predicted the pair of rival politicians would clash regularly with differences of opinion over foreign investment - as seen in recent days over the GrainCorp issue - but their views on agricultural trade are quite similar.
As for the two personalities, Mr Linnegar said he predicted Minister Joyce would be “no shrinking violet” in the new job – and he believes Mr Fitzgibbon is cut from a similar cloth, with an aversion to shyness.
“They’re both big personalities and that’s a great thing for agriculture,” he said.
Mr Linnegar said there was an obvious contrast to the previous pairing of John Cobb and Joe Ludwig, with the former minister, by his own admission, shunning the limelight in seeking to retain a low profile.
He said Mr Cobb - who held the shadow portfolio since 2008 but was overlooked for the ministry in favour of his National’s colleague post-election - was more outgoing than Senator Ludwig but nowhere near as uninhibited as his replacement.
But he said Mr Cobb was also very hard working and “definitely had his heart in the right place and put everything into the job”.