It's time: for a rural Senator

We need more people from the grass roots who know what it is to do it tough

LABOR faces the looming embarrassment of having no Federal Senators based in regional Australia after next July when Goulburn’s Ursula Stephens departs the scene.

But an opportunity to avoid a chronic structural flaw, the absence in rural representation for Labor’s Senate team, presented itself this week when Bob Carr resigned.

Carr's departure opens the door for NSW farmer Vivien Thomson, who said her planned nomination for the Senate vacancy was motivated by a strong desire to represent grass roots farmers.

Ms Thomson runs three mixed farming enterprises in Muttama - about 160 kilometres from Parliament House in Canberra - with her partner and three teenage children.

She was runner-up in the recent NSW Rural Women’s Award and is highly regarded on the rural scene as the new president of Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA).

She’s also secretary of the Jugiong/Tumut/Gundagai branch of the NSW Labor party, and says she’s not aligned to any party factions or unions.

In other words, her genuine political motivation is the issues concerning rural Australia and farmers.

“I want the Labor party to look beyond the factions and look at what is best for NSW and for Australia and give the heart of Australia a stronger voice in Parliament,” she said of her political aspirations.

Ms Thomson will likely face competition to fill the Senate vacancy from two former Labor MPs - Mike Kelly and Deb O’Neill - who both lost their seats at the 2013 election.

In taking a veiled swipe at her potential rivals she said, “You hear people all the time say there are too many professional politicians, and that we need more people from the grass roots who know what it is to be disadvantaged and do it tough”.

Instead of returning to Labor 'mates' rejected by voters, Bill Shorten’s party - which is seeking rejuvenation after years of internal dysfunction and chaos - could instead back a strong farming woman and inject new blood into their ailing ranks.

By choosing Ms Thomson, the powers-that-be would also help bolster Mr Shorten’s recent claim that he’s “determined to re-win the confidence of people in regional Australia”.

Ms Thomson declined to say if Labor would regurgitate past failures by choosing an ex-MP to replace the outgoing Senator Carr.

But she pointed out the current NSW Labor Senate team - John Faulkner, Sam Dastyari, Doug Cameron and Bob Carr - all have offices based in Sydney.

She says that lack of rural presence is replicated throughout Australia with all Labor Senators having offices smack-bang in the middle of cities in every State and Territory.

NSW Labor’s city-based Senators cover about 30 per cent of the State and Ms Thomson says her appointment would help connect Labor with the other 70pc of the State’s land mass, in rural areas.

However, if the Muttama farmer’s grass roots credentials are ignored – at a time when Labor’s rural vote is in an obvious steep decline - it would only underline Tony Abbott’s view that Labor “doesn't have rural Australia at heart”.

“But any government that I lead will have rural Australia's interests at heart because almost 50pc of the people sitting around the cabinet table will be from rural Australia,” he said in his National Press Club address at the start of this year.

Immediate past president of AWiA Marion Rak backed Ms Thomson’s aspirations, saying the Senate hopeful had many good ideas on rural issues and “knows how to put them forward”.

Ms Rak said Canberra had exhibited too much political focus on metropolitan issues at the expense of rural Australia in recent years.

She welcomed having another strong rural woman in Canberra, regardless of her political colours, to join another former AWiA president Cathy McGowan, who dramatically snatched the rural Victorian seat of Indi from the Coalition at the last election.

But these country women do have to perform, regardless of their political colours, Ms Rak said.

“If you’re in politics as a token female from the bush you may as well not be there at all, because that’s just a waste of space,” she said.

“They (NSW Labor) can’t choose a rural woman, just because it’s a warm fuzzy thing to do.

“You have to be able to voice your opinions and voice your views so they can be heard and acted upon.

“But I think Vivien has the ability to do that.”

One thing’s for certain, Mr Shorten won’t want to intervene and replicate Julia Gillard’s infamous “captain’s pick” earlier this year, when the former PM replaced long-serving party member Trish Crossin at number one on the party’s NT Senate ticket with indigenous Olympian Nova Peris.

That move left a sour taste in the mouths of grass roots party members, upset at Ms Gillard’s blatant disregard for democratic processes.

“Bill Shorten has talked a lot about increasing diversity in the Labor party – but at the end of the day this decision comes down to NSW Labor,” Ms Thomson said rather diplomatically.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


26/10/2013 7:55:06 AM

Not a labour voter but if I was I would definitely support the likes of Ursula.. Key point is Kelly and other apparatchiks have had their chance, achieved nothing and been voted out. Don't recycle them back through the senate....Please!
28/10/2013 3:16:59 PM

Hard to imagine Labor ever being interested in rural problems.They never have in the past.
29/10/2013 10:04:55 AM

Colin, please apply the torch to LNP - they are in power and will be calling the shots. ALP is going to have little say in gov for some time to come.
29/10/2013 4:59:19 PM

Notice how cattle exports to Indonesia have risen rapidly since Labor stopped governing Australia.Well done Tony.
Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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