WHOEVER wins the federal Labor leadership ballot will need to go out and clean up the mess that’s been left behind in rural Australia by the previous government.
Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese are both faced with a monumental challenge to regain trust and confidence from rural voters and prove their party comprehends the regional landscape, beyond rhetoric.
That healing and recovery process would be turbo-charged by a sincere, heartfelt apology from the new party leader, for banning the live cattle trade to Indonesia in June 2011.
If they can’t or won’t undertake that journey to redemption, the ALP can simply give up now and surrender seats in rural Australia to the Coalition forever.
Some people may say it’s time to move on from the live cattle suspension and even thank the Labor government for the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme, implemented in response to the animal welfare issues which underpinned the sudden ban.
But perhaps they’re not living with the day-to-day reality of the economic and social grief they’ve been forced to endure in the name of political convenience, forced on the by the ALP while serving a left wing urban vote winning agenda.
An exclusive Fairfax Agricultural Media poll conducted during the federal election campaign saw 64 per cent (696 of 1096 respondents) nominate the trade suspension as a deciding factor on their final vote.
One of the ALP’s chief architects of the suspension Janelle Saffin suffered a 6.8pc swing against her - and subsequently lost her North Coast NSW seat of Page to the National’s Kevin Hogan.
Another Labor back-bencher who undermined party policy by publicly backing a phase out of live exports was Darren Cheeseman, who lost his Corangamite electorate to Liberal Sarah Henderson after suffering a 4.1pc swing against him in the marginal southern Victorian seat.
Western Australian Labor Senator Glenn Sterle chairs the Senate Rural and Regional Transport Affairs Committee and is a former road train operator in northern WA and the Northern Territory.
Senator Sterle said his party had no official plans as yet on how they planned to reclaim lost ground with rural voters, but acknowledged “we’ve got some work to do”.
He said voter confidence in Labor was severely “dented” in regional Australia because of the live cattle suspension.
But the ALP still values the regions “greatly” and views agriculture in particular as being “integral” to the national economy, he said.
“We did some good stuff in the election and announced some good policies but unfortunately the Indonesian cattle ban reflected on us very badly,” he said.
Labor’s Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon acknowledged the live cattle ban, or “pause” as he calls it, did cost his party votes this election, not just in the bush.
He said the issue continued to permeate a negative judgment, not only in the beef cattle industry but other sectors of the economy.
Mr Fitzgibbon said other groups were concerned that if Labor could ban the live cattle trade to Indonesia in such an unnerving way – without consulting our trading partners or industry groups and despite departmental warnings of a domestic animal welfare crisis and economic disaster – that type of political sabotage could also occur in their sector.
“It was a significant weight around our necks,” the no-nonsense Hunter MP said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he apologised for the ban at a beef forum in Mt Isa at north-west Queensland in late July, shortly after being appointed Minister, ahead of the election.
His off-the-cuff speech - made to about 150 graziers - apologised for the ban’s impacts on real people, regardless of the right and wrongs of why it took place.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he couldn’t recall the exact audience reaction on the day, but in the end it failed to spark any kind of voter revolt and the bitter taste still lingers.
To win back voter support in regional Australia, Mr Fitzgibbon believes Labor needs to deliver on the promise of a brighter economic future for farmers, backed by stronger policies aimed at increasing productivity and profitability.
That includes finding ways to improve export market access to capitalise on the Asian “dining boom” that he passionately supports.
“It’s critical to Australia’s economic future that the agricultural sector continues to grow in strength,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he wished the new Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce well and would be giving him “every opportunity to prove himself” while also “keeping a close check on him”.
About 40,000 Labor members are now expected to cast their vote to determine the new Labor leader in coming weeks.
Some of those voters also live in rural areas and may well wish to ensure their choice of new leader is someone who knows where they live, understands how they live and can also eat humble pie.