Time to change status quo

We will need to win the hearts and minds of rural and regional Australia

THE J. K. McDougall Lecture Series started as celebration of the centenary of the Ararat ALP branch. J. K. McDougall was a farmer, poet and prose writer, an activist and politician. He was also champion of regional development and responsible for the extension of telephone, telegraph and postal services in his electorate. On Friday, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs JOEL FITZGIBBON delivered the 12th lecture in the series. This is an edited version of his speech:

I AM very conscious of the significance of the J.K. McDougall lecture and I am proud to have been invited to address you tonight.

I hold a deep-seated belief that a healthy, vibrant and prosperous rural Australia is central to our country’s economic and social well-being.

It is after all, where we produce all of our food, fibre and minerals wealth. Yet 66 per cent of Australians live in our capital cities. The number climbs up to 80 per cent when you add our major regional centres like Geelong, Newcastle and the Gold Coast.

That’s not what I want for Australia, I am confident it is not what JK McDougall had in mind either. So how do we change that trend?

In my view it must begin with a change in our national political culture.

My travels through rural Australia this year have not so much been about partisan political campaigning but rather, a campaign to lift the prominence of agriculture and rural affairs within the national political discourse.

Based on the AEC’s classification system, Australia has 44 “rural” electorates. The Labor Party holds just five of them. Two are held by Independents. The Coalition holds the rest.

In the past 30 years, Labor has held no more than 13 rural electorates. This must change. Not for Labor’s sake, but for the sake of rural communities.

The status quo represents a structural political problem. Particularly when you take into account the fact that only about seven of the Coalition’s rural seats - all other things being equal - are currently within Labor’s reach.

This is a bad outcome for the remaining 30 or so electorates. It’s also a bad outcome for the Nation.

The problem exists despite Labor’s proud record in both agriculture policy, and policy initiatives for rural and regional Australia.

The Hawke/Keating years brought a revolution in agriculture policy. Industry leaders often say to me privately, “we only really get real reform in agriculture when Labor is in power”.

It’s true. But what we don’t do well is remind people of our significant landmark reforms.

Too many rural Conservative held electorates in Australia have too often found themselves stuck between a Coalition which takes them for granted and frankly, a Labor Party which finds them all too hard.

This in turn plays its own role in diminishing rural Australia’s place in the political debate and consequently, its share of media attention.

This must change. A lack of political contestability in rural Australia leads to poor outcomes for our farmers and rural communities alike.

Labor must initiate and lead this change, for our sake, for the sake of agriculture, and for the sake of the country’s rural and regional communities. When we change so too will the Coalition – by necessity.

And to those who think winning more rural seats is all too hard, I say this – in 1996 who would have thought John Howard would enjoy an army of supporters in Sydney’s west known as “Howard’s battlers”? And who would have believed that the Liberal Party would lose Indi at the last federal election?

There are challenges, of course. But the effort and rewards can be circular. More energy in Canberra will bring more energy to rural Branches. More energetic Branches armed with the enthusiastic work of the Parliamentary Party will bring bigger, more active Branches, more money and more quality candidates.

That in turn will seat more rural members at the decision making table in Canberra, bringing stronger rural outcomes which in turn, will further fuel success in the bush.

In many ways this process has already begun. The democratisation of our Party is already energising our Branches and Bill Shorten is backing the rural cause. As a former AWU leader and organiser Bill Shorten understands rural and agriculture issues.

It is why he extended my portfolio title to include “rural affairs” and why he has supported the formation of the Country Caucus. He understands the need for us to do better.

The Asia-led “Dining Boom” offers Australian agriculture an opportunity the likes of which we’ve never seen before. But it won’t just come to us, we’ll have to plan and work for it.

Success will largely be determined by the private sector but government will have a key role to play in providing strategic guidance, securing market access, in branding, in marketing, in facilitating the inflow of favourable foreign capital, and possibly making tough decisions about natural resource allocation. Backing and encouraging research and development will also be of critical importance.

In government Labor began the strategic planning with a range of initiatives including the National Food Plan, the Asia Century White paper and Feeding our Future report.

Sadly, that work has stalled under the Abbott Government. So win we must. But to win, we will need to win the hearts and minds of rural and regional Australia.

Joel Fitzgibbon

Joel Fitzgibbon

is Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry & Rural Affairs and the MP for Hunter
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Rylstone Sceptic
20/10/2014 9:03:34 AM

"In my view it must begin with a change in our national political culture". Good so at least you recognize you are part of the problem. But bizarrely you are on about how to make rural branches stronger etc, more politics, perpetuating the problem. If you or the coalition wants stronger representation and seats then start supporting farmers with sensible policies. Reports, plans and papers don't help anyone, best you all let us get on with it without creating extra costs and barriers, and my heart and mind like many will never be yours because you just don't get it! Just more Blah! Blah!
20/10/2014 10:47:21 AM

To gain traction in rural areas you will need to lose some in metro areas with the capo set & chattering classes .You will need to keep well away from the green ratbaggery .As long as you have back bencher's who have more in-common with animal rights activists then the average joe , you got no show .
20/10/2014 4:27:50 PM

Step one Joe acknowledge your role in the destruction of the cattle industry, and fall on your political sword. Northern Rural Australia will NEVER EVER have anything to do with a political party that involves you.
Chick Olsson
21/10/2014 9:10:56 AM

Joel, you are a decent man, but what your Party has done to our economy can never be forgiven. Your politics are totally anti business and completely anti farming.
angry australian
22/10/2014 6:15:15 AM

Trust Labor,rural Australia hasn't been able to trust you since Lance Barnard was Ag. Minister and that lasted 14 days. Let's look at your parties record,Kerin arguably destroyed the fishing industry and an estimated 10000 jobs, he also wanted to destroy the sheep industry by imposing quotas,Latham wanted to destroy forestry,Richo and Biggles stopped dam building not only in Tasmania but possibly the rest of the nation,the dream team of Burke and Ludwig the MDB and live export,Bligh with "Wild rivers" in Qld and Carr and Co damaging the Snowy hydro scheme for an "iconic" river.Enough said!
22/10/2014 7:17:42 AM

Chick Olsson, you have summed up the current Labor Party and agriculture perfectly. We still need to get big improvements out of the Coalition also in relation to agriculture and small business in general. They are pretty good at lowering our prices but hopeless at cutting the impact of irrational Government regulated costs we have to carry. But for the moment, the Labor Party still deserve many years in the sin bin for total failure in managing the nation's finances and businesses. Their stance on Industrial corruption is unacceptable.
22/10/2014 10:20:32 AM

Angry Australian....the sheep (wool) industry destroyed itself...it didn't need any help from John Kerin
22/10/2014 2:17:48 PM

On this rare occasion I agree with you Hydatid.
Out of the shadowShadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon aims to put ag policy under the microscope. Based in the NSW Hunter Valley, Joel also has a unique perspective on the tensions between primary production and mining development.


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