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.