ANNE Ruston may have needed to borrow a set of glasses to help read the blurring text of her ministerial oath during Monday’s swearing in ceremony at Government House.
But the determined SA Liberal Senator now aims to focus clearly on delivering strong policy outcomes for Australian farmers as the new Assistant Minister to Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce, in the new Turnbull Coalition government ministry.
Senator Ruston said she would “love” to see Australia look harder at finding ways to value add to food and fibre products, rather than just selling the raw materials.
“I think the future of Australia is about increasing the level of innovation and technology that we apply to our raw food stuffs, so we’re value adding the opportunity,” she said.
“In Australia we’ve got a fabulous reputation for producing clean and green food products but we can capitalise on that reputation much better than we currently are.
“It just really bothers me that so much of our produce is exported overseas without us doing anything with it.
“We are the country we are in Australia, and the success our farmers have had is largely because we’ve been cleverer than everyone else.
“We’ve been innovative, we’ve applied technology and used research and development to make sure that we’re the best in the world and I think we need to refocus on that.
“I’m a great supporter of research and development and a great supporter of giving the opportunity to our farmers to be able to do more with their product than they already do.
“I think every agricultural commodity has an opportunity to value add.
“Probably the best example of it in an existing commodity that does do the whole vertical integration in terms of value adding is the wine industry.
“If we could apply the same model to many of our other industries to the model used by the wine industry, can you imagine the increase in productivity and the economic benefits to the country?”
Senator Ruston said the most important thing the new ministry can do is deliver the Murray Darling Basin Plan “the way we said were going to, from a water resources perspective”.
From an agriculture perspective, she said the Turnbull administration would be best served by “getting out of the way of our farmers and let them get on with doing what they do best which is growing food and fibre”.
Senator Ruston said most of the regulation and compliance burden facing farmers was, “completely unnecessary”.
“If we can continue to deal with ending red and green tape we would be doing our farmers a big favour,” she said.
Despite speculation ahead of the ministry’s unveiling that a promotion was on its way, Senator Ruston said her elevation to the Assistant Minister’s role was “totally unexpected”.
“I had no inkling there was anything in the offing,” she told Fairfax Media on Monday shortly after being sworn in by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
“In fact I did not expect anything at all so it came as a complete shock when I got a call from the Prime Minister (on Sunday).”
Mr Joyce has warned he has ultimate ministerial responsibility for the new portfolio arrangements but details are still being worked out with Senator Ruston in relation to managing fisheries and forestry and other aspects of the new pairing of water with agriculture.
“This is only day one,” Senator Ruston said.
“I’m really looking forward to working with Barnaby Joyce because he’s extremely passionate about Australian agriculture and he has farmers’ best interests at heart and you really can’t ask for much more than that.”
Senator Ruston said she believed the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper had been “very well received” after its release in July and contained some “fabulous opportunities for Australia”.
“It ticks all of the boxes in terms of the research and development and innovation that I’d like to see, but obviously the fine tuning is the thing that’s yet to come,” she said.
“I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to have some input into the details of the delivery of that plan.”
While Senator Ruston’s ministerial credentials are being heavily scrutinised in the wake of her new promotion, she will aim to harness the depth of agricultural skill and experiences of other Coalition members to deliver good policy outcomes.
“Agriculture is in the lifeblood of the Liberal and National party,” she said.
“Maybe one of the reasons why the Prime Minister chose me for this role is because I’ve always taken the view that consulting with my colleagues is one of the most important things I can do.”
After his ascent to become Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull promised his leadership style would be “thoroughly consultative” and return to a “traditional thoroughly traditional cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner”.
Senator Ruston said there was “great strength” in a leader giving people a job to do and then letting them go and do it.
“I absolutely welcome the opportunity to work in a government that has gone back to the collaborative style of government that perhaps we’ve not had for the last little while,” she said.
A 'rosy' path to politics
Senator Ruston entered the Federal Senate in 2012, filling the void left by the retirement of SA Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher who also possessed strong agricultural credentials and water policy experience.
Senator Ruston, 52, was born and bred in Renmark, in the rich Riverland irrigation region of her home State.
She has spent time working in the SA Liberal party as an electoral officer and political advisor in areas like industrial affairs and tourism.
Other pre-parliament roles include being the SA Liberal party’s vice-president and Chief Executive of the National Wine Centre (from 1996-2002).
Senator Ruston returned home in 2003 to become the owner and managing director of Ruston's Roses - heralded as the largest rose garden in the country.
In parliament, Senator Ruston has been highly active in committee service in areas related to agricultural issues, including Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications which has investigated water issues.
She’s also a member of the Select Committee on the Murray Darling Basin Plan that’s looking into the social, economic and environmental impacts of the Basin Plan on regional communities due to report in February next year.
“I’m an irrigator and so every time I turn up to a hearing I have to declare my conflict of interest,” Senator Ruston said.
“And as an irrigator I understand the trials and tribulations of the last five or six years with water restrictions and implementation of the Basin Plan and all of the activity and uncertainty that’s gone with that.
“I have a great interest in agriculture and believe that the future of this country is all about having the most innovative farmers we can.”
While Senator Ruston’s political acumen and water policy credentials are self-evident, the potential political threat from sensitive and complex water politics in South Australia was also critical to promoting a local Liberal member to the ministry, to safeguard the newly mixed water and agriculture portfolio.
Asked do define water politics 101 to someone from outside her home State, Senator Ruston said the issue came back to a lack of alternative water supply.
She said South Australia was situated at the bottom end of the Murray Darling basin river system which meant water management plans were much more important for locals than for any other State.
“We’ve been responsible water users for 40 years and like to think we’ve set an example,” she said.
“For us, water is a live or die resource.
“Without water, the River Murray, Adelaide doesn‘t really exist so it’s the most important resource in South Australia.
“Other States have other sources where they can get their water from but we would not exist without it.”