PETER Mailler’s push to establish a new rural political force is the government’s problem and not Labor’s, says Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.
Mr Fitzgibbon was instrumental in launching the Labor Country Caucus last year to strengthen the party’s method of comprehending rural policy issues.
The Country Caucus forms part of a renewed push to win rural seats that are expected to play a critical role in determining the outcome of the 2016 federal election.
Its members met recently at Tweeds Heads, NSW, in the electorate of its chair Justine Elliot, to formulate a basic tactical agenda for the year ahead.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the meeting was attended by Labor members arriving from as far away as Western Australia and South Australia, with most of the discussion focussed on policy development.
He said the Country Caucus agreed to hold individual meetings with Labor shadow ministers with portfolios that impact on rural and regional Australia, “to ensure that they understand how our country members are thinking”.
“We want to meet with each of the shadow ministers, ranging from the shadow health minister, employment services minister, environment minister and so on to share with them how people in rural regional Australia see those issues and what people in rural Australia believe are the best responses to some of those challenges,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said caucus members also spent time debating campaign strategies and tactics at the meeting.
“Our key goal there is to ensure that every electorate across rural and regional Australia is contestable,” he said.
“And not just for our political interest and our ambitions to form a government, but to ensure that those communities benefit from a strong contest in each of those electorates.”
CPA the Coalition's problem
Prior to Christmas it was revealed Mr Mailler - a NSW farmer and former chair of Grain Producers Australia - was seeking the 500 members needed to formally establish the Country Party of Australia (CPA), to contest federal seats.
The CPA’s aim is to challenge any perceived complacency towards farming and rural electorates, by the Nationals and Liberals.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Country Caucus discussed the new political movement at Monday’s meeting but “only in passing” because “we see (Peter) Mailler as their problem and not ours”.
“We obviously agree with the new Country Party on one level, and that is that Coalition members representing rural and regional seats are taking those communities for granted, and like Peter Mailler we’ll be seeking to capitalise on that,” he said.
However, Mr Fitzgibbon said there was no discussion about whether the Country Caucus needed to make an immediate tactical response to the CPA challenge.
Rural seat focus
He said the meeting agreed the Country Caucus would strategically focus on 13 rural or regional seats, between now and the next election-day.
He said a phone hook-up was held with Labor’s national secretary George Wright where the 13 “target seats” were discussed including plans for future polling, as well as related strategies including social media.
Mr Fitzgibbon said an audit on Labor’s rural and regional target seats also assessed which ones had existing candidates or require new ones to be recruited.
“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got some former members who didn’t deserve to lose their electorates (at the 2013 election) but are running again, like Mike Kelly in Eden-Monaro and Janelle Saffin in Page,” he said.
“But my very strong view is, and there was a general agreement on this (at the meeting), you will attract better and stronger candidates in challenging seats if the party is producing the right policies and talking the right language.
“In NSW we are running Vivien Thomson in a winnable Senate position and I know that she is enthused by the increase in discussion in the party around rural and regional Australia and agricultural issues.
“That’s an example of where we’re attracting people who know they’re coming to a party that is developing the right plan and has the interests of bush seats at the forefront of our minds.”
However, despite meeting this week the Labor Country Caucus is yet to reveal any new policy details to help shape voter’s thinking.
“Oppositions never roll out policies anywhere near this far out from an election,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“We’ll be in discussions with various shadow ministers on those policies.
“The Labor Party has a national conference this year, of course, which will be relevant to that policy development process so it’s a bit too early to do things before then.”
But he said the party’s current policy settings remain “very relevant” including natural resource management.
“I see our commitment to addressing climate change as a key to addressing natural resource sustainability issues and therefore ensuring that we can continue to capitalise on export opportunities well into the future,” he said.
Top of Mr Fitzgibbon’s 2015 portfolio agenda will be addressing the absence of a strategic plan for Australian agriculture.
He said the sector was “desperately in need of a long-term strategic plan”.
“We’ve been promised one through the (agricultural competitiveness) white paper but we’re still waiting 18 months on,” he said.
“We need a big picture plan (which) Labor started in government with the Asian Century White Paper, National Food Plan, Feeding the Futures report - but now we’ve had 18 months of policy inertia and while we stall our competitors are on the march.
“We take the view that we can only fully capitalise on the so-called dining boom if we have a plan on the natural resources sustainability front, which is so important to our future in agriculture and therefore to rural areas.”
Overall, Mr Fitzgibbon said he was delighted by progress of the Caucus, believing it was “travelling very, very well”.
“It has very strong support from our leader Bill Shorten - the members of it are enthused - and I’m very pleased we now have a co-ordinated process that allows us, as a group, to speak with one voice,” he said.
“We are very pleased with the way in which it is already starting to impact on our policy development processes and even some of our campaigning strategies across the country.”
Bitter on sugar taskforce
Mr Fitzgibbon says Ms Elliot is “somewhat disappointed” the Abbott government chose to establish a partisan taskforce comprising only Coalition members to oversee the introduction of a new code of conduct for the sugar industry.
The taskforce will be chaired by Queensland LNP MP George Christensen and is due to report in May this year.
Mr Christensen says the taskforce will comprise Liberal-National members and senators who represent sugar growing areas and have a keen interest in achieving best outcomes for the industry.
It will report to Small Business Minister Bruce Billson and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce with terms of reference released late last year.
“The taskforce will consult with the industry and key stakeholders on the negotiation process, arbitration, and protections to determine if a code of conduct should be mandatory for the industry,” he said.
“By giving growers the ability to choose their marketing entity and making marketing activities fully transparent, growers will be able to make an informed decision about what is a critical part of their business.”
Mr Christensen says said the taskforce evolved after Wilmar announced last year it planned to take over the traditional sugar marketing role from Queensland Sugar Limited due to changed ownership arrangements exposing growers to potential monopolistic behaviour.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he agreed with Ms Elliot that if Mr Joyce was taking the issue seriously, he would have extended an invitation to join the taskforce to other MP’s with significant sugar production and marketing operations in their electorates.
“I believe that whenever you enter these conversations you have in mind what might be the likely solution and then you have a debate around that and I agree that a code of conduct might be a good starting point,” he said.