ASKED to describe himself, Country Party co-founder Peter Mailler laconically offers: “Fat one-legged farmer from Boggabilla”.
He is indeed one-legged, after complications from a bout with cancer at two led to his right leg being amputated at 15.
With limited ability to exercise, Mr Mailler also tends towards what a livestock agent might describe as “forward condition”, although not unusually so in the 43-year-old farmer demographic.
And he does farm west of Boggabilla, in northern NSW, growing grain and raising cattle on 1400 hectares with his wife Clare, a vet, and their four children aged from six to 15.
“When people tell me I can’t do something, my reaction is, ‘don’t tell me what I can’t do’”
If Mr Mailler was just a hick with a limp, though, he wouldn’t have burred up the National Party.
Across the black soil plain is the farm his father bought and paid for by sharefarming, and where his brother Rob devised Beeline, the world’s first GPS-guided auto-steer system.
Mr Mailler doubts whether either of those projects would be possible under the merciless economics of farming today. It’s partly those economics that have pushed him into politics.
That’s the other side of the farmer from Boggabilla: an inability to sit on the sidelines if a problem appears in front of him. It’s the sort of mindset someone might develop after the loss of a leg.
“When people tell me I can’t do something, my reaction is, ‘don’t tell me what I can’t do’,” Mr Mailler said.
That determination is supported by a good mind. He trained as a research scientist, taking his Agricultural Science degree at the University of Queensland in 1992.
“You work out what the problem is,” he said of academia, “and then you work out how to solve the problem.”
A healthy dose of political cynicism
Then he encountered politics, which complicates such straightforward reasoning. From 2009-12, Mr Mailler was chairman of Conservation Farmers, and from 2010-2013, chairman of the peak body Grain Producers Australia (GPA). At GPA, he discovered that politics and problem-solving are not necessarily the same thing.
Spending time in Canberra as the leader of the grains industry, Mr Mailler recalled one incident “that really got up my nose”.
GPA was arguing for a more nuanced outcome from the Wheat Export Market Amendment Bill 2012, the legislation that removed the wheat marketing single desk. Underlying that flagship issue, Mr Mailler said, was the more complex question of whether monopolies could manipulate the supply chain to the detriment of farmers.
With some exceptions (he cites Bill Heffernan, Sean Edwards, Chris Back) “the Coalition basically said it couldn’t write legislation from Opposition - which was not true - so they couldn’t declare a position if they were elected”.
“So we saw the Bill pass because the Greens lost patience with the Coalition. That was purely political posturing. We had an opportunity to get it right, but because the Coalition wouldn’t work with the Greens overtly, and they wouldn’t work with (Independent MP) Tony Windsor, even though Windsor had legislation that would have worked, the ability to change things died.
“When I spent time in Canberra, I got more support from Rachel Siewert, the Greens ag spokesperson, and Independent Nick Xenophon than I got from the National Party.”
Confronted with a new problem - politics - Mr Mailler’s first approach to solving it was to join the Katter’s Australian Party and stand for the Senate in the 2013 federal election.
He didn’t win the ticket, perhaps fortunately, because he stood thinking that “maybe we could bend the movement into an alternative voice for rural Australia”.
Instead, he found, “It’s really about Katter culture, and that’s intractable”.
“We need a political mechanism to remind people that they are part of an agricultural economy”
Then “five blokes on the phone” conceived the Country Party. It was meant to be an under-the-radar effort until closer to the 2016 federal elections, Mr Mailler said, but within 24 hours of determining the Party would be a thing, Fairfax Agricultural Media’s politics writer Col Bettles was on the phone.
“Then Barnaby Joyce gave us a spray, and we became legitimate.”
Mr Mailler - who writes a regular blog for FarmOnline - isn’t putting himself forward as a candidate: it’s the best way he can think of to make the point that the Country Party isn’t about him.
It’s a party, not a confederation of independents, because he thinks forming a party is the only way to get cut-through.
“The concessions that (Independent) Tony Windsor won from (Julia) Gillard were great, but no-one ever recognised them.”
“For us, the end game is getting better political advocacy. If the Nationals turn into what we want, we’ll have no role. It’s about forcing the change, or being the change.”
Some days Mr Mailler is optimistic; some days he despairs at whether entrenched structures and expectations can really be shaken by “five blokes on a phone”.
It’s early days, though, and Mr Mailler is already sure of one thing. “We’ve got done in eight weeks more than we thought we’d get done in eight months.”
A work in progress
The fledgling Country Party may yet not get enough support to form a party, and if it does, may not be go by that name.
Pete Mailler won’t name the other four blokes. They are working within their own communities or sectors, he said, and he doesn’t want them to cop the political backlash he encountered when he stood for the Katter Party.
Trying to place the Country Party in the political spectrum isn’t as easy as it might appear. It might be thought of as “progressive conservative”, or hark back to a time when conservatism was less allied to right-wing ideology.
Mr Mailler insists that the Party’s sole purpose is to solve problems, independent of political ideology.
“It’s about applying pressure to reform and respond better to the electorate”
Some of the problems it recognises, like the cost-price squeeze on agriculture and the decay of rural communities, tend to be the traditional domain of the political Right.
“We need a political mechanism to remind people that they are part of an agricultural economy,” Mr Mailler said. “If you eat food, then you’re ultimately part of the agricultural enterprise.”
On other issues, like climate change and renewable energy - and more innovative energy policy in general - the group is talking about matters that tend to be championed by the Left.
But for the Country Party’s founders, Mr Mailler said, the primary concern is to provide a sound future for their children in a time when a sober assessment of trends in climate, population and resources points to a rough ride for future generations.
Whether the Country Party has a go at reckoning with that future is still uncertain, as it fights to become an entity rather than an idea.
It is still short of the 500 paid-up members it needs to register as a political party, although Mr Mailler said if current growth trends continue, it should be registered by the federal elections.
It also hasn’t secured its name, although Mr Mailler is pragmatic.
“It was useful for pissing off the Nationals. It’s not about the name, though: it’s about applying pressure to reform and respond better to the electorate.”
Although the group formed to contest the 2016 federal election, it supports aligned Independent candidates contesting the NSW State seats of Northern Tablelands and Murrumbidgee - both Nationals-held - in the March 2015 NSW elections.
It also supports the campaign of non-aligned Independent Rohan Boehm in Barwon, another Nationals seat.
Success is unlikely to be a win in any of the seats, Mr Mailler acknowledges. Instead, the group is measuring success on how much pressure it applies to Nationals incumbents by providing “a safe place” to park a protest vote.
“If we can erode a sitting Nationals member’s vote from 86 per cent to 56pc, then his seat becomes marginal - and suddenly he’s got a whole lot more reach when he goes into bat in Macquarie St.”