RICHARD Colbeck isn’t planning to sit around wasting time obsessing and stewing over his controversial non-return to the federal Senate following this year’s election.
Life will continue rolling on for the pragmatic former Tasmanian Liberal Senator and he’s already fielding offers and exploring options on a career change which could involve working in national advocacy roles, focussed on farming.
He also wants to utilise the vast knowledge and skills he gained serving in federal parliament, especially on the intricacies of agricultural export trade, since he started in 2002.
Mr Colbeck spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media this week in one of his first interviews since the July 2 election result was declared and prematurely ended his political career.
He said he was sad at not being voted back into parliament but has adopted a realistic attitude towards his misfortune.
“That’s exactly how it is and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
“I need to look at other ways I can continue to work with industries like agriculture and that’s what I’ll do,” he said.
Despite being Federal Tourism and International Education Minister and the Assistant Trade and Investment Minister in the Turnbull government, Mr Colbeck was unceremoniously dumped to five on the Tasmanian Liberal party’s Senate ticket after challenging power-broker Eric Abetz for top billing during pre-selections.
He was also leapfrogged on the final ticket order by a non-member of federal parliament and young and ambitious State Liberal party staffer Jonathon Duniam.
That brutal demotion of an experienced, high ranking and respected party member also means the Tasmanian Liberals now have no representatives in the federal ministry.
Adding to Mr Colbeck’s unmerciful undoing, the Tasmanian Liberals also lost all three lower house MPs in the seats of Bass, Lyons and Braddon leaving them unrepresented in the House of Representatives, in the new term of parliament.
The retirement or non-election of other heavily experienced rural members with serious agricultural depth, like NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan and former Trade Minister Andrew Robb, means the former Tassie minister’s loss will be felt even harder by his party.
But Mr Colbeck said “I’m not letting any of that stuff consume me”.
It would be easy to get angry he said but would rather move on and be proud of the fact he spent 14 and a half years serving in the Australian Senate, became a government minister and had the opportunity to represent and advocate on behalf of the Australian agriculture sector.
“I’m looking at it in a positive light and quite frankly there’s not much point in looking back,” he said.
“Am I disappointed that I’m no longer a representative of the Tasmanian Liberal party in the Australian parliament?
“Of course I am and I suppose one of the tougher pills to swallow is a feeling that the party didn’t necessarily want to see me there anymore.
“But other than that, my view is I should be proud of the fact I had the opportunity and be proud of what I’ve done.
“Now I’m looking to see how I can use the skills I’ve developed over that period of time and the relationships I’ve built, to benefit the ag community and the community more broadly.”
As well as being a former Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture and portfolio shadow in opposition, Mr Colbeck said he’d become very close to Australian agriculture while serving in parliament which was also a sector dear to his heart and central to the rural community lives in, on Tasmania’s north west coast.
As for life after politics, he wants to continue working in his area of expertise, which could see him take up new roles linked to farming sector lobbying or energising agribusinesses and especially on export trade opportunities.
“I’d like to continue my engagement and at this early state I’m not ruling anything out,” he said.
“I’ve had a few conversations, a few phone calls, so there are some opportunities for me to work with the sector in various forms and I’ll continue to explore those opportunities because there’s still plenty or work to do.
“I’d like to be able to work with the sector to develop opportunities in trade and there’s still a lot of work to do off the back of those free trade agreements.”
Mr Colbeck said fundamentally he believed there was an over-reliance reliance on local, state and national markets which constrained the agricultural sector and its capacity to improve farm-gate returns.
“The opportunity to continue developing trade is something that’s pretty important to me and that’s why I was really excited to have the opportunities I did, to represent Australia at trade forums around the globe and work in the trade portfolio,” he said.
“If there are people out there who believe that my sense and understanding of their industries could be of some value to them, I’m happy to have a discussion with them to see how I might work in conjunction with them.
“I’ll bring the same philosophy to them that I brought to the parliament - I’m about trying to resolve issues in a very down to earth and frank way.
“You can spend a lot of time leading people down a pathway towards solutions that aren’t necessarily going to take them anywhere.”
Mr Colbeck said he was also keen to work on helping to resolve the dairy industry crisis that’s facing producers in Tasmania and south eastern Australia, while he also had an interest in the horticulture sector’s fortunes.
He said a milk levy was an example of people presenting a “magic bullet solution” that only provided false hope deviated from tougher, long-term policy decisions.
“The reality is a lot of these issues are quite complex and there isn’t a magic bullet solution,” he said.
“Presenting some of these things as something that will help the ag sector, when it really won’t, I find a bit hard to swallow and I think it’s actually poor representation.
“It might seem like a good idea at the time but there’s nothing like having a strong understanding of your sector and what its real drivers are and then making your decisions based on good evidence.
“I think one of the problems for the dairy industry over the last two or three years is that it got caught up in some of the hyperbole of the boom, if you like, and a lot of people took their eye off the real drivers of the market and unfortunately a lot of people are paying a pretty tough price for that at the moment.”
Mr Colbeck said he’d been involved in a number of critical inquiries during his time in Canberra including into the “so called dairy wars” and also steering a select-committee inquiry food processing sector that bolstered his knowledge of supply chain issues; especially price drivers.
He said not being overly-dependent on a narrow market was extremely important to farmers in getting a sustainable farm gate return.
“If you look at the vegetable sector, it was producing something like 25 per cent more vegetables than the Australian market could take but was trying to sell them all onto the Australian market and then because there was an over-supply the prices were tight and it also gave the retailers a level of market power,” he said.
“But if you have alternative markets you can relieve some of that pressure and that’s why trade issues and opening trade is such an important part of that overall process.”
Senator Colbeck said he also noted the National Farmers’ Federation and others had expressed concern about a potential rise in protectionism in the new Senate; with four members from One Nation and three from the nick Xenophon Team on the 11-member crossbench.
“The only people protectionism will hurt is Australian farmers and exporters,” he said.
“If we want to continue to grow our agricultural sector and to grow our business opportunities, trade is the way that we’re going to do it.
“If we want to put a wall up around Australia and say ‘well nothing comes in’ there’s an obvious response to that which means that nothing goes out and the only people that will hurt is us because we produce 60pc more in agriculture in dollar terms than we need.
“Putting a wall around Australia is only going to hurt Australian farmers.”