MOVES to establish a new rural-based federal political force challenging the Coalition’s grip on the bush have taken another step towards realisation this week.
CountryMinded founder and leader Peter Mailler confirmed his party had gained the 500 member signatures needed to seek formal registration with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
Mr Mailler and other backers have been inching the new party closer to formalisation since their ambitious claims were first revealed by Fairfax Agricultural Media in late 2014.
Initially touted as the Country Party of Australia, the fresh movement aims to challenge the National Party’s traditional foothold in Canberra, representing farmers and regional Australia, with Liberals also in the firing line.
In late September last year, members agreed to change the party’s name to CountryMinded in response to the Australian Country Alliance in Victoria altering its title to the Australian Country Party, the month before.
Mr Mailler is a former chair of Grain Producers Australia who farms near Goondiwindi on the NSW and Queensland border and ran for Katter's Australian Party (KAP) at the 2013 federal election, as number one on its NSW Senate candidate.
Mr Mailler said CountryMinded wasn’t just a party for farmers and wanted to also pursue broader issues around the policy needs of regional communities and economies.
Having gained over 500 members and signatures this week, he said the party’s executive would now assess the bona fides of that list, such as names, addresses and potential duplications, to ensure it met the AEC’s criteria.
Once the list has been ratified, he said it would be submitted to the Commission later this week or next week for scrutiny - but it could take between two to four months before a final response is provided, formally confirming the final registration.
However, Mr Mailler said passing the 500 signatures was a welcome milestone and anticipated more work was needed, to increase its profile.
“We’ve taken another positive and significant step this week getting the 500 signatures we need to gain the official AEC registration for CountryMinded but we’re not quite there yet,” he said.
“However, over the past few weeks, there’s been a notable shift in the level of tangible support and awareness of what we’re doing, with new members joining who share similar views and have also been agitating for change.”
Mr Mailler conceded the formal registration process was taking longer than first anticipated but personal health issues – which he declined to elaborate on – had contributed to the delays.
“We’ve got over 500 members now but will keep recruiting new members as the interest grows in what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
Mr Mailler said CountryMinded aimed to run candidates in key Lower House seats at the upcoming federal poll but was keeping details of any strategy on specific targets - like Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England - close to his chest.
He said the exact rural seats to be contested would depend on the quality of candidates they recruited – but they would also target members in the Upper House.
“We won’t be running candidates in every rural seat just for the sake of it but we will contest seats where we can provide quality candidates and strong opposition,” he said.
Mr Mailler said he the new rural-based party aimed to provide a credible option for voters in the bush who were disillusioned with the Coalition’s traditional mode of operating and felt like they were being taken for granted.
When the fledgling party’s plans were first revealed in late 2014, Federal National Party director Scott Mitchell said the proposed political faction would only serve to dilute rural voters.
“It looks like another micro party who may give those people who want to protest an opportunity to do so,” he said.
“The National Party has been around for 100 years working for rural and regional Australia and in my view, we’ve got a proud record.”
In mid-2014, the ALP through Shadow Agriculture and Rural Affairs Minister Joel Fitzgibbon established a “country caucus" to tackle rural and regional policy issues and scrutinise legislation through a specific rural prism.
He also developed the new forum with leader Bill Shorten’s backing to help deploy campaign strategies targeting rural and regional electorates neglected by the Coalition that can influence election outcomes.
As an example, Mr Shorten has highlighted former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella losing her safe Victorian rural seat of Indi, to Independent MP Cathy McGowan, at the 2013 election.