IF initial impressions are any indication, rookie Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud has made a steady start to the new role that he says he wants to give “a red hot crack”.
But the first-term Queensland MP’s appointment to federal cabinet has been accompanied by a question mark over merit that’s set to hang over his ministerial head like the Sword of Damocles.
In late December, Mr Littleproud replaced embattled Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce who’d held the top farm job since the Coalition was elected in late 2013 and is now the Transport and Infrastructure Minister.
But that controversial cabinet re-shuffle left angry critics pointing the finger at politically motivated appointments, engineered by State-based quotas largely aimed at appeasing Queensland’s parliamentary numbers and demand for greater ministerial influence, within the government.
In the fragile mishmash of that political logic, Mr Littleproud leapfrogged more experienced Nationals considered to be more merit-worthy such as Victorian Darren Chester, who was dumped by Mr Joyce as transport minister and is now out of the ministry.
Others such as Michael McCormack and Luke Hartsuyker from New South Wales have held various ministerial roles which, if political performance and service were to be considered ahead of political favours in the leaders’ reckoning, would be regarded as apprenticeships on a pathway for promotion to cabinet.
Choosing his words wisely, given the political heat that’s lingering beneath the surface of his cabinet appointment, Mr Littleproud said he was “obviously surprised” at his political elevation arriving just 18 months into his first term as a federal MP.
“I wasn’t focused on higher honours and I think if you start focusing on that you lose sight of what your core responsibilities are, as a member of parliament,” said Mr Littleproud of being catapulted from the backbench into cabinet.
“My core responsibility at the time was to represent the people of Maranoa and I’ll continue to do that.
“But obviously politics is also about timing and opportunity and an opportunity has come up and I’m going to grab it with both hands and give it a red hot crack.”
While being a virtual no-namer – in complete contrast to Mr Joyce – Mr Littleproud does have a farming and agribusiness background that can’t be dismissed.
The 41-year-old’s pre-Canberra work experience includes serving in the banking sector for more than 20 years, gaining vital exposure to rural and agribusiness issues that will prove invaluable in applying his ministerial duties.
He also comes from a family farming background at Chinchilla in his sparse Queensland, Maranoa, electorate where he was born and raised and continues to live.
His father Brian Littleproud also represented The Nationals in the Queensland parliament from 1983 to 2001.
But Mr Littleproud doesn’t believe those experiences alone are enough to make him an instant agricultural policy expert, serving in federal cabinet.
“Nobody is the beholder of all wisdom and knowledge and the reality is, I’m always learning, as anyone is,” he said.
“I don’t intend to sit in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne – I want to get out and kick the dirt.
“We’ve got strong industry groups but it’s also about being able to wash any information across with a real lens about what’s happening on the ground.
“And that’s what I feel my job is – not only to listen to industry groups but to also get out and kick the dirt with real people and get a real appreciation of how policy settings actually impact, at the farm gate.”
Mr Littleproud said nobody else in the federal parliament, apart from probably Mr Joyce, had sat at more farmers’ kitchen tables than he had and looked at their businesses, to understand how it works.
“When I sit at the table and try to formulate policy that’s going to impact agriculture and impact that farm gate, I’ve got an understanding of exactly what that will do, when the rubber hits the road,” he said.
“That’s what I bring to the table – the (experience of) lending hundreds of millions of dollars and having the confidence to lend hundreds of millions of dollars, in the agriculture sector.”
Despite the lingering question of a quota-based appointment coming at the expense of merit, Mr Littleproud hasn’t let that early criticism deter his progress.
He’s already held several meetings with agricultural industry groups in recent weeks such as the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), to gauge their immediate policy priorities while demonstrating an early capacity to listen and learn.
He said he also believes there’s a “huge future” in agriculture and the same for rural and regional Australia as a consequence.
That type of attitude has left a positive impression on NFF chief executive officer Tony Mahar and Grain Producers Australia chairman Andrew Weidemann who have already met with him to bend his ear on farm policy.
“He (Mr Littleproud) seems pretty reasonable to talk with and is looking to come to the farm for a download of issues,” Mr Weidemann said.
Mr Mahar said Mr Littleproud was “on the job” and the NFF was “delighted he’s being so enthusiastic in his approach”.