Each week when country people open their copy of their rural magazines, they will invariably be confronted with a picture of a government Minister usually the WA Minister for Agriculture, Alannah MacTiernan making an announcement or defending a government decision. Alongside her will be a photo or two of local members of parliament doing their thing, working their electorates making sure they are seen out and about.
Invariably those MPs are likely to be members of the National party as they hold all six of the state’s farming focused lower house seats including Geraldton, Central Wheatbelt, North West Central, Warren Blackwood, Moore and Roe plus have members in each of the states three non-metropolitan upper house regions, Mining and Pastoral, Agricultural and South West.
Each week we get a run of country focused stories led by the Nationals critiquing the governments failure to support rural and regional Western Australia, then there are the photos of the Nationals attending a field day, a sale yard or working a clearing sale. They are everywhere driven by the single motivation to represent the interests of country people.
Occasionally you will also see a story or a photo of a regional member of One Nation, the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers in the media prosecuting a particular issue. But it’s the Liberals that are left wanting when it comes to a media presence in the bush, as they hold just one lower house and three upper house seats.
But despite the National Parties dominance in the bush or the ability of the other minor parties to hold the balance of power in the upper house, the only party that has the ability to dislodge the government and drive alternative outcomes and funding for country people is the Liberal Party. It’s the Liberal party that can build the numbers to topple the government not the Nationals or any other party.
While the Liberal Party needs to walk the fine line of focusing on the city to win back the landslide of seats it lost at the last election it cannot afford to forget about having a strong presence in the country and a coherent set of policies that will attract voters to win regional seats and the balance in the upper house.
Ever since the Liberals lost Ian Blayney (Geraldton) to the Nationals the Liberals have seemed to lose interest in the bush even though there are three obvious seats up for grabs at the next election Geraldton, Albany and Collie-Preston.
In addition, they need to hang on to the seat of Kalgoorlie and go after their once strong hold of Bunbury not to mention the need to pick up a second upper house seat in each of the three rural regions.
It’s a big ask but unless the Liberals are serious about chasing seats in the bush, they will effectively be giving up any chance of governing in their own right. If that is the case the quicker they do a deal with the National Party on three cornered contests and power sharing the better for them, the alternative is another 2008 excruciating post-election negotiation with the Nationals holding the Liberals to ransom.
Mind you that would work a treat for the Nationals. Being able to lock their policies into a future government and once again carve out a large share of the royalty’s stream would again set them up as major political players.
But it would also signal that the state Liberals have given up the fight for the bush and have retreated to be a city focused political party, something that would horrify the federal Liberal MPs representing the two country seats who have been successful in holding off the Nats.
The challenge now is for the Liberals is to actually show some fight for country issues. A quick review of the Nationals web site shows a steady stream of press releases batting for the bush, go to the Liberals web site and there is virtually nothing.
The only coverage of any note that comes up in a search of the rural media that includes a link to the current Liberal Shadow Agricultural spokesperson has been a call for the Minister to step down and a commitment to replace the Boyanup sale yards, but with no funding attached.
With a portfolio ranging from cattle in the Kimberley, fishing at the Abrolhos, vineyards in the Great Southern to roads and communities in every corner of the state one would have thought there was a hundred things to raise in the media about the governments failings.
Over this same period the Minister has herself pumped out over one hundred media statements on a wide range of issues opening the door for countless responses from the opposition spokesperson to go after the government, but to no avail the space has been left vacant.
With twelve months remaining before the next election, the Liberals now have a lame duck holding the key shadow portfolio of agriculture and regional development. Lame duck in the political sense which is an outgoing politician whose successor has already been elected or will soon be, think of an outgoing US President in his few months of office.
With the Liberal No 1 ticket holder for the Agricultural Region also happening to be their shadow Agricultural and Regional Development spokesperson being relegated to the unwinnable 3rd spot on the Upper House ticket, the Liberals now have someone who is responsible for championing their key country focused policies into the next election not being there to roll out any of them if they win.
Normally retiring members, or members who have been demoted by their own party to unwinnable positions, are offered accolades and gongs and retired to the backbench to while away their time working on their farewell speech until the next election.
But following last week’s reshuffle, the Liberal leadership team in their wisdom have decided it is full steam ahead with all and sundry pulling on the oars, even though at least five of them won’t be there after the next election no matter who wins. It’s a staggering decision.
At the very least they should have reshuffled the regional shadow portfolios to give the hard-working Libby Mettam (Vasse) their transport and now ports spokesperson some help. Key regional portfolios such as Agriculture, Fisheries, Regional Development, Royalties for Regions and Fire and Emergency Services, should all have been given to country based Liberals who are there for the long haul.
At least they still have Steve Thomas (South West) as Shadow Spokesperson for Finance, Environment and Forestry. A country vet with deep ties to the farming community batting away on regional issues, if anyone should be shadow agricultural spokesperson it should have been him.
With streams of press releases coming out of the current Ministers office there is ample opportunity for the Liberals to get on the front foot and feature in the rural media, but to date the Minister has had a virtual free run with only the Nationals and minor parties being effective in putting the boot in.
Issues such as the need for more resources for volunteer firefighters, the lack of water in town standpipes, black spots of mobile phone coverage, a country grain network of roads that needs upgrading to handle ever larger trucks, the loss of staff morale in the department of agriculture, regional health and education all offer political points to be scored.
For farmers and country people to get the best out of government they need an opposition that can carry the debate to the Minister of the day and keep them focused. We need a contest of ideas, Liberal, National, ALP and minor parties all competing for the bush vote.
But when you have a very strong operator of the calibre of Alannah MacTiernan you need more than a swarm of National Party MPs feeding the media. You also need effective Liberal shadows who have the energy to take up the debate not just in parliament but also out and about to the people in the bush. They need to be in the rural media every week and attend every country event not just front up to parliament to make a few speeches no one listens to.
With twelve months to go until the next election, the Liberals along with the other opposition parties need to step up their game and take the government on. We need to see policies rolled out early, so we know what’s on offer. What’s their vision for the future of DPIRD, how will the spend the Royalties for Regions funds, what will they do to ensure our country towns don’t fall further behind in services? And most importantly who will lead us into the future.