Opinion: State Liberals must fight for the bush

Trevor WhittingtonCountryman
Shadow Agriculture Minister Jim Chown.
Camera IconShadow Agriculture Minister Jim Chown. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

Each week when country people open their copy of their rural papers, they will invariably be confronted with a picture of a State Government minister, usually the WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan, pictured, 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 members of The Nationals WA. They hold all six of the State’s farming-focused Lower House seats — Geraldton, Central Wheatbelt, North West Central, Warren Blackwood, Moore and Roe, and have members in each of the 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 WA, critiquing the State Government’s failure to support rural and regional WA.

Then, there are photos of The Nationals attending a field day, a saleyard or 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 from One Nation, the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers in the media.

But it’s the Liberals that are left wanting when it comes to a media presence in the bush. They hold just one Lower House and three Upper House seats.

Despite The National party’s 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 with 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 State Government, not The Nationals, nor 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 to The Nationals, the Liberals seem to have lost 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, the Liberals need to hang on to the seat of Kalgoorlie and go after their once secure seat 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 bush seats, they will be giving up any chance of governing in their own right.

If that is the case, the quicker they do a deal with The Nationals on three-cornered contests and power sharing the better for them. The alternative is an 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 in to a future government and carve out a large share of the royalties stream would set them up as major political players.

But it would also signal that the WA Liberals have given up the fight for the bush, and have retreated to be a city-focused political party.

That is something that would horrify the Federal Liberal MPs representing the two country seats, who have been successful in holding off The Nationals.

The challenge now is for the Liberals to actually show some fight for country issues.

A quick review of The Nationals’ website shows a stream of press releases batting for the bush. But the Liberals’ website comes up with 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 WA Agriculture Minister to step down and a commitment to replace the Boyanup saleyards, but with no funding attached.

With a portfolio ranging from cattle in the Kimberley, fishing at the Abrolhos and vineyards in the Great Southern, to roads and communities in every corner of the State, one would have thought there were 100 things to raise about the Government’s failings.

During this same period, the WA Agriculture Minister has pumped out more than 100 media statements on a range of issues.

This opens the door for countless responses from the Opposition spokesperson to go after the State, but to no avail.

With 12 months remaining before the next election, the Liberals now have a lame duck, Jim Chown, holding the key shadow portfolio of agriculture and regional development.

Mr Chown, the Liberal number one ticket holder for the Agricultural Region, has been relegated to the unwinnable third spot on the Upper House ticket, meaning the Liberals now have someone who is responsible for championing their key country focused policies into the next election not being there to implement 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 month’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 Vasse MP Libby Mettam, who is 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 there for the long haul.

At least they still have South West MLC Steve Thomas 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 be him.

With streams of press releases coming out of the current Minister’s 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 WA 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 in mobile phone coverage, a country grain network of roads that needs upgrading to handle ever larger trucks, the fall in 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, Labor and minor parties all competing for the bush vote.

When you have a very strong operator of the calibre of Ms MacTiernan, you need more than a swarm of National Party MPs feeding the media.

You also need effective Liberal shadows with 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 12 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 they 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?

Trevor Whittington is the chief executive at WAFarmers.

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