FEDERAL Labor will hold its National Country Labor Forum in the nation’s beef capital of Rockhampton in Queensland today as part of a rural voter blitzkrieg.
Labor leader Bill Shorten will address the event in spearheading his party’s push to win office at the next election by acknowledging the path to power will be critically determined by having greater presence in regional Australia and winning over voters in marginal seats like Flynn and Capricornia, which swung last year’s election result.
Mr Shorten’s strategic move to back the Forum in Rockhampton has been accompanied by a concerted blitz of leading rural Labor figures hosting various community events throughout the region.
That list includes Shadow Agriculture and Regional Australia Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, Shadow Health Minister Catherine King and Shadow Regional Services and Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones.
Last year’s election saw the Coalition fall over the line in the rural Queensland seats of Flynn and Capricornia to narrowly avoid a hung parliament - but the government still only holds a tight one seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Mr Shorten and his Labor colleagues held a “Politics in the Pub” session on Friday night at a venue Mr Fitzgibbon said had a “very colourful name”, ‘The Giddy Goat’.
“I am a regular visitor to Rockhampton, but I don’t remember being at The Giddy Goat,” he said in a local radio interview.
Yesterday ahead of his arrival, Mr Shorten also visited Mackay, in the seat of Dawson held by charismatic Queensland Nationals MP George Christiansen who has been outspoken in support of sugar cane farmers in his electorate.
Speaking to media on Friday after visiting a local engineering company with Shadow Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Brendan O'Connor, Mr Shorten said it was his sixth visit to Mackay and the region since the last federal election.
“Turnbull and his team keep telling everyone how good everything is in Australia, well they should get out of their ivory towers in Sydney and in Canberra, get out on the ground and visit what's really happening across Australia,” Mr Shorten said.
“Now there's no election on and I think people get cheesed off when they think the only time they ever see politicians is when they want their vote.
“I'm interested to see how Mackay is responding and bouncing back with improved commodity prices, improved mining prices.
“Mackay can be a good news town, the region can be.
“That's why I am at a loss to understand why my opposite number has only been here once since the election and I do not know why they are dragging the chain on sorting out the disaster relief funding from last year's dreadful cyclone season.”
Mr Shorten also took aim at Mr Christensen.
“George talks a big game in Mackay but he is more of a mouse in Canberra,” he said.
“But leave aside what George Christensen says.
“Who do you trust to look after the conditions of working people in this country; the Labor Party or Malcolm Turnbull?
“Who do you trust to look after working conditions?”
One of the major aspects of Labor’s political attack was attacking the government’s roll-out of the NBN in the regions which came on the back of a parliamentary committee report being released this week which made 23 recommendations for improvements.
Mr Fitzgibbon also gave a detailed outline of Labor’s challenge to win votes in regional Australia and recent electoral history.
“The truth is after the 2013 election, despite our very strong legacy in the regions……we had done badly and we only had, I think, 14 rural and regional seats across the country - only one here in Queensland,” he said.
“I thought this was tragic given we are a party born, at least in part, out of the shearing sheds of Queensland and I asked myself ‘how do we improve on this?’
“Not just for winning’s sake but to ensure every regional electorate is contestable.
“In other words, the local community is deriving the benefits from the political parties closely contesting the seat.
“So I did a couple of things.
“We formed a Country Caucus which is a group of regional MPs meeting often in Canberra running the ruler across government legislation and/or the Labor policy development processes.
“And we decided to have pretty regularly a National Country Labor Forum, where both MPs and Senators and rank and file members get together to talk about the big issues in the regions and the best responses to them; and tomorrow we will do this in Rockhampton.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said most of the matters which are issues in capital cities are also issues in the regions: health; education; the environment but “Obviously there are differences”.
“There are a couple of things both the major political parties agree on and that is that the regions are critically important to the national economy,” he said.
“It is here that we produce our food, energy and mineral resources.
“Second, tyranny of distance does bring its challenges and governments of all political persuasions need to intervene on that issue and ensure that we don’t face disadvantage.
“It is true also…that city politicians don’t always fully comprehend the issues we face in the regions.
“Just like regional politicians don’t always comprehend something like the traffic congestion issues that our city colleagues face and that is why, through the Country Caucus, we seek to, if you like, hunt as a pack and make sure the leadership group and the Caucus more generally fully understands and appreciates.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said when Mr Shorten first became Leader he sat down with him and talked to him about some of the challenges Labor faced in the regions electorally.
“I talked about that fairly bad outcome at the 2013 election and I was so pleasantly surprised by his grasp of what is happening in regional Australia,” he said.
“It suddenly struck me at that point that he was an AWU organiser and if you are an AWU organiser you have spent most of your working life out there in the regions talking to people on the ground.
“I was really pleasantly surprised by his grasp, and since then, over the course the last four years, the support he has given me, the Country Caucus, and this National Labor Party Forum, he really understands the bush.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Malcolm Turnbull leading the Coalition to the next election “is anything but certain”
“I mean there is no doubt the right of his party is coming after him,” he said.
“It is hard to believe that the right would execute a Liberal leader, and when I say “Liberal” I mean to the left of the conservatives, and replace him with another Liberal leader.
“I think if they are going to execute Malcolm they are going to want one of their own in and has to be either Abbott, Dutton or Morrison.
“Most believe Abbott carries too much baggage and to that Dutton becomes the last man standing.
“So I think it is a very real possibility and a prospect that doesn’t scare the Labor Party.”
The story Shorten leads Labor bush blitz in regional Queensland first appeared on Farm Online.