LABOR rising star and Shadow Regional Communications and Regional Services Minister Stephen Jones plays his political shots not unlike his cricketing name-sake Dean Jones.
He’s not afraid to take on the opposition no matter how big or small, using a niggling combination of flamboyant attacking shots and resolute defence.
Here, he talks to Fairfax Agricultural Media about the pea and thimble tricks contained in Scott Morrison’s recent federal budget, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s penchant for claiming political credit for high farm commodity prices and riding his pushbike around Australia as a free-wheeling 20-year old to get to know the regions more intimately, working anywhere from fishing boats to forestry on his spiritual sojourn.
Steven Jones, what are your rural credentials?
“I grew up in the Illawarra (coastal region south of Sydney in NSW). My seat is an interesting seat that takes in an industrial area in the east, coal mines in the centre and rural out in the western part of it, in the southern highlands. It has a real mixture of industries which represents a real microcosm of Australia; from industrial and mining to agriculture. I see a big part of my brief is to ensure that within Labor there’s a voice which is talking about the regions and understanding what life’s like outside of the big cities and ensuring that’s reflected in our policies.”
What sort of agriculture do you have in your Whitlam electorate?
“In the highlands, its potatoes, mixed farming, veggies and cut flowers and it has been a strong dairying region for a long time. In the Illawarra there’s still some working dairy farms but sadly fewer and fewer as urban expansion goes into the area. There’s a little bit of beef and a very good regional livestock exchange at Moss Vale.”
What’s concerning your farmers saying at the moment?
“The big issue for dairy farmers right now is prices and the squeeze they’re feeling. For my potato farmers it’s biosecurity issues and there’s also a big concern about competing land use issues, with mining and agriculture, up in the southern highlands. A lot of people have moved there and with small hobby farms and larger holdings so it’s very controversial with a proposed mine up in the Berrima district. Conflicting land use is a big issue in my electorate and in other regions particularly if underground mining interferes with water and water tables. I'd like to see the land owners have greater control and a fair return when there is conflicting use. This is ultimately resolved by state governments who have the residual rights to minerals and are handing out the licenses to explore and mine.”
More on the dairy farmers, what are they asking you to do for?
“They want to ensure their voices are heard on the prices issue and the Murray Goulburn issue and they want to see strong representation. It’s about the milk processors and the concentration of power and the pressure the big retail supermarkets are putting into the market, Coles and Woolworths. Dairy farmers can see their margins being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, at a time when there’s a lot of competition for land use. These people are sitting on high value properties (but) dairy farming is one of the hardest industries to be in and they’re often thinking, ‘what happens to my farm after I retire, is there going to be a working dairy here?’. In large parts of my electorate it’s pretty certain the next generation won’t take over and run a dairy farm so the properties will probably be broken up and converted into urban developments in many of those areas, something which I think is very sad for the character of the region and sad for the environment. So the concern is about the long-term economic viability of those dairies as going concerns when compared to the alternatives that that land can be used for, when you’ve got urban developments on the verge of your properties.”
What are your farmers saying about the Coalition government’s performance in agriculture?
“They won’t always be happy with the decisions or the attention they’re getting around particular issues, but I hear more from the horticulture sector that the government is only interested in beef cattle, dairying and sheep.”
What do you think about Barnaby Joyce claiming political credit for high commodity prices?
“Barnaby Joyce spent the last year of his time in opposition talking about food prices going up and what a crisis that was for Australia and he’s spent the last four years talking about how food prices have gone up and how good that is for Australia so I think he’s walked both sides of the street on this issue. Frankly, we know the government doesn’t have a lot of control over commodity prices and international forces have a far greater impact on commodity prices and we can do our bit, to support our farmers through good times and bad but the government’s capacity to be controlling those things, is around the edges. And frankly when Barnaby Joyce gets up and gives one of his tirades he sounds more like a race caller than a deputy Prime Minister. It lacks credibility and it comes across that way. Let me be fair and balanced on this - people in the regions want to hear their issues talked about in question time and in parliament but they want to hear them talked about in a credible way but that doesn’t happen when Barnaby gets up and takes credit for things that everybody who knows anything about the sector knows government can’t take credit for. We can welcome it, when commodity prices go up, but it beggars belief that you can take credit for it. I just think some of the times the way he runs those issues detracts from the importance of the sector and the policy and doesn’t add to it and if we want to win support from other MPs, who don’t get rural and regional issues, that sort of stuff doesn’t help.”
Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash claimed the federal budget as a big win for the Nationals, what’s your view on that?
“When it comes to infrastructure there’s actually a decrease in spending over the forward estimates not an increase so there’s been a pit of a pea and thimble trick (moving money from one place to another) with the budget, when it comes to infrastructure spending. There are some new buckets of money around a regional growth fund which is welcome but the guidelines on how that money is going to be spent, are uncertain so we await with baited breath the details. I welcome the fact, whenever there’s a great focus on the needs of regional and rural Australia, but let’s look at the details and there’s not a lot of detail on how the new money will be spent.”
What’s your view of the budget’s $8.4 billion inland rail announcement?
“We want the inland rail to be built but the government has sat on it for four years and announced in every budget that it would be done. For the inland rail to reach its full capacity you need connections with the northern ports but they aren’t in the existing plans. You need those connections all the way or else you’re losing the efficiencies and benefits of having that rail project. That last 40kms (at Brisbane port) is as critical as every other link in the track. We welcome the fact it’s on the agenda, but we want to see the project built. It’s going to be a long project so it also needs and deserves bipartisan support because you can be guaranteed whoever starts it, won’t finish it. Whichever government is in power when it’s started, won’t be the government that’s in power when it’s finished so it needs long term bipartisan support and we offer that.”
One of the big focus areas of your shadow portfolio is the NBN – how is the government performing with rolling out that project?
“If we’re going to do long term nation building projects, then you need bipartisan support. The Snowy Mountains scheme was conceived in the late 1940’s and took decades to complete. Several governments came and went over the course of that project and if people chopped and changed their ideas about how it was going to be done over the course of those years it would never have been completed and would have been a mess. Then nbn is another one of those projects. We knew the roll out would take many years and you need bipartisan support. But when you keep changing the engineering of the project and the technology mix, you add costs and you add delays and you add complexity to the project. When there was a change of government in 2013 and they basically altered the project and changed the engineering and technology design, it has added cost and it has added delay and it’s going to decrease the value of the project. And I’m afraid to say, people in regional Australia are the ones who are going to suffer the most and there’s a reason for that. Because the regions were put at the front of the que for the rollout, when the decision was made to dump fibre to the premises and proceed with fibre to the node, they didn’t change the roll-out schedule, so it’s regional Australia which has the lion’s share of fibre to the node. So we’re relying on copper, for the last kilometre of connections, often old and degraded copper, that cannot deliver the high value services that are going to be needed now and into the future. At the same time, this year, the nbn by stealth is changing to fibre to the curb, so more fibre, deeper into the network. So when it comes to completing the cities they’re going to get a better service – they’re going to get fibre to the curb and fibre to the basement whereas the country and regional areas are being left on the older technology at a time where they need it, if not more, but just as much as people in the cities need it.”
If Labor won government at the next election what would you do with the nbn to address such issues?
“We’re going to have to look at what the upgrade path is - but it’s going to be very difficult to unscramble the egg. That’s why the last election was actually critical. We could have unscrambled the egg and altered and changed the roll out mix at the last election but by the time the next election comes along, if we believe the government’s timelines, the network will be mostly built, leaving regional Australia stranded on a mixture of copper based networks, the wireless network and the satellite network. I’m going to be fair to the nbn, they have done a very good job on the wireless network – big tick. There’s been a few hiccups around the place but it has been a world class wireless network. I can’t say the same for Sky Muster but here’s the critical point to make. It is very likely that if nothing changes over the next decade, you’re going to get a better service over the nbn wireless than you are over nbn fibre to the node and that affects those people in regional Australia.”
In government will you have a policy differentiation for regional communications?
“It depends when the next election is held and how much of the network is left to be rolled out but we have said that if the government won’t meet us on fibre to the premises, then fibre to the curb should be the default roll out (mechanism).
What about the mobile blackspots program, Fiona Nash says Labor has never delivered a single dollar to resolve mobile blackspots issues and anything the government does is more than the opposition ever did – what do you say?
“We invested $250 million to build the backhaul cable. Without the connecting cable your phone towers are just poles on a paddock, fence posts without wire. It’s just simply not true to say we were not investing in the mobile blackspot network. We were investing in the cable which connects the towers. This government has come along later and put towers on top of the cable, and connected the cable. You have to do both - you cannot do one only and it’s a staged process. Labor invested $250m in putting the backhaul cable into all of those areas that were prioritised as blackspot areas. Without that backhaul cable you could not build a mobile blackspot tower so they have leveraged off all of the work from the investment we did. This is what the phone companies themselves wanted us to do; assist by putting $250m into the backhaul cables that connects the towers. Without that work being done there’d be nothing to connect those towers.”
What about the politics, should people get caught up on whether Labor or the Coalition does a better job?
“What people in regional areas want is a phone service that bloody works, so let’s make that happen. And you don’t want to pay through the nose for it and you want to know, when they’re rolling out the next generation of phone services, the regions aren’t going to be left behind.”
If there was a change of government would you be a potential Agriculture Minister?
“There’s not a member of parliament who doesn’t have an ambition for rising up the ranks but I have got my teeth stuck into the regional economic development side of the portfolio; whether that’s infrastructure or building better regions or whatever that (funding program) morphs into, ensuring we have communications infrastructure in place and working with local governments, that’s the sort of stuff I’m focussing on. I’ll be focussing on regional economic development plans for all of our regions throughout the country, to ensure there’s a plan in place for all of those regions, particularly the ones that are struggling.”
Tell us something people probably wouldn’t know about you?
“I’ve seen most of Australia by unconventional means. As a young fella I spent a year and a bit travelling around Australia working in just about every town I could get to, and I did it by push bike. I rode a push bike around the country because I wanted to see Australia slowly, and I wanted to get a sense of what life was like in towns outside of the one I grew up in. In those days there was a (Commonwealth Employment Service) in just about every town and I’d go in and say, ‘I don’t want to be here forever, so what sort of work have you got going?’ I worked in forestry in the La Trobe Valley, off a fishing boat off Albany. I’m 52 in a couple of months and was 20 or 21 years old at the time and did just about every job going.”