DAVID Littleproud’s challenge as a rookie cabinet minister and federal politician is best illustrated by comparing his limited parliamentary experience against the extensive service records of his direct portfolio rivals - Joel Fitzgibbon and Tony Burke.
Mr Littleproud was first elected in mid-2016 but received a shock ministerial promotion prior to Christmas to replace embattled Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce as Agriculture and Water Resources Minister.
While the Nationals rural MP is half-way through his first term in Canberra for the Coalition government, Mr Burke (elected 2004) and Mr Fitzgibbon (elected 1996) have almost four decades of service between them.
The Labor stalwarts are also both former Labor Agriculture Ministers.
Mr Fitzgibbon held the post for about three months leading up to Labor losing the 2013 federal election and Mr Burke did it from 2007 to 2010.
Mr Fitzgibbon maintained a steady hand on the job during a tumultuous period for his party but Mr Burke’s biggest policy move was the unpopular but pre-2010 election promise by Labor to deregulate the AWB wheat export single desk monopoly, in response to the Iraqi wheat for weapons scandal.
Compared to Mr Littleproud with about seven weeks under his parliamentary belt, the two Labor MPs also have a wealth of front bench experience between them for their party, in government and opposition.
As well as three years as the federal Agriculture Minister, Mr Burke was the Water and Environment Minister in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government from late 2010 to 2013.
He was in charge when the Murray Darling Basin Plan was at its controversial peak, with unprecedented public angst expressed by farming communities, but he eventually guided a way through the quagmire and over-saw its passage into law in 2012, striking a compromise with Mr Joyce who was the then Shadow Water Minister, to exclude the Green’s over-bloated demands.
As well as his brief stint in Agriculture when Kevin Rudd returned as PM before the 2013 election, Mr Fitzgibbon was Defence Minister from 2007 to mid- 2009 but was forced to resign, controversially.
Mr Joyce has regularly sought to question Mr Fitzgibbon’s political credibility, based on that upset ministerial resignation – but it’ll remain to be seen whether Mr Littleproud is willing and bold enough, to take up a similar attack.
Mr Burke – a self-confessed union man - was a member of the NSW Legislative Council for about 15 months before he transitioned into federal politics and is one of Labor’s prime attack dogs in the House of Representatives, in his role as Manager of Opposition Business.
Since he was elected in 2004 for the Sydney seat of Watson, the senior Labor MP has also held a range of shadow front bench roles including Immigration and Finance and is currently Shadow Water and Environment Minister as well as Arts, Citizenship and Multicultural Australia.
The background of all three MPs also makes an interesting contrast.
Mr Littleproud has more than 20 years’ experience in rural banking, including agribusiness, prior to entering politics and comes from a family farming operation, in his electorate.
But Mr Burke and Mr Fitzgibbon both worked in Labor party electoral offices, with Mr Fitzgibbon working for his father Eric, (1990 to 1996) who previously held his seat of Hunter in rural NSW (1984-1996).
Mr Fitzgibbon has also held many Shadow Portfolio roles during his time in Canberra, including currently Agriculture, which he’s had since the 2013 election, and Rural Affairs and Rural and Regional Australia, where he’s championed Labor’s Country Caucus as a means of bolstering its non-metropolitan policy-making powers.
He’s also previously been the Shadow Minister for; Small Business and Tourism (1998 to 2001); Mining, Energy and Forestry (2003 to 2004); Banking and Financial Services (2004 to 2005); and Shadow Defence (2006 to 2007).
Apart from speaking out on some farm policy issues, like the negative impacts of water sharing arrangements in the Murray Darling Basin for at-risk agricultural communities in his sparse Queensland electorate of Maranoa, Mr Littleproud has barely raised a whimper, and attracted scant media attention, in his first 18-months in Canberra.
Some sources who’ve observed his early efforts around Parliament House say he’s willing to step out to take a swipe at political rivals.
But he has a tendency to go over the top and over-step the mark showing a touch if niaevity and will need to temper that character flaw, now that he’s a cabinet minister with greater responsibility.
A bitter rivalry also exists between Mr Littleproud and Queensland independent MP Bob Katter which “makes him see red” one source said and dates back to historical tensions between his father - former Queensland Nationals politician Brian Littleproud - and Mr Katter.
But Mr Littleproud and Mr Katter put their weapons down temporarily when they were two of the four MPs that voted “no” on the legislation that was passed to legalise same sex marriage, shortly before Christmas.
Asked how he’d fare against more experienced rivals, Mr Littleproud said “The reality is, I want to work collaboratively with them on areas that we can agree on”.
“There will be areas where we don’t agree and I accept that – but where there is policy agreement, we need to work collectively, because what Australians want is outcomes,” he said.
“They want government out of their lives – they want to be able to get on and do the things they do best and in agriculture that’s produce the best food and fibre in the world.
“I‘m going to work collectively with those on the other side of the isle and appreciate that when we do have differences, that we can try to work through them to get to a point where we deliver the best outcomes for farmers and for rural and regional Australia.”
Mr Littleproud said he came with “a clean slate” and was making no presumptions about how Tony Burke or Joel Fitzgibbon would interact with him.
“My door’s open and my phone’s always on,” he said.
“I’ve already had proactive conversations with Tony Burke and will continue to do that because at the end of the day, all that the people of Australia want are outcomes and that’s all I’m here for.
“The reality is, I’m not worried too much about who wants to take the credit for it because I just want outcomes for people in rural and regional Australia.
“I see a huge future for people in rural and regional Australia and I live in rural and regional Australia and I think if we can work collaboratively we will get those outcomes, to put the environment around those people living out there to achieve an the success that they deserve.”
National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar has already met with Mr Littleproud to put forward his group’s policy and budget priorities and believes the rookie minister will be no push-over against his two prime Labor rivals.
“He’ll be able to hold his own against the experienced campaigners,” he said of Mr Littleproud.
“He appears very intelligent and capable and willing to stand up for agriculture so I’ve got no doubt it’ll be game on when they get back to parliament.”
While he may not have the same service record, Mr Littleproud also has the continued backing of Mr Joyce, who has retained dams within his ministerial responsibilities, and Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston.
Plus, he has the ability to access and consult the views and advice of any number of rural MPs within the Coalition with lived farming experience and representing electorates where water and agriculture are critical the the basic needs and priorities of voters.
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