MICHAEL McCormack grew up on a farm in the NSW Riverina near Wagga Wagga and has never forgotten his agricultural grounding.
But the new Nationals leader has now scaled the heights of the national political ladder and sits one rung underneath Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull within the current Coalition government, following Barnaby Joyce’s spectacular fall from power.
After a defiant Mr Joyce dug his heels in over recent “personal” matters that applied unyielding media and political pressure on his embattled leadership, Mr McCormack looked anything but a future party leader after a so called “train-wreck” media conference early last week.
However, the old saying that a week is a life-time in politics was no better defined than on Monday this week when he was given the green light by his party-room and elected the new Nationals leader and subsequently appointed Transport and Infrastructure Minister, after Barnaby Joyce’s political career derailed.
The Riverina Nationals MP now has a huge task ahead of him to refocus his party on the difficult political route ahead of next year’s federal election and to keep big political projects on track, like the $10 billion inland rail and the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
During question time on Monday, Mr McCormack - a former Small Business Minister who was first elected to federal parliament in 2010 after a career in media and public relations - used his first foray to the dispatch box in his new role to showcase his farming heritage.
“Our farmers and our country towns hold a special place in Australia,” he said.
“These communities are the very heart of our economy.
“This government is working hard to ensure that regional Australia can grow and prosper.
“I should know this.
“I am from Marrar.
“It is a little village of 368 people.
“How good is it that a nation can have a Deputy Prime Minister from a little village like Marrar?
“That says a lot about Australia.”
Former Nationals leader Tim Fischer put a typically positive spin on the new leader, after months of pressure due to Mr Joyce’s various issues, including disqualification from parliament last year due to dual citizenship and a subsequent by-election to retain his NSW seat of New England.
“The job maketh the man – every leader puts their own stamp on the job and I wish Michael McCormack well,” Mr Fischer said.
“He has two manifestations in his Riverina electorate; one west of Griffith and the other north to Parkes from Wagga Wagga which gives him a brilliant cross-section of agriculture, in a way which serves him well.
“Michael has been the member there since 2010 following in the foot-steps of Kay Hull and if he does anything outlandish Kay Hull will descend on him.
“Every leader puts their stamp on the leadership; good luck Michael.”
Mr Fisher said he didn’t have a high profile at the start of his leadership stint and was unconcerned that would impact Mr McCormack, compared to the media stature of Barnaby Joyce.
“(experienced political journalist) Michelle Grattan wrote me off on day two of my leadership and then on my last day sent me a card saying she was wrong,” he said.
“And I’d say again ‘the job matheth the man’ and Michael is well grounded in agriculture and the Riverina and I’d say, from now on, his profile will grow massively.
“He’s very much attracted to the small business activities of his previous portfolio and small business is the interface of modern agriculture and in particular precision agriculture.”
Ms Hull has described Mr McCormack as “an enormously hard worker” with the capacity to be the best of leaders of the Nationals.
Mr McCormack agreed with farmers when he railed against the $3.4 billion sale of GrainCorp to US multinational food giant Archer Daniels Midland, which was eventually blocked by the new Coalition government in 2013
Michael McCormack Basin Plan opposition
He also voted with independent Bob Katter and former Liberal MPS Alby Schultz and Sharman Stone for a disallowance motion he moved on the Murray Darling Basin Plan in 2012 in an unsuccessful effort to try to thwart the historic legislation being passed into law.
In speech at the time, Mr McCormack warned the Basin Plan would impact on farm production due to loss of water with the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in the “heart” of his electorate, being one of the most productive regions of Australia.
“The annual value of our farm-gate productions is in excess of half a billion dollars each and every year,” he said.
“This is greatly multiplied with a range of value-add processing.
“The winemakers' association estimates more than $2 billion of regional investment has been injected into our region in wine processing alone.
“We are home to the SunRice processing facilities, which enable millions around the globe to be fed.
“We produce chicken meat, cattle, wine, citrus, rice, cotton, nuts, vegetables, cereals—the list goes on and on and we are highly dependent on water.
“My electorate is an electorate built on irrigation.
“My community is a community built on irrigation.
“The people who entrusted me to represent them are reliant on irrigation.
“It is simply not possible for me to support, encourage or allow to pass without comment a Basin Plan which will so materially affect the people who placed their trust in me.
“This plan says that my electorate must have hundreds of billions of litres of its lifeblood taken away from it - it merely says that my electorate must suffer an indeterminate amount of pain.”
Mr McCormack also said the Basin Plan had generated a “wealth of fear and uncertainty” for regional communities and cost “good, hardworking country people a wealth of money”.
“An attack on the nation's farmers is, in fact, an attack on the nation itself,” he said.
“This is an assault on regional Australia.
“This plan should have been sensible about how it obtained water; it should have focused on maintaining the productivity of our regions; it should have been about the balance between production of food and fibre and ensuring the sustainability of the environment; but it is not.
“The failure of the minister to pay heed to social and economic devastation leaves me with no choice but to disapprove of this plan.
“Today I do what any member of this chamber should do: I stand up for the people of Riverina, who put their trust in me.
“I speak not with my voice but with theirs.
“Their voice is clear.
“It is loud and it is proud.
“It says to the Australian parliament and the people of this land that they will not suffer this indignity, this great affront to their resourcefulness and their productivity.
“They say no to this Basin Plan - this is why I move this disallowance motion and I urge others to join me for the sake of their electorates, their communities and the people they represent.”
Experienced water policy expert for the National Farmers’ Federation Les Gordon has lived and breathed the Basin Plan’s implementation and said the new Nationals leader, at the time of his disallowance motion speech, was “clearly reflecting views that are still widely held in his electorate and in a lot of places across the Basin”.
“There’s a lot of discomfort still out there in the Basin and people are uncomfortable,” he said.
“A lot of the awful part of the Plan, and the damage the Basin Plan is going to do, is already done.
“The water has already been recovered.”
Mr Gordon said at the time of his speech, Mr McCormack would have been talking as a representative of the Riverina but now as Nationals leader he had a different responsibility and may say something different now, due to his broader responsibilities.
“That’s the nature of the Basin Plan - it’s a compromise - you don’t get everything you want,” he said.
“Michael McCormack’s responsibility as the leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister is a different one to being the member for the Riverina.
“As the member for Riverina he had to have had reservations about the Basin Plan because many of his constituents did then and they still do.”
Farmers welcome new Nationals leader
NFF President Fiona Simson said Mr McCormack was a “strong advocate for regional Australia and the businesses that underpin it”.
She said during his time as Small Business Minister, he advocated strongly for better operating environments including farm businesses.
“In particular, Michael was instrumental in seeing the ‘effects test’ come to fruition, a mechanism to level the playing field for small and medium sized businesses,” she said.
“Farmers depend on quality roads, rail and other freight systems to get their produce to market in an efficient manner and in a way that enables them to remain competitive, both on a local and global stage.
“In 2017, our sector welcomed the government’s commitment to the Inland Rail corridor.
“We look forward to working with Deputy Prime Minister McCormack on this and other important infrastructure and transport projects.”
As Small Business Minister, he had a baptism of fire on the 2016 census but highlighted his passion for spots, especially cricket, in quoting Sir Donald Bradman’s career statistics to point out the exercise had been a success.
He also took steps to try to reduce quad bike deaths and injuries and improve safety standards in the ministerial role and has supported the centralisation of government agencies into the regions.
He was also active in the new laws passed last year on new unfair contract terms law that aim to give farmers more powers in relation to dealing with larger suppliers.
Mr McCormack is married to his life-long sweetheart Catherine and they have three adult children, Georgina, Alex and Nick.
While he has strong conservative family values, he been forced to re-visit history and deal with a strongly worded opinion article he wrote when working as a newspaper editor in Wagga, which made errant statements about homosexuals, which he has since apologised for.
Some observers could see little beyond the article after Mr McCormack became Nationals leader this week - but not everyone was taking perverse pleasure in launching a retrospective character assassination that ignored the MP’s pragmatism.
Rainbow Riverina, an advocacy group for LBGTI people and their families, wished the local MP well on Monday.
“As a committee, we feel that any comments made many years ago were, in the context of the times, what one could consider to be a reasonably held position by many people, given that many had zero or limited experience with homosexuality generally, with the added fear and hysteria of the AIDS crisis contributing to the holding of these views,” Rainbow Riverina spokeswoman Kat van der Wijngaart said.
“Mr McCormack has shown he has moved forward in his thinking, as he did vote ‘Yes’ in the marriage equality amendment to the Marriage Act, accurately reflecting the view of his electorate.
“We have to be mature and give him the benefit of the doubt, as we would with any other person.”
Mr McCormack may also need the benefit of the doubt when he sits down to talk with Labor Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke about the future of farm water, given the Labor powerbroker signed the Basin Plan into law, in 2012.
In response to the disallowance motion move by Mr McCormack, Mr Burke warned about the legal impact of abolishing of Australia's first Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“If carried, the plan will have been in place for seven days and will then expire,” he said in late 2012.
“The processes under the Water Act that kicked off shortly after the last election…would effectively have to recommence.
“In my judgement, the outcome of that would probably be that we would never get a Murray-Darling Basin plan.”
Mr burke said the problem being addressed was one that is “not the personal fault of anyone alive today and is certainly not the personal fault of anyone in any irrigation community”.
“It is an error that was made generations before us to pretend that rivers would stop at state boundaries,” he said.
“It was a mistake that the Premier of South Australia in 1897 tried to have fixed when the Australian Constitution was being drafted.
“He wanted to make sure that when licences were put out they were done so with respect to the national demands on the Murray-Darling Basin.
“Back then, it was not an argument about sustainability; it was an argument about navigation at the southern end of the basin.
“But, notwithstanding that, the fundamental mistake has been - and this is the way that it was described by Prime Minister Howard as well - that the rivers do not respect state boundaries but we have managed the system as though they do.
“The only way to stop that is to have a national plan.
“What we have done is what I said to every one of those community meetings we would do, and that was that we would deal with the problem and we would act to fix the problem, which is exactly what I believe this plan does.
“But we would do so in a way that minimises the impact on communities.
“There is always an excuse, and for many members in this House this debate is really hard and really difficult, particularly with conflicting views within their electorates.
“The truth is that if we do not fix this it will not be fixed.
“If this parliament blows it up, let's face fact; there will never be a Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
“We have an opportunity now for this parliament to be different to our predecessors.
“We have an opportunity now to go over the final hurdle in making sure that we have a national approach to the Murray-Darling Basin, and I implore the parliament to not miss the opportunity that is in front of us today.”
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