IF initial impressions are any indication, rookie Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud has made a steady start to the new role that he says he wants to give “a red hot crack”.
But the first-term Queensland MP’s shock appointment to federal cabinet has been accompanied by a lingering question mark over merit that’s set to hang over his ministerial head like the Sword of Damocles.
In late December, Mr Littleproud replaced embattled Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce who’d held the top farm job since the Coalition was elected to government in late 2013 and is now the Transport and Infrastructure Minister.
But that controversial cabinet re-shuffle left angry critics pointing the finger at politically motivated appointments, engineered by state-based quotas largely aimed at appeasing Queensland’s parliamentary numbers and expanding demands for greater ministerial influence, within the government.
In the fragile mishmash of that political logic, Mr Littleproud leapfrogged experienced Nationals considered to be more worthy of claiming higher honours like Victorian Darren Chester who was brutally dumped by Mr Joyce as Transport Minister and is now out of the ministry.
Others like Michael McCormack and Luke Hartsuyker from NSW have held various ministerial roles which would normally be regarded as apprenticeships on a defined pathway towards cabinet promotion, where political leaders considered performance and service ahead of political favours and alliances.
But then politics isn’t often normal and political science often seems illogical, to normal observers.
Choosing his words wisely, given the political heat that’s lingering beneath the surface of his unusual cabinet appointment, Mr Littleproud said he was “obviously surprised” at his political elevation arriving just 18-months into his first term as a federal MP.
“I wasn’t focussed on higher honours and I think if you start focussing on that you lose sight of what your core responsibilities are, as a member of parliament,” Mr Littleproud said of being catapulted from the backbench into cabinet.
“My core responsibility at the time was to represent the people of Maranoa and I’ll continue to do that.
“But obviously politics is also about timing and opportunity and an opportunity has come up and I’m going to grab it with both hands and give it a red hot crack.”
While being a virtual no-namer – in complete contrast to Mr Joyce who gained international notoriety after his clash with Hollywood actor Johnny Depp over biosecurity breaches in Australia – Mr Littleproud does have a farming and agribusiness background that can’t be dismissed.
The 41 year old’s pre-Canberra work experience includes serving in the banking sector for over 20 years, gaining vital exposure to rural and agribusiness issues that will prove invaluable in applying his ministerial duties.
He also comes from a family farming background at Chinchilla in his sparse Queensland, Maranoa, electorate where he was born and raised and continues to live.
His father Brian Littleproud also represented the Nationals in the Queensland parliament from 1983 to 2001.
But Mr Littleproud doesn’t believe those experiences alone are enough to make him an instant agricultural policy expert, serving in federal cabinet.
“Nobody is the beholder of all wisdom and knowledge and the reality is, I’m always learning, as anyone is,” he said.
“I don’t intend to sit in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne - I want to get out and kick the dirt.
“We’ve got strong industry groups but it’s also about being able to wash any information across with a real lens about what’s happening on the ground.
“And that’s what I feel my job is - not only to listen to industry groups but to also get out and kick the dirt with real people and get a real appreciation of how policy settings actually impact, at the farm gate.”
However, Mr Littleproud said nobody else in the federal parliament, apart from probably Mr Joyce, had sat at more farmers’ kitchen tables than he had, and looked at their businesses, to understand how it works.
“When I sit at the table and try to formulate policy that’s going to impact agriculture and impact that farm gate, I’ve got an understanding of exactly what that will do, when the rubber hits the road,” he said.
“That’s what I bring to the table - the (experience of) lending hundreds of millions of dollars, and having the confidence to lend hundreds of millions of dollars, in the agriculture sector.”
Despite the lingering question of a quota based appointment coming at the expense of merit, Mr Littleproud hasn’t let that early criticism deter his progress.
He’s already held several meetings with agricultural industry groups in recent weeks like the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), to gauge their immediate policy priorities while demonstrating an early capacity to listen and learn.
He said he also believes there’s a “huge future” in agriculture and the same for rural and regional Australia as a consequence.
That type of attitude has left a positive impression on NFF CEO Tony Mahar and Grain Producers Australia Chair Andrew Weidemann who have already met with him to bend his ear on farm policy.
“He (Mr Littleproud) seems pretty reasonable to talk with and is looking to come to the farm for a download of issues,” Mr Weidemann said.
Mr Mahar said Mr Littleproud was “on the job” and the NFF was “delighted he’s being so enthusiastic in his approach”.
“We’re looking forward to working with him and we think he’ll be a good minister given his experience in agribusiness and the type of agriculture that exists in his electorate like horticulture, wool, sheep, dairy and beef,” he said.
“He’s across the issues – he’s in a rural and regional electorate and he knows the pressures and challenges such electorates face.
“I think he’s coming off a pretty good position in terms of knowing what issues are important to agriculture and we’ll help him identify the issues that are important to us.”
Barnaby’s “legacy” lives on
With farm industry stakeholders becoming increasingly frustrated behind the scenes at Mr Joyce’s apparent diminished focus and their inability to access the former minister directly to discuss policy concerns, due to his citizenship disqualification and subsequent New England by-election and other distractions near the end of his tenure, Mr Littleproud denied there was now a mess to clean up in the farm and water portfolio.
“Barnaby has left a legacy for me to build on – that’s the reality,” he said.
“He’s laid the foundation stones for an industry that is a $50 billion export market to Australia and we want to try to double that.
“I’m happy to support the NFF’s vision of a $100b export industry by 2030 – we should have those aspirations and I intend to work hand in hand with them to achieve that.
“Obviously I’ve got to be pragmatic and I’m not going to lie and say I’m going to sign up to every piece that they’re (NFF) wanting.
“But I’m going to work collectively and collaboratively with them to achieve that because agriculture not only benefits; the small regional towns also win out of that.
“This is not about me trying to get wins solely for agriculture.
“This has flow on benefits to all those small communities that I represent (and) the benefits flow through right across to rural and regional Australia.
“If we have a healthy and strong rural and regional Australia, we have a strong Australia so my job is about building on the agriculture sector, to give that strength all the way through.”
Mr Littleproud declined to say if would talk about high farm commodity prices as much as his ministerial predecessor Mr Joyce did, in seeking to claim political victory for the upsurges in products like beef or even chick peas.
But he agreed with the broader sentiment that his party leader has repeatedly expressed by doing so.
“I think it is fair for this government to take credit for some of those commodity prices that we’re seeing at the moment,” he said.
“I think you’ve got to pay credit to this government; particularly with the three trade agreements we’ve put in place with China, South Korea, Japan and now TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) 11.
“The reality is, a government‘s responsibility, the federal government’s responsibility, is not to get into peoples’ lives but to put the infrastructure and environment around them to succeed and that’s what we’re doing by putting these trade agreements in place and coupling that with small business tax cuts.
“The reality is farmers are small business owners and they’re also going to get those benefits from those tax cuts that we’ve also created, as well as the accelerated depreciation offsets.
“Trade agreements have definitely played a part in terms of providing returns at the farm gate and that’s what a government’s responsibility is.
“And the work is not finished – we’re working on TPP 11 and we’re looking at market access.
“It’s not just formal trade agreements we’re working on it’s also market access and that’s what we’re also putting our shoulder to the wheel on; ensuring that we give our farmers a greater share of the opportunity and spreading the global risk in terms of market access.”
Mr Mahar said the NFF experienced a positive meeting with the new minister in early January and welcomed other initial moves like him visiting India to try to resolve the trade dispute over a shock 30 per cent tariff imposed on Australian grain exports recently which has produced an estimated $20 million impost on local industry.
“We’ve had discussions with him (Mr Littleproud) for some time on a range of issues so he’s known to us,” Mr Mahar said.
“We spoke about the NFF’s agenda and he had some of his own views.
“It was a really valuable experience to sit down with the minister for a couple of hours and say, ‘look here’s what we think are the issues for agriculture and here’s the agenda we want to work on with you’ and he committed to working with the NFF as the national body to address some of those issues.
“He said to us he’s very keen to listen and hear about the issues and knowing what he’s done in the last few weeks, going around talking to stakeholders, has demonstrated he’s open and willing to hear from stakeholders what their issues are, which can only help the government and industry.
“That can be added to his own knowledge and experiences so we’re really positive and bullish about working with him.”
Mr Mahar said Mr Joyce when minister “always had an ear for the industry and was always in touch”.
“One of Barnaby’s key strengths was that he had so many contacts and knew so much about the industry and he knew so many people in the industry.
“Barnaby’s great passion for the industry was another of his strengths.”
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