On Friday when I got to Sydney Airport, a Labor supporter stopped me and said I must be glad to be home for the weekend after such a big sitting week in Canberra.
“Actually, I’m going to Dubbo to address the Country Labor Conference”, I told him.
“That’s Tiger Country,’’ he responded. “You won’t win many votes there”.
With respect, he is wrong.
At a time of economic change and political realignment in Australia and abroad, rural and regional Australia is a place of opportunity for the Australian Labor Party.
The Orange Byelection demonstrated how the Coalition base feels it has been betrayed by its leadership.
We must take the ball up and challenge the Nationals in the Bush.
Seeking to advance Labor representation in the regions is of course in our political interest.
But more importantly, it’s in the interest of those fine Australians who live in regional Australia.
Growing our regional cities and towns is also in the interests of those who live in our capital cities.
If population growth continues to be concentrated, then the pressure on liveability in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in particular will cause significant stress.
Growth in regional Australia must be a central component of national economic, social and environmental policy.
And it has always fallen to Labor to provide that national leadership.
No issue has exemplified the need for Labor to step up more than the fiasco over the Backpacker Tax.
The 2015 budget saw a grand announcement by the Government to impose a 32.5 per cent tax on backpackers.
No consultation with farmers.
No consultation with the tourism sector.
No economic modelling or weighing the benefits of extra revenue against the likely impact on labour supply.
And no defence of regional Australia by the National Party.
For 18 months, in spite of farmers warning they weren’t planting crops because they would not have people to pick them, the uncertainty continued.
The sight of mangoes rotting on the ground was a graphic illustration of the Nationals and their city Tory masters’ betrayal of regional Australia.
Over the past month the Backpacker Tax has become the Backtracker Tax as they sought to justify the devastating impacts of their own arrogance and incompetence.
When Labor argued for a lower rate, they sought to hide behind economic nationalism by saying Australian workers would be paying higher taxes than backpackers.
They seem to have forgotten that Labor tripled the income tax free threshold to $18,200 and took a million people out of the tax system.
The overwhelming number of backpackers earn less than this and would pay the Backpacker Tax from the first dollar earned.
Then they even tried to argue that this 2015 Joe Hockey Budget measure was somehow not their initiative.
This after the Coalition had argued for more than a year that 32.5% was good for the economy.
Eventually the pressure got to them as they were mugged by reality as backpacker numbers went into freefall.
They then argued for 19 per cent.
Then they argued again for 32.5 per cent.
Then back down again to 15 per cent.
Then back up again to 32.5 per cent.
Finally, they did a deal with the Greens political Party for 15 per cent, but with a discount and new spending commitments that defeated the very purpose of the tax to begin with.
During this whole debacle, farmers and regional tourism operators couldn’t rely upon the National Party to stand up for their interests.
They certainly couldn’t rely on the Liberal Party.
They couldn’t even rely on the National Farmers Federation.
Only Labor stood up for their interests.
I want to pay tribute to the courage, determination and sheer tenacity of my mate Joel Fitzgibbon on this issue.
When Joel sees rural and regional communities under siege, he’s like a dog with a bone in defence of their interests.
There is no-one in our show I’d rather have next to me in the political trenches.
The regions can also rely on Justine Elliot, who has beaten the Nationals not once; not twice; not even three times; but five times.
They can rely on Mike Kelly, who took a term off chilling out in Eden Monaro before storming back into Parliament this year as the representative of the south-eastern corner of our great state. Great to have you back!
They can rely upon Meryl Swanson who has returned Paterson to the Labor fold.
They can rely upon Stephen Jones who now has the honour of being the Member for Whitlam and is out there every day advocating for regional services and regional communications.
Then there’s Sam Dastyari, Doug Cameron, Jenny McAllister and Deborah O’Neill – our energetic Senate team who travel the State working with branch members, unions and community members and taking local issues to Canberra.
They have been an effective voice for those in National and Liberal electorates whose local members let them down.
Farmers in particular have had to rely upon Fitzy and others to stand up for them.
One thing everyone knows about farmers is that they never throw anything away.
That must be why the National Party is still around. Farmers must be hoping that one day they might serve some useful purpose.
Barnaby Joyce is a bit like one of those old dinged-up paddock-basher cars you see on so many farms.
A bit of fun for the kids, makes a lot of noise… but no good at getting you anywhere.
Barnaby Joyce and his colleagues have sold out the bush.
And not just on Backpacker Tax.
On cuts to health;
Cuts to education;
Cuts to pensions;
Cuts to rail and road funding;
Cuts to road maintenance grants to councils;
In fact, his mate Mike Baird has sacked councils and left communities without elected representation for 18 months.
They’ve failed to progress the Inland Rail project.
Done nothing on High Speed Rail.
Ignored climate change.
And now Barnaby Joyce wants to ignore the Murray Darling Basin Plan, brokered by the former Labor Government to end more than a century of interstate conflict over water.
But perhaps worst of all, Barnaby is selling out the future of the bush by giving it 19th century, copper based Fraudband unfit for the challenges of the 21st century.
My message today is that Labor must capitalize on our opponent’s manifest failures.
The Nationals have left the door ajar.
It’s up to us to bash the door down and pile on through.
I look around this room today and I see people up to that very task.
To capitalize, we must remember that Labor is always at our best when we develop policies that target the aspirations of average Australians, wherever they live.
If you listened to our political opponents, whose creed in based on self-interest, you would think that the only thing to which Australians aspire is material wealth.
We all need to pay our bills.
But the fundamental aspiration of average Australians, wherever we live, is to build a society where our children will have better opportunities in life than we had.
We want access to decent health services.
Good schools and vocational training opportunities.
The ability to get ahead.
Australians don’t want a free ride. But they do want a fair go.
In 2016, Labor is better placed to meet these aspirations than our opponents.
We are the party of the fair go.
We created universal health care in this country.
We opened up the nation’s universities to all.
We created the social safety net.
The trade union representatives in this room have devoted their lives to ensuring that workers get treated with respect and they get a fair share for their labour.
Most importantly, we reject the conservative view that if government would just get out of the way and let the market rip, everything will be OK.
We believe government has a role in intervening to ensure that economic growth and prosperity is shared.
It is in our national economic interest to develop the potential of all Australians, wherever they live.
Entrenched inequality not only hurts individuals, it hurts our national economic growth.
The tyranny of distance has always made it difficult to achieve equity for the bush.
But technology is offering us opportunities to re-imagine rural and regional Australia in ways that enhance equity and promote prosperity.
Infrastructure investment and fibre based broadband is the key.
It is an essential component of decentralization of economic activity.
Infrastructure such as High Speed Rail for passengers and Inland Rail for freight will boost our regions.
High speed broadband boosts service delivery and connects rural and regional businesses to the global marketplace, which is critical as our nation looks beyond the mining sector for future job creation.
We hear pious rhetoric from Malcolm Turnbull about innovation and agility in the 21st century.
But there’s a huge gap between the rhetoric and reality.
His fraudband is slower and costs more.
Industries such as food production and advanced manufacturing offer real opportunities for jobs growth in regional Australia.
But these industries won’t prosper using 19th century copper-based tele-communications in the 21st century.
They won’t prosper without access to a trained workforce or without the railways, road and port infrastructure to get their products to market.
Yet this vision-free government is under-investing in education, trashing the vocational training sector and cutting infrastructure investment – down 20 per cent in its first two years in office.
That’s not the road to prosperity.
But to our opponents, the future is a foreign country.
Their ambition is to win elections to occupy office and prevent progress.
They want to leave the future to look after itself while they protect the contemporary interests of their donors from the top end of town.
But Labor is the party of the future.
So it is important that we ensure our policy platform addresses the future.
How we will create the jobs of the future.
How we will build better cities and regions.
How we will strengthen communities.
And how we will advance equity so we can deliver prosperity with fairness.
If we are serious about re-imagining our regions, we need to accept that unchecked climate change is a threat to our economic future as well as our natural environment.
We need to tackle it front on, not pretend it does not exist, as is the approach of our political opponents.
It would be a mistake to think that people in our regions support Barnaby Joyce’s denial of the existence of climate change.
Farmers see its effects every day.
That’s why last week the National Farmers Federation, previously reticent about recognizing climate change, shifted its policy to one of acceptance of the problem and the role of farmers in tackling it.
The NFF’s new president, Fiona Simpson, spent last week in Canberra unsuccessfully begging the Nationals to join her in the 21st century.
So the Nationals are now isolated on climate change in their own political heartland.
The shift reminds me of a phenomenon I have watched with amusement for my entire political life.
Labor is the party of progress.
We are always arguing for change to take our nation forward, while our opponents focus is on tearing down the gains of the past.
The problem conservatives face is that facts and public opinion always catch up with them and force them to face reality.
On issue after issue, Labor has taken positions and spent years being criticized by conservatives, until they finally accept and embrace our positions.
So it is with climate change.
Barnaby Joyce is not a farmer. He is an accountant – a populist snake oil merchant in the mould of his hero Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Farmers have abandoned Mr Joyce on climate change because they know he is wrong in his denial and refusal to think beyond his immediate political interests.
TAKING IT UP
I’m up for taking the ball up to Nationals and other conservative forces in the regions.
We need to expose people like George Christensen for the frauds that they are.
And when I say exposed I don’t mean like on the front page of the Good Weekend – which once seen, can never be unseen.
One of the last votes in the House of Representatives on Thursday night was consideration of a Senate proposal for a Royal Commission into the banks and financial services sector.
It had Labor support.
It had the unanimous support of the crossbench.
George Christensen had declared publicly all week he would cross the floor and support a Royal Commission.
The proposal failed 75-74.
George Christensen – a lion in Mackay, but a mouse in Canberra.
Faced with a choice between the few bank executives on the top floor of CBD towers, and the many in regional Australia who have been victims of bad financial practices, George and his colleagues went with the top end of town – they always do.
So let’s redouble our efforts to be the voice for regional Australia, in this the NSW Branch of our great Party’s 125th year.
In that first election in 1891, Labor won a quarter of the seats including many in the bush.
Our values are the ones that will resonate in regional Australia, as more realise that conservatives’ values are not in their interests.
Only Labor will stand up for them.
Of support for jobs.
Opposition to the abuse of 457 visas to take Australian jobs.
Of support for decent working conditions which have been won by the trade union movement.
Of opposition to the attacks on penalty rates.
Support for every child in every school on the basis of need.
Support for TAFE.
Opposition to the shonky training providers.
Support for universal health care through Medicare.
Opposition to the privatisation of our hospitals and our health system.
Support for investing in infrastructure including High Speed Rail, Inland Rail and a fibre based NBN.
Support for completing the full duplication of the Pacific Highway, that they have slowed down.
Support for local roads funding.
Opposition to forced council amalgamations.
The entire team in Canberra led by Bill Shorten is committed to winning the next election and the key to that objective is winning in regional Australia.
We need a Government that truly represents the interests of all Australians, not just those with views of Sydney Harbour.
We need a Government that shares the values of the outstanding people in this room – you are here because you care about your community.
You want the next generation to have more opportunities than this one has, not less.
You care about the many, not just the few.
With your efforts, Labor can form a Government after the next election – one that makes you proud.
Let’s all commit ourselves to taking the ball up to our opponents every day, as if it’s the first ball return from a Grand Final kick off.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.