Na­tion­als must be more than 'blokes in big hats', Dar­ren Ch­ester says

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Katharine Mur­phy po­lit­i­cal editor

The Na­tion­als front­bencher Dar­ren Ch­ester said his party needed to work on broad­en­ing its ap­peal and un­der­stand that Australia’s re­gional com­mu­ni­ties are di­verse and “con­stantly chang­ing”.

Ch­ester, the vet­er­ans’ af­fairs min­is­ter, used a speech to the Na­tional Press Club on Wed­nes­day to de­liver a pub­lic mes­sage to his con­ser­va­tive col­leagues that the Na­tional party had to present to the pub­lic as “much more than blokes in big hats”.

He said farm­ers would al­ways be a core con­stituency, but the party had to broaden its base, un­der­stand­ing that there were “more small-busi­ness own­ers, health work­ers, teach­ers, min­ers and tourism in­dus­try staff liv­ing in our elec­torates”.

There was a les­son to be learned about con­tem­po­rary so­cial at­ti­tudes af­ter last year’s plebiscite on same­sex mar­riage: “The fact that 15 out of 16 Na­tional party elec­torates voted yes ... is a mes­sage that we would be fool­ish to ig­nore.

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“Re­gional com­mu­ni­ties are con­stantly chang­ing. They are far more di­verse and far more tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ences than per­haps many peo­ple ex­pect.”

Re­gional Aus­tralians were also “the great en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. They are the ones who are join­ing Land­care, do­ing pest con­trol, weed re­duc­tion, do­ing work to pro­tect threat­ened species – the ones get­ting their hands dirty.”

It was in the in­ter­ests of the Na­tional party, if it wanted to boost its rep­re­sen­ta­tion in par­lia­ment, to think out­side “the old left-ver­sus­right de­bate”.

“We need to be a broad enough church to ac­cept dif­fer­ences of opin­ions on so­cial is­sues, to make sure we’re the nat­u­ral choice of all vot­ers who live out­side our cap­i­tal cities, be­cause we are the only party that is com­pletely fo­cused on their is­sues,” Ch­ester said.

And it would be pos­i­tive for voter trust in pol­i­tics if the ma­jor par­ties adopted a more bi­par­ti­san stance on na­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant is­sues.

“I think our con­tin­ued fo­cus on per­son­al­i­ties and not the pol­icy de­bate is hurt­ing our na­tion,” he said. “As a re­sult, we spend too much time talk­ing about each other and not enough time on things that mat­ter to all Aus­tralians. When that hap­pens the pub­lic switches off pol­i­tics.”

Ch­ester’s pitch fol­lows months of tumult about the pri­vate life of the for­mer party leader, Barn­aby Joyce, which ul­ti­mately trig­gered a lead­er­ship change.

It also fol­lows last week’s pub­lic ac­knowl­edg­ment by the agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, the Queens­land Na­tional David Lit­tleproud, that cli­mate change was hap­pen­ing, and the shift in the elec­tric­ity mar­ket to­wards re­new­able en­ergy with firm­ing tech­nol­ogy was “ex­cit­ing, not only for the en­vi­ron­ment but for the hip pocket”, com­ments which be­ing in­ter­preted as some­thing of a gen­er­a­tion shift within the Na­tion­als.

Ch­ester was asked about his views on cli­mate change on Wed­nes­day and gave a slightly more hedged an­swer than Lit­tleproud.

He said it was clear the cli­mate was chang­ing, but he was un­sure to what ex­tent hu­mans were con­tribut­ing to the warm­ing. He said the pub­lic weren’t en­tirely sold on cli­mate change be­ing an­thro­pogenic.

Peo­ple in the bush were will­ing to do their share to re­duce emis­sions but they “also want to know their qual­ity of life – associated with that baseload re­li­able power pro­vided through the La Trobe val­ley power sta­tions – is go­ing to con­tinue”. “The re­al­ity of my com­mu­nity is most peo­ple think we need to do some­thing to do our share, to make our con­tri­bu­tion to re­duc­ing emis­sions, but they don’t want to see us mug­ging the econ­omy and sac­ri­fic­ing their jobs in the process,” he said.

He ac­cepted that emis­sions would need to be re­duced in the agri­cul­ture and trans­port sec­tors, as well as the elec­tric­ity sec­tor, but said farm­ers would sup­port emis­sions re­duc­tion through their pro­duc­tion pro­cesses, such as putting so­lar pan­els on their prop­er­ties, rather than fac­ing stric­tures on their live­stock.

Ch­ester said he thought higher take up of newer, more fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles would be pos­i­tive not only for emis­sions re­duc­tion but for road safety.

The pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Farm­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion, Fiona Sim­son, shared Lit­tleproud’s com­ments on cli­mate change and the en­ergy tran­si­tion from his in­ter­view with Guardian Australia last week, say­ing they were “pretty much in tune with the rest of #Ausag I’d think at the mo­ment”.

Asked whether Sim­son was right, Ch­ester said re­gional peo­ple were not of one mind on cli­mate change and the cur­rent en­ergy tran­si­tion: “It is a di­verse group. They have strong opin­ions on a whole range of ar­eas. It de­pends whether you are talk­ing to a beef farmer, sheep farmer, dairy farmer.”

If emis­sions re­duc­tions were sold to them as a way to re­duce the cost of pro­duc­tion “that will get them ex­cited”.

Pho­to­graph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The vet­er­ans’ af­fairs min­is­ter, Dar­ren Ch­ester, told the Na­tional Press Club on Wed­nes­day that his party, the Na­tion­als, needs to broaden its base and ap­peal.

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