Nationals must be more than 'blokes in big hats', Darren Chester says
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.
Sign up to receive the top stories in Australia every day at noon
“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”.
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.