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Labor's trip to the country

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Politically and economically, South Australia’s new Labor Government should be looking towards the country.

Yesterday’s new Cabinet line-up has some interesting headline acts: Tom Koutsantonis taking Treasury and a mega-economic portfolio including mining, small business and “automotive transformation”; and new boy Stephen Mullighan going straight into Cabinet as Transport and Infrastructure Minister.

However, one of the most important appointments is Leon Bignell as Minister for Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Forests, in addition to his old job looking after Tourism.

The Government not only needs to keep regionally-based MP Geoff Brock happy, it also desperately needs to increase its support in country South Australia – if only to bolster its tenuous political credibility.

The state of South Australia – whether most city people know it or not – is economically reliant on the regions. Primary industries underpin the entire economy, and this has been the case since the colony’s earliest beginnings.

Bignell is one of the few Government ministers who gets this – which is why he will become Labor’s face in regional South Australia.

Back in the struggling, dying days of Mike Rann’s leadership in 2011, Bignell was seen as a troublesome young buck by the Rann administration.

It was well known that he was supporting Jay Weatherill for the top job.

But he had also twigged to the fact that the only way to keep hold of his semi-rural seat of Mawson, based around McLaren Vale, was to start to speak up for regional South Australia.

In an official Parliamentary travel report – which usually detail members’ visits to New York, Copenhagen, or Prague – Bignell reflected on a trip all over the state in late 2010, as he chaired forums about the state infrastructure plan.

He came up with an idea that annoyed his colleagues intensely: it was for 14 ministers to be randomly paired with South Australian regions and country towns. He wanted ministers to undertake country “tours of duty” (possibly an unfortunately pejorative way to put it), and report back to the Cabinet about what they discovered.

In Bignell’s plan, ministers would have to drive themselves to their designated region so they could gain “a true understand of the conditions of the road and the fatigue associated with driving long distances”.

While on country service, they’d have to spend at least three hours with a “frontline” service provider – in the local hospital, on patrol with the police, working in the national parks etc.

You get the idea.

Needless to say, ministers rolled their eyes and the caravan moved on.

But it does at least show that Bignell understood the depths of the feelings of disenfranchisement felt by country people under Labor.

He described this as “frustration”, but he was probably being polite.

“What was clear to me was that the people in the regions didn’t think the people who made the ultimate decisions, ie ministers, had a very clear overall picture of what it is like to live, work and do business in regional South Australia,” Bignell wrote. “Nor did they feel they had a good understanding of specific issues in each region and the effect decisions made in good faith in Adelaide had on people hundreds of kilometres away.”

He was, of course, being polite again.

Safe to say that country people feel ignored and, at times, completely shafted by the elite in South Australia’s capital.

There is intense resentment about services that seem to be constantly under threat (see Keith Hospital and other country health proposals over the years), and the entrenched idea (and probably reality) that the city enjoys a disproportionate slice of the government pie.

This disdain of country people for Labor (and, in their perception, vice versa) is one reason why Steven Marshall’s Liberals won the popular vote at the March 15 election, but failed to win the majority of seats. In some regional seats, the Liberal vote was simply overwhelming – in the Eyre Peninsula-based seat of Flinders, for example, the Liberals won nearly 80 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.

That’s an embarrassment for Labor – or, rather, it should be.

The Eyre Peninsula is economically crucial for the state, shipping out nearly $2 billion worth of seafood, grain, livestock and minerals every year. That’s a hefty contribution.

While the hope for a mining boom grows fainter and fainter, wine and agriculture remain a consistent bedrock of the economy.

SA’s agricultural sector is highly efficient and productive, yet Government support for R&D has been falling.

It’s about time that South Australia’s agricultural industries had a minister who has influence and who understands them.

Before entering Parliament, Bignell was a journalist and a political adviser – not much country cred there. However, many might not be aware that he grew up on a dairy farm in the South-East. His sympathy for regional South Australia is genuine.

He’s still not the most popular figure among his colleagues, but he does have close connections with the Premier.

At worst, country people can expect to see a lot of him.

For the sake of the state, let’s hope that he can also get policy runs on the board to match the many kilometres he’s going to register in his big white government car.

 

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