Labor can’t win Government without Country Labor

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The Australian Labor Party’s strong history in the bush is illustrated by the continuing debate between Barcaldine and Balmain as the actual birthplace of the ALP. Irrespective of the outcome of that debate, the ALP and NSW Labor in particular has, since its inception, been a party of the country.

When Labor has ensured that its policies are focused on rural and regional issues, and it has had local candidates who appeal to more than just a traditional Labor constituency, country seats have returned Labor representatives to both the NSW and Federal Parliaments. Antony Green has in his contribution to The Wran Era written that:

“Compared to its interstate brethren, the NSW Labor Party has a long history of electoral success in country areas.”

Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno have written about NSW Labor’s early appeal to country voters, explaining in A little history of the Australian Labor Party that:

“NSW Labor’s populist appeal was especially aimed at rural electorates: the dispersed populations of Australia’s wheat belts, mining towns and pastoral hinterland. With the help of the AWU, NSW Labor attracted particularly strong support from small landholders, men who often supplemented their farm income by working part-time on the properties of wealthier neighbours: 19 out of the 35 seats captured in 1891 were country electorates. Rural domination was even greater by the mid-1890’s.”

This trend of country-focused policy and subsequent electoral triumph continued throughout the twentieth century. In 1925, under J. T. Lang’s leadership, NSW Labor won 18 seats in the bush, and in government implemented accommodation standards for rural workers. Indeed the first country-specific Party conferences date back to the 1920s.

After his election as leader in 1939, William McKell aggressively pursued country electorates with a broad rural strategy, “carefully selecting local candidates” to run for Labor, including John Renshaw (Castlereagh), Roger Nott (Liverpool Plains) and Eddie Graham (Wagga Wagga). He also convinced barrister Bill Sheahan to run for Yass, where he had strong family ties, rather than a safer Sydney electorate. On a policy level, McKell ensured his plan for reform for NSW included specific country issues – debt reduction for farmers, electrification of rural areas, ambitious schemes for soil, water and forest conservation and also opening up more land to farmers to promote rural development – known as closer settlement.

However, by 1973, Labor won just six of the 33 country electorates. This was, in part, due to a strong anti-Whitlam sentiment in rural and regional areas. To counteract this, between 1973 and 1976, Neville Wran spent a large amount of time and effort campaigning in country NSW. Detailed analysis of the state and federal voting patterns over these years shows that that Wran’s efforts enabled voters to distinguish between NSW and Federal Labor. In 1976, Labor had been elected with fewer country seats than any previous Labor government – winning just Broken Hill, Burrinjuck, Casino, Castlereagh, Cessnock, Monaro and Murrumbidgee. Over subsequent elections, Labor won the country seats of Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Clarence, Kiama, Northern Tablelands and Wollondilly.

This same pattern of winning country seats as it went into government, and increasing this country representation whilst in government continued under Bob Carr. Under Carr, Labor continued its policy focus for rural and regional NSW, and rebuilt or redeveloped every major hospital around the state. Whilst Labor was in government from 1995 to 2011, Labor held (for various periods) the country seats of Bathurst, Broken Hill (later Murray-Darling), Cessnock, Clarence, Kiama, Maitland, Monaro, Port Stephens, South Coast and Tweed. Labor also came close to winning the seat of Burrinjuck several times.

Indeed, it was whilst Bob Carr was Premier of NSW in 1999 that Country Labor was formed to formally recognize this long history of representing rural and regional NSW.

How to Win in the Country: Eddie Graham, Harold Mair and Harry Woods

In her essay, Fair share: Country and City in Australia, Judith Brett reflects on the increasing alienation felt by country Australia from their city counterparts:

“Country people have long believed that their interests are neglected by city-based politicians chasing the more numerous city votes and courting powerful, big-city interests.”

Moreover, as researcher Jennifer Curtin found that “although the rural voters she spoke to distrusted government in general, they trusted and respected their local member.” Yet, this trust and respect was not easily won. As Judith Brett writes:

“All MPs have duties as local members, but expectations are especially high in country electorates, where people value local ties and face-to-face contact highly, and where the parliamentarian is an important local identity.”

Equally, these high expectations are also placed upon candidates campaigning to represent an area.

McKell pioneered a strategy of identifying local high-profile individuals with Labor values, who would appeal to more than just a traditional Labor constituency – a strategy which continues to prove successful to today. McKell understood that in the country, voters place just as high an emphasis on their local candidates as they do on their respective leaders on Sydney. Over successive governments, Labor has won country seats where it has popular local candidates with strong ties to their community, who have championed local issues. Importantly, as the examples of Eddie Graham, Harold Mair and Harry Woods illustrate, these MPs maintained their strong community ties and accessibility to their constituents once they were elected.

One of McKell’s candidates was Eddie Graham, who won the seat of Wagga Wagga in 1941, and held it until his death in 1957. Graham was from a local pioneering family, a former butcher and later a successful pig farmer. He was involved in a number of agricultural organisations and served as the President of the Wagga Wagga Club of the Junior Farmers’ Movement from 1925-1941. Graham took on the Country Party’s Matthew Kilpatrick, who had been in Parliament for 20 years, representing a range of different conservative parties. Graham took a common-sense approach to campaigning, promising to live in his electorate (unlike Kilpatrick who had moved to Sydney after his election in 1925). As a candidate, and later an MP, he was readily accessible – even after becoming Minister for Agriculture. Although Eddie Graham won on preferences in 1941, he never required them again to hold Wagga Wagga – increasing its margin to a height of 18 percent in 1944. Graham never relied on the Party brand itself to win the seat, instead as Hagan noted about a number of McKell’s candidates:

“the success of its candidates did not depend on party endorsement alone…Useful as that party loyalty was, it was not in itself sufficient to secure the return of Labor candidates…Graham [was] able to attract the loyalty of the thousands of non-traditional Labor electors whose votes they needed to win.”

During the Wran years, Labor had popular local members in all the rural seats it held. One of these was Harold Mair, who won the seat of Albury in 1978 and held it for the next ten years. Mair reluctantly recontested the 1988 election; however the electorate became the focus of the anti-gun control laws, which were popular in Sydney, but equally unpopular in the regions. Mair had lived in Albury for most of his life and was the son of a railway worker. As Mayor of Albury, Mair fought to keep the Albury-Wodonga Growth Centre that had been established by Whitlam, but was scaled back by the Fraser Government. After the local Liberal MP retired, he agreed to stand as the Labor candidate in 1978. In office, Harold Mair proved to be a tireless campaigner and delivered record amounts of government expenditure for the electorate of Albury. Until his death in 2011, Mair could still fill the auditorium at the local club when the Albury branch of the ALP held an annual dinner in his honour. Speaking at the dinner in 2009, Senator John Faulkner could still recall seeing Mair go from Ministerial office to Ministerial office, assiduously advocating for his electorate – waiting to see the Minister and argue his case, no matter how long it took.

After Labor won the 1995 NSW election by just one seat, the five by-elections held on 12 April 1996 offered an opportunity for Labor to increase its wafer-thin margin. Despite a close campaign in Orange, Labor was only successful in Clarence, where former Federal Member for Page, Harry Woods won. Ironically, Woods won Clarence in the by-election caused by the Nationals’ Ian Causley’s resignation – who resigned after beating Woods in the general Federal election for the seat of Page. Woods was a former publican and bookmaker who was popular right across the electorate. Like Eddie Graham and Harold Mair, Harry Woods was accessible to his constituents, and consistently delivered government investment for his electorate. Woods first won the Federal seat of Page in 1990 after campaigning hard against a proposed pulp mill, arguing that it would harm the Clarence River, the lifeblood of the region. Upon winning the Clarence by-election in 1996, Woods was made a minister, and managed to delicately balance the local forestry industry with the Carr Labor Government’s plans for more national parks – the very issue that caused Labor to lose Clarence in 2003 when Woods retired.

Labor must not put independents ahead of our own members

Today, one in three people across Australia live outside of the major cities – a figure that is replicated in NSW. However in recent years, both the Party and the Government have focused intently on the ‘marginal’ seats in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong, resulting in country areas being neglected – or worse, not even thought of in the first place. This led to alienation of both Party members and voters in country areas, and the idea that NSW is an abbreviation of Newcastle – Sydney – Wollongong, rather than New South Wales.

At the same time, independent members of Parliament (MPs) in the bush (and in some cases Councillors) were seen in Sydney as Labor surrogates. The preferential treatment of these independent MPs led to the destruction of local Party infrastructure as Party members were discouraged by local independent MPs making Labor Government announcements, or visits from Ministers focusing on the independent MPs at the expense of Party members. For example, in the independent-held electorates of Tamworth, Northern Tablelands and Dubbo, Party membership has declined by up to 50 percent since independents won these seats at the 1999 NSW election.

In practice, once independents are elected, moderate and centrist community-minded people are attracted to support independents, rather than Labor – independents build as Labor is sidelined. Whilst there is a need to find allies, especially in rural and regional areas, and there will always be independent MPs and councillors, these alliances can’t come at expense of Labor Party members and campaign infrastructure.

Responding to demographic change

Whilst the large rural workforce and poorer farmers who voted for Labor in the past may have migrated to the cities, or at least the major towns, there are some other demographic opportunities for Labor in rural and regional areas.

The lynchpins of the rural Labor vote used to be railway towns and the trade union tradition of farm labourers. With the demise of the railways, railway towns don’t really exist any more. Less than 0.4 percent of the workforce outside Sydney is employed by the railways. Despite having a residual Labor vote, the old railway junctions like Junee and Werris Creek are far less strong for Labor than they used to be.

Agricultural mechanisation has vastly reduced the size of the rural workforce. Outside Sydney barely six percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture. The farmers who are left are mostly classified as managers – almost two-thirds of people employed in agriculture in regional NSW are managers, while less than 20 percent are labourers. Today this means agriculture is likely to be strongly conservative. In areas where agriculture contributes most to the local economy, the Labor vote tends to be weakest.

On the coast agriculture is a far smaller part of the local economy than it used to be. This area is now dominated by service industries – retail and tourism – which aren’t traditionally associated with one side of politics or the other. Along with increased migration from the city, the decline of agriculture and rise of the services sector is gradually pushing parts of the coast towards Labor, particularly the far north coast. For example, in 1983 Riverina was a tightly fought marginal while Richmond was National Party heartland – a situation that has been totally reversed today. Similar demographic changes are also occurring on the southern coast of NSW and will offer opportunities for Labor in the future.

Building for the future

To rebuild, Country Labor, like all of NSW Labor, needs to open up to the community and become more focused on them – being outwardly, rather than inwardly focused. A number of the reforms endorsed by NSW Labor’s 2011 Annual Conference will ensure that the ALP structures themselves reflect this change. This broader and more community-based approach will allow Labor to rebuild trust and credibility, and attract new members. Most importantly for country areas, the more decentralised approach of local organisers and training will empower local candidates and members.

This outward, community focus was a key impetus behind the reforms to Country Conference 2012. These reforms allowed a range of stakeholders from around rural and regional NSW to speak directly to delegates in policy workshops, and in a keynote address. The expansion of Conference to three days allowed delegates from around the state to receive training on the latest campaign techniques, and to share their experiences. Most importantly of all, the stakeholders who participated, including the NSW Farmers’ Association, the Rural Doctors Network, the NSW Nurses Association, several companies who operate in country NSW and a number of affiliated and non-affiliated trade unions reported back to their members that Country Labor was keen to engage and hear from them.

With the introduction of local grants for community organising and recruitment, there is the opportunity to provide seed funding at a local branch or state electorate level. Local organisers that are trained up can then develop a local recruitment strategy tailored for their area to attract new members to Country Labor. In addition to this, Country Labor Conference in 2012 endorsed the rollout of more volunteer Country Labor offices – based on the successful Port Macquarie model. The implementation of campaign expenditure caps also removes the ability of the conservatives to simply bank-roll their way to victory with a few wealthy donors. Instead, by activating supporters on the ground, Labor campaigns can engage in more one-on-one and word-of-mouth campaigning.

Community preselections offer a new method of implementing the McKell strategy. They will enable Country Labor to engage with the community in a new way, identify supporters in the community, and also encourage individuals with Labor values, who may not necessarily be life-long Party members to stand as Country Labor candidates.

In the same way that the first Labor policies were aimed at, and drew support from poor farmers and rural workers, Labor must appeal to the modern-day versions of these demographics once again. Today, the central challenge for Labor is to engage with workers in the service industries – small business people, lower-level white collar industries and contractors – but this challenge isn’t limited to the country.

Only by engaging with communities around country NSW in new and innovative ways and, combined with rural and regional focused policies, will Labor continue to win electorates in the country – like it has for its long history.