Victorian Nationals Centenary Dinner
07 August 2014
Grand Ballroom, Park Hyatt Hotel
May I begin by congratulating the Victorian Nationals on your centenary—a century serving the people of regional Victoria, making a difference for the people we represent.
In 1922, the Melbourne Argus predicted the demise of the Country Party was inevitable.
The Melbourne Argus folded in 1957—we are still here.
Here in Victoria, Peter Ryan is Deputy Premier—leading a team of 13.
In New South Wales, Andrew Stoner is Deputy Premier—leading a team of 26 Nationals.
In Queensland, the LNP governs with the largest majority achieved by any party in the history of the state—bigger, even, than when Labor was reduced to a cricket team back in Joh's hey-day.
In the Northern Territory Adam Giles is Chief Minister in a CLP government that has been in office for 30 out of the 40 years of the Territory Assembly.
In Western Australia, Terry Redman leads a team that has revitalised The Nationals over the past five years.
As Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of The Nationals in the Federal Parliament, I lead a team of 15 in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate.
That team includes, from Victoria, some terrific young Nationals talent: Darren Chester in Gippsland, Andrew Broad in Mallee and Bridget McKenzie in the Senate. Each has the potential to be a major player for years to come—to take the Victorian Nationals into the next century.
What that report card shows is that our Party has been delivering and what I believe we can say, with total certainty, is that the ongoing worth of The Nationals, will be decided by what value we place in remaining relevant - remaining major contributors to national life, as we have been for a century.
Our future will be decided, ultimately, not by critics or new parties which seek to usurp our role, but by the quality of the effort that we put in.
There is - however - no question about the timeless relevance of our Party's values.
They carry great, abiding strength and they have not changed, in any essential sense, in the 94 years since our formal beginnings—or, as you are celebrating, the 100 years since farming activists laid the foundations of what was to become the Country Party in Victoria.
Similar movements were arising in that era—roughly simultaneously—in all the states as farming organisations felt the need for stronger representation of their interests in Parliaments at state and federal levels.
In an absolutely fundamental way, that push underscores and explains the basis of our existence on the conservative side of politics—even though that historical, core constituency, has shrunk numerically, and in relative economic terms.
There was then, as now, a well-developed view among rural and regional Australians that politics, and government, was being dominated by urban concerns, and that rural and regional Australia was being neglected.
That sense remains at the core of our existence.
Indeed, if you look at some of the issues that were prominent 100 years ago, there is—despite all the vast changes that have occurred, economically, demographically, and socially—a lot of familiar themes.
Foundation Country Party concerns were “telephonic communications”, including better postal services. There was concern about the great need for expenditure on roads.
There was concern about the need for rail services, the need to extend air services, the need for national action on water conservation, and for an end to “costly duplication” of tax arrangements between the states and the Commonwealth.
If you switch to mobile coverage or broadband internet instead of fixed phones, the issue of “telephonic communications” still exists.
Road and rail issues remain central concerns of rural and regional Australians, as does the struggle to maintain decent air services.
Water remains a key concern, as does “costly duplication” in too many forms.
And I expect these issues will continue to be concerns through our next century.
From the very beginning, we played a role that was national, and a long way from being sector specific.
For example—Earle Page had a pre-occupation with the need for the government to better manage its high level of debt—which then was mostly World War I loan debt owed to Britain—and his anxiety about getting on top of it was precisely for the same reason that we are trying to tackle debt today.
The more we pay in interest and capital in servicing debt, the less there is for services: That was as true in 1920 as it is today, even if Page would be stunned that our interest bill on debt is now $1 billion a month.
Another indicator of the national interest of our Party, was Earl Page's extraordinary contributions in relation to health services—for all Australians—which often is not properly recognised.
He championed the National Health and Medical Research Council, backed subsidised medical health services for all, he championed voluntary health insurance, and the subsidisation of pharmaceuticals—to make them affordable to all.
“Doc” Page wanted to consolidate the Commonwealth's welfare payments, including the old age, orphans, widows, invalid, workers compensation, and medical support, under a single umbrella insurance scheme.
All of these issues have clear, totally relevant, echoes in our national life today and show very clearly that these early leaders of ours were people of great vision.
Black Jack McEwen—often remembered now outside this party as a protectionist and the father of Australian manufacturing—was one of the most vigorous champions of freer trade, to develop markets for all Australian industry.
His efforts to negotiate Australia's Commerce Agreement with Japan just a decade after World War II were heroic.
A soldier settler himself, it was incredibly far-sighted for him to lead negotiations for a trade agreement with our former enemy. But within ten years, Japan had become Australia's number one trading partner—a position it held for 50 years.
This year we signed a free trade agreement with Japan, and we hope to conclude an FTA with China this year.
The National Party played a very major role in building our nation.
The Nationals—or the Country Party as it then was—had a truly national perspective and fought hard to make Australia, and all Australians, more prosperous.
Earl Page created the Trade Commissioner's Service in 1934 which was dramatically expanded by Doug Anthony in the early 1970's.
One of the first offices that Doug established was in Seoul. Now we have a free trade agreement with Korea, and Korea is one of our top four trading partners.
My maiden speech was criticised when I spoke about the great opportunities our proximity to Asia offered to Australia.
So when we now talk about Australia in the Asian Century, we need to remember that a very forward focused Country Party—with a national focus—has been talking about Asia for 50 years or more and was laying the foundations for Mark Vaile and our current negotiators to achieve the breakthroughs we are now seeing.
Our natural turf obviously remains rural and regional Australia. It is our purpose for being, and the record shows we have worked tirelessly, and effectively, on that front.
Without The Nationals, there would not have been the Australian Bicentennial Road Program that Ralph Hunt achieved in 1982—through a return to partial hypothecation of fuel excise.
Now we are seeking to use fuel excise indexation to fund roads again.
Without The Nationals, there would not have been the Farm Management Deposit Scheme, or FarmBis, or FarmHelp, that John Anderson championed.
There would not have been the Roads to Recovery program, which John Anderson began and which I have had the pleasure of expanding.
There would not have been a National Water Initiative in the form that it was developed.
We wouldn't have had the $15 billion Auslink national land transport program, also achieved under John Anderson, extended by Mark Vaile by $22 billion and five years—and in this year's Budget increased again to $50 billion, the biggest road and rail infrastructure program in our nation's history.
How relevant The Nationals remain as a third force in Australian politics will depend on the effort we are prepared to put in over the years ahead.
In many ways, our base of regional centres, small towns, individual farmers and small business people, have never needed a champion more.
The power of our cities to determine national priorities continues to grow—but this is happening in parallel with significant new opportunities emerging in rural and regional Australia.
Our nation's wealth is still created in the regions.
When the regions are strong, so is Australia.
Our mineral and agricultural sectors will be the major ingredients in our future economic prosperity—into the Asian markets of the 21st century.
In a bid to extend and re-invigorate our agriculture sector so we can maximise the opportunities presented by the rise and rise of Asia, we are now working on a White Paper for agriculture and a White Paper on Northern Development, and on how we can expand access to water for the future of mining, regional centres, and new and expanded agriculture.
These are visionary efforts that are the essence of The Nationals.
Yes, The Nationals are just as important as ever.
The value of The Nationals in the 21st Century will be what we make it.
I have no doubt that the new Members who have been elected to the Federal Parliament and the new young candidates you have chosen for the upcoming state election will strongly carry forward the traditions of the Victorian Nationals and create their own chapter of achievement for The Nationals.