Politics is part of every country show. There is the tongue-in-cheek variety between Jersey and Friesian dairy farmers, between sheep and goat graziers, and between dressage horses and motorbike clubs, but room is always made for the “more serious” variety, the politics that normally takes place in a parliament house or council chamber.
In fact, country shows provide one of the few unfiltered opportunities to speak directly to our leaders.
January, February, March is show season in South East New South Wales and has been for 145 years, from Moruya Show to Bega and Cooma, the region’s politicians make a point of attending, an army of party faithful at their side with marques and billboards marked in party colours and slogans.
The Bega Show last weekend offered some respite for the region’s federal representatives, who seemed happy to be free of Canberra and were looking forward to a week were their own sex lives were a talking point.
“It was like a bowl of sweet and sour Chinese,” Labor’s Mike Kelly, Member for Eden Monaro says.
“On one hand we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the apology to the Stolen Generations, and on the other we had the other business [Barnaby Joyce affair] going on,” Dr Kelly says.
The Turnbull Government was represented at the show by new NSW Liberal Senator Jim Molan, who has just completed his first two-week parliamentary sitting.
Senator Molan has been described as the Stephen Bradbury of politics. Listed as the seventh candidate on the NSW Coalition Senate ticket at the last election, the former Army General finds himself in parliament as a result of the Section 44 citizenship saga that claimed Nationals Senator Fiona Nash.
Like Dr Kelly, Mr Molan did not want to offer direct comment on the Barnaby Joyce affair or his own recent brush with the media where he was criticised for sharing a Facebook post from the far-right group Britain First.
“What may surprise everyone is that the Government is getting on and doing its job,” Mr Molan says.
“For example, the Minister for Veterans Affairs introduced a Bill last week which he called Veteran Centric Reform,” Mr Molan says.
The Government’s Veterans Affairs website says, “Veteran Centric Reform [is] to provide the veteran community with a greater standard of service through reform of business processes and culture.”
Reflecting on the work of parliament and other matters that might have been missed in the buzz around Barnaby, Dr Kelly points to the work of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
Last week, the Committee handed down its Review of the listing of Islamic State Khorasan Province and the re-listing of al-Murabitun as terrorist organisations under the Criminal Code.
In a nutshell, their report concluded: “Islamic State Khorasan Province and al-Murabitun continue to meet the definition of a terrorist organisation.”
Perhaps not a front-of-mind issue for showgoers over the weekend, but Dr Kelly who sits on the Committee insists that it demonstrates that politics is more than the scandal and combat we see presented in the media.
“It’s [the Joint Committee] a very bipartisan mechanism, we really do focus on the interests of the country, keeping our people safe and defeating terrorists. There is no politics there,” he says.
The red of the Labor tent sat side by side with the blue of the Liberal tent over the three days of the Bega Show.
Often the different party members could be seen standing on neutral ground discussing the issues of the day or their show winning dahlias.
Passers-by were invited to raise concerns and issues, offer a view on parliament’s current agenda, or find out what’s going on for themselves.
“That’s what we are here for,” Dr Kelly says.
“Sometimes it’s good for people to just get things off their chest, I’ve learned as a Member there’s a lot of therapy you can provide by just being a decent listener.”
This grassroots demonstration of our democracy survives in a political landscape that thrives on extremes and conflict, and one that highlights difference rather than similarity. It’s a style of politics that sits comfortably alongside the giant pumpkins, decorated Arrowroots, and chainsaw racing of the show.
“And I am only new, I am not across the local issues, I am here to learn,” Senator Molan says.
Show season rolls on this weekend with the Canberra Show, followed by Delegate, Dalgety, Cooma, and Bemboka on March 11.
Head along not just for the sideshow clowns or a pony ride, but ready to see your local politician – the invitation is there to talk to them.
Eddie’s friends (including my family) had agreed to meet at 10am on the grass in front of the big flag pole.
We were a diverse mix of country people, kids and adults, including a Vietnam vet, a school teacher, retired police officer, a Canberra Raiders fan, two Registered Nurses, a retired steel worker, and an arts administrator, to name a few.
All there to say, this issue is important to people beyond just ‘the gays in the village’.
The plan was to set – a picnic and a game of soccer, like any family might and see what happened.
The convoy that travelled with Eddie that day numbered around 20, not large in number but our aim was to help those with an ability to pull a crowd get a message out – vote YES.
Using the group’s Bega Valley soccer connections, a bundle of spring loaded corner posts and witches hats were borrowed to mark out a field.
A rainbow flag was gaffer taped to one of the fences attracting the interest of patrolling members of the Australian Federal Police, who made sure we knew it was a no-no but turned a blind eye with a wink of support.
Our soccer field looked great, as did the picnic rugs and assortment of nibbles and baked goods. Mind you no one was hungry – nerves suppressed any craving for one of the Anzac biscuits on offer.
Eleven o’clock arrived quickly. We had high hopes and a sense something great was about to happen, but we didn’t know what was going to happen at the same time.
Mr Shorten and Ms Plibersek had agreed to meet and we hoped the media might tag along – as overwhelming as that felt.
All involved were keen to protect Eddie from potential ugliness, the Canberra press pack comes with a reputation and Eddie had a taste of that last time round.
He was nervous but kept pushing though. Having a ball to kick with his mates was key and he knew he had something valuable and important to say.
We’d worked with Eddie on a statement to read to the media if they showed up, rather than being bamboozled by questions left and right.
The first sign of what was to come started to emerged from between the marble columns of Parliament House.
A cameraman from Fairfax was the first, a scout to make sure everything was ready for his media comrades.
A lectern was positioned with Parliament House and our soccer field in the background, and as if they appeared from the Aladdin’s lamp, the Opposition Leader and his Deputy were mingling at the edges of our picnic rugs.
Anzac biscuits were offered as the number of MP’s streaming down the path increased, cameramen and journalists manoeuvring around our morning tea.
It was hard to say and no one counted but our group ballooned to 50, 60 or 70 people.
Ms Plibersek spoke first, “We know that households across Australia will be receiving their survey papers in the coming days,” she said.
“And we are here to urge people to fill their papers in straight away.”
Bill Shorten was next, “Australia’s modern families come in all shapes and sizes, I think it’s long overdue for the law to catch up with the way in which millions of Australians are already constructing their lives,” he said.
“Today the survey goes out, about 600,000 of the 16 million surveys will be posted today.
“Tick the ‘Yes’ box and we can get this done before Christmas.”
Mr Shorten then introduced Eddie to the media pack.
Eddie had continued to tweak his statement over breakfast that morning, the nicely typed one pager replaced by his own hand written thoughts.
With many of those assembled blubbering quietly (Ms Plibersek included) – Eddie nailed it.
“People who know my family, know that there is nothing wrong with us.
“We play soccer in the winter and volunteer for the surf club in the summer,” he said.
“I have two parents, they love me and they love each other, all couples and all families deserve the same respect and value.”
#Tathra's Eddie Blewett talks to the media pack at Parliament House, Canberra with Bill Shorten MP Mike Kelly MP, and Tanya Plibersek, asking #Australia to get this done and say YES for Rainbow Families.Ian
More mingling and private discussion followed (the soccer game resumed) as well as one on one media interviews and photo requests.
Eddie, Neroli, and Claire handled it all with grace. The support of local media at home the day before helped with that – Fairfax, ABC South East, Power FM and 2EC, all recognised Eddie’s courage early and helped build confidence and momentum.
At about 12:30 we got our patch of grass back, mind you, we’d been sharing it from the very start with a large group of people wearing yellow and practicing Tai Chi. There must have been at least 50 of them highlighting the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China (note to self, find out more one day).
At 1:30 Ms Plibersek said she would take Eddie’s message to the floor of parliament in a session that runs before Question Time known as ‘Ninety Second Member Statements’.
Buggered and hungry for shade (we’d come prepared for Canberra cold not sunshine) we moved inside for coffee ready for 1:30.
Having half undressed to pass through security we took our green seats in the public gallery of the House of Representatives just as Ms Plibersek rose to her feet…
Earlier today, the Leader of the Opposition and I met with three very special people. Eddie Blewett, and his mums Claire and Neroli – from Tathra, NSW.
I had hoped that since they were last here, about a year ago now, that the Parliament would have done its job and legislated for marriage equality.
Sadly, the Prime Minister has delivered a ridiculous $122 million postal survey instead.
None of us wanted it, but we’re determined to win it.
We’ve already seen the vitriol that Malcolm Turnbull’s postal survey is inflicting on LGBTI Australians, their families, and friends.
I know that the next few weeks are going to be tough for young people like Eddie, and for his mums.
But today we say, we stand with you. We’ve got your back.
Ballot papers will be arriving in people’s letterboxes over the coming days.
I urge people to fill out their ballots, and post them back as soon as possible.
I urge people to vote yes.
I’m voting yes, for families like Eddie, Claire, Neroli’s.
I’m voting yes for the person I’ve never met – a young person in a country town who might be struggling with their sexuality.
I’m voting yes because I want to live in country that supports equal rights for all its citizens.
I asked Eddie this morning if he had anything he’d like me say for him in the Parliament.
“Voting ‘yes’ takes nothing away from anyone, but voting ‘no’ will take something away from me and my mums.”
On the way home, we heard about our day on ABC Radio’s PM program, and some of the group were home in time to flick between the various TV news bulletins between 6 and 7:30pm, most featuring Eddie.
A week on I am left appreciating the power people have when they speak up and share genuine experience. I think we all knew that to be the case as we travelled up the Brown that morning but it was terrific and reassuring to see it at work.
Eddie, Claire, and Neroli made this on going discussion real. Real for politicians who will ultimately decided the future of same-sex marriage, real for the media who are no doubt bored of covering this issue, and real for the 16 million ordinary Australian’s who are casting judgement.
What I also love is that country voices carried weight in the city that day, and perhaps our ‘countryness’ was part of our appeal – we represented a group of people who hadn’t been heard.
Most of all I love that my kids stood shoulder to shoulder with their friend Eddie. They saw the power of thoughtful, respectful debate.
“Dad if people can just see Eddie’s face when they fill in their ballot paper, then it’s been a successful day,” one of my boys said.
As an aside, there has been no acknowledgment from the PM to date, Eddie’s invitation to meet with him stands, this isn’t political for Eddie and his family – this is life.
Eddie travelled to Canberra with his mums Claire Blewett and Neroli Dickson and other Rainbow Families asking MP’s to stop the plebiscite on same sex marriage and to have a free vote in Parliament.
Among the politicians they met was deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, who took up Eddie’s cause with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Question Time that day.
“He said to me and I quote, ‘Why should people who barely know us make an assumption on our families and vote on how we can live?” Plibersek said as Eddie and his mums watched in the public gallery above, as reported by Fairfax.
“Can the Prime Minister explain why Eddie should have to put up with a campaign by people who have never met him, telling him that there is something wrong with his family?,” Ms Plibersek said.
Twelve months on for Eddie and the issue is still unresolved and the hurt continues.
Eddie is returning to Canberra next week, hoping to meet with the Prime Minister.
Earlier last month, Eddie wrote to Malcolm Turnbull:
I am Eddie Blewett (14 years of age).
In answer to a question in Parliament on 13 September 2016 you referred to me by saying:
“We all welcome Eddie and his parents to the House today. We are pleased that he is here. Eddie will understand that everything we do here in this parliament is designed to ensure that Australia becomes an even better place for him to grow up in and realise his dreams.”
One of my dreams is to have my same-sex parents given the same recognition as other parents in Australia. I believe giving equal recognition to all families will make Australia a better place.
I shall be coming to Canberra with my family and others to help with the ‘Yes’ campaign.
During my visit, I should be grateful if I could meet with you and offer support for your own ‘Yes’ campaign, especially for country towns.
Eddie has given voice to the impact this ongoing debate has had on him and his family.
In Canberra, last year he spoke of being bullied around this debate, and a sense of fear and dread he lived with.
“People were saying stuff about my family – that it’s not normal, it’s not right,” Eddie told Fairfax.
Communities across South East NSW are invited to join Eddie when he returns to Canberra on Tuesday (September 12, 2017) hoping to meet with the PM.
Tayna Plibersek, Mike Kelly (Eddie’s local MP) and their colleagues will meet with Eddie, and perhaps kick the soccer ball. Families and people of all back grounds are also invited to join Eddie and his family and friends in Canberra.
Bring a picnic lunch to share on the lawns of Parliament House and your soccer boots if you are keen for a game.
We’ve Got Ya Back Eddie – Tuesday, September 12 @ 10:00, meet in front of Parliament House.
The wheels of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will run this show, will continue to spin regradless – getting ready for the survey which is due to start just a week after the High Court decision.
While those in our community at the sharp end of this cheer on the High Court challenge, in the back of their mind they are also laying the ground work for the campaign ahead – mobilising as many people as possible to vote ‘yes’ in this non-compulsory process.
Bega Valley LGBTIQ advocate, Tas Fitzer says it took him a couple of days of reflection to work out the way ahead.
“I really understand the temptation for supporters of marriage equality to say ‘I am not voting, I am boycotting this process’, because it’s not a process we’d like to legitimise,” Tas says.
“We are giving a platform to debate that is going to be harmful to children of same sex couples, for young LGBTIQ people, and for people struggling with their identity.
“We don’t want to be here but we are here, this is something we have to deal with and the best way to deal with it is to take it head on,” he reasons.
Tas says he’ll be voting ‘yes’ and will be actively campaigning for others to do the same.
“Disagree with the process – absolutely, disagree with how it’s being done – absolutely, but let’s accept the fact we are here and make the most of it,” Tas says.
C and N are women who live on the Sapphire Coast and have been together for over two decades, they have a teenage son and are active members of a range of community and sporting organisations.
They have asked me not to use their names, mindful of the impact any publicity might have on their boy.
“For the first time in a very long time, I feel different and vulnerable, and that I have to somehow show evidence of how healthy, normal, and loving my relationship is with both my partner and son,” C says.
“How I live my life day to day and how I parent our child is under the microscope for those who don’t know us.
“And, I’m embarrassed for Australia – friends, colleagues, clients, people I know, across the age span, those with faith and those without, really don’t understand what the problem is, there is this sense of – really, we are still talking about marriage equality?,” C says.
Reflecting on the weeks ahead C and N believe there will be a relatively small but vocal group of people who will feel the postie poll gives them permission to voice their bigotry, to judge, attack, and say dreadful, hurtful, untrue and damaging things about the LGBTIQ community.
If it goes ahead, the result of the poll will be known on November 15but it will be parliamentarians that ultimately decide if the Mariage Act can include same sex couples.
Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has said he’ll be encouraging a ‘yes’ vote and if ‘yes’ wins his Liberal MP’s will be free to vote according to their conscience.
The ABC said that Ms Sudmalis would stand up for what her electorate decides.
A survey on the issue conducted by Ms Sudmalis in October 2015 pointed to 62 percent approval for marriage equality in Gilmore, 36 percent were opposed, while the rest undecided – the ABC reported.
Labor’s Mike Kelly, the Federal Member for the neighbouring seat of Eden – Monaro told About Regional, “The fastest and cheapest way to deliver marriage equality is through a free vote in the Parliament, not a $122 million survey.”
“If we are going to be forced to take part in this farce then I think the best thing we can do is send the Turnbull Government a message they can’t ignore – vote yes for marriage equality,” Dr Kelly says.
The former Army colonel is hopeful the campaign ahead will be respectful and tolerant.
“I plead with everyone in our community to exercise the utmost civility and join with me in urging that we all refrain from engaging in misinformation or hurtful comments,” Dr Kelly says.
Twenty-one-year old Tas Fitzer is of a similar mindset.
“The mental health of some of our young LGBTIQ people is of real concern to me,” he says.
“That’s why I have decided to get out there and campaign for a ‘yes’ vote so that they can see there are people out there to support them.”
Click play to hear more from Tas…
Speaking with C and N in fading light this afternoon, both fear some in the community who would vote ‘yes’ are now unmotivated to take part given the level of discussion the issue has had over an extended period of time.
“Many people honestly don’t understand what the fuss is about and are exhausted by this debate,” N says.
“Because same sex marriage seems a no brainer to them, I’d implore people to realise that unfortunately for some Australians the idea is frightening and abhorrent.
“Giving free reign to people to say whatever they like, to judge us simply for not living our lives like them is scary, scary for us now and for the next generations,” N explains.
Both are hopeful people will push past the grubby, lengthy politics of the issue and find the energy and motivation to say ‘yes’.
South East NSW is pitching itself as a new home for a range of Federal Government departments.
Following the political and media stink around the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, a Senate inquiry was established to investigate elements of the decision by Agriculture Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and local member for Armidale, the National’s Barnaby Joyce.
However, the work of the committee has been seen as bigger than just the issue of the APVMA as regional leaders look to fertilise a deeper discussion around moving public service jobs out of Canberra, all looking for a greater share of the $16.7 billion annual wages bill for their local economies.
All of the local submissions declared the region as an ideal location for Commonwealth investment and backed the idea of decentralisation.
In his submission, Snowy Monaro Administrator Dean Lynch spoke of the boost such a move would be for the local economy and pointed to an available workforce.
Andrew Greenway, from Eurobodalla Shire, highlighted lifestyle advantages and the benefits that had for staff retention.
Bega Valley Mayor, Kristy McBain pointed to the region’s proximity to Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne and the private investment that would follow.
Senator McAllister says the terms of reference of her committee are narrow and focused on the APVMA decision, none the less local government and regional business organisations from around the country have seized on the opportunity to put a stake in the ground.
Among the 200 written submissions were councils from the Mallee, Longreach, Manning Valley, Colac, and the Spencer Gulf along with groups like Australian Wool Growers, NSW Business Chamber, the Winemakers Federation and the Country Women’s Association.
Listening to the live stream on Friday morning as Cr McBain spoke, Senator McAllister and fellow committee member Senator Bridget McKenzie seemed to encourage that wider discussion, moving beyond the APVMA.
All those on the call were asked if their region had been considered along with Armidale as a new base from the APVMA, all answered, “Not as far as I know” and the conversation quickly moved on.
Both senators went on to point to the separate but related process underway within the Turnbull Cabinet, where the Minster for Regional Development, Senator Fiona Nash is developing the Government’s broader decentralisation policy which will be released later this year.
“When government invests in community it breeds confidence,” Senator Nash said.
She went on to explain the process all Federal ministers are currently involved in, which asks them to detail the departments, entities or functions that might be suitable for relocation to a regional area.
“We are not going to leave any stone unturned in looking for those agencies that could be relocated to the regions for the benefit of the regions,” Senator Nash told the Press Club.
Danielle Mulholland, President of the Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils and Mayor of Kyogle, told Senator McAllister that she is keen for the government to better definition ‘the regions’.
At the moment a regional community is seen as being one that lives at least 150km from a capital city.
“That’s a really loose definition,” Cr Mulholland said.
She fears authentic regional communities might miss out with a 150km starting line.
Dean Lynch from Snowy Monaro, in fact contends that regional areas around the ACT should be “initial priorities” and that Cooma’s proximity would “facilitate an easier transition from existing to new workplaces” for Commonwealth staff.
As the phone panel’s assessment of decentralisation evolved on Friday, Bega Valley Mayor, Kristy McBain said there also needed to be a synergy between the agency being relocated and the new host town for the process to be a win-win.
“From our point of view, it would have to be an agency or a department that had a natural fit with our area,” Cr McBain told the Senate committee.
From a Eurobodalla perspective, Business Development boss, Andrew Greenway believes that includes agencies responsible for regional communications, marine services, sciences and safety, regional development, regional transport, aged care, tourism, and education.
“We are going to have a big conversation around this over the next six months,” Senator McKenzie said.
All those on the call encouraged the two Senators in their suggestion that there should be a parliamentary committee formed with broader terms of reference than their own to fully develop a transparent and fair criteria and assessment process around decentralisation – the suggestion being, to avoid the allegation of political pork barrelling that has been leveled at Barnaby Joyce in the APVMA decision.
The findings of Senator McAllister’s committee will be delivered in June, it’s understood Turnbull Cabinet ministers have until August to complete their departmental reviews and report back to Senator Nash.
With 83% of Commonwealth employment located in Canberra or the five largest Australian cities, the potential of shifting some of that into regional areas is huge, hence the level of interest. In the Bega Valley’s submission, Cr McBain points to NSW Government data that estimates for each public sector job in a regional area, two jobs are created in the private sector.
However, “Government can’t fix everything,” warned Senator Nash at the Press Club, signaling that the Turnbull Government would be looking to partnerships with local government and the community more broadly as decentralisation rolls out.
It would appear that regional Australia is interested to know more and ready to play its part.
Disclaimer: Author is part time media officer for Bega Valley Shire Council