NSW Nationals Chairman Bede Burke has reflected on his time as Chair and thanked his Vice Chairs for their support and service. Read excerpts from his speech below:
I love what our conference represents, as well as what it achieves. We are still the only grassroots political party in Australia that is truly democratic, and every single one of our delegates here today are first and foremost regular grassroots members, who get to determine what direction our Party takes into the future.
That future is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. When I became chairman at our Queanbeyan conference five years ago, the Party was 95 years old. Now we’re approaching our centenary and God willing there’s at least another 95 years in us. I’m just a link in the chain, part of the larger tapestry of our Party, as all of you are here today.
When I became chair, Warren Truss and Andrew Stoner were the Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Premier respectively. Now I’m on to my third Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Premier each, and my third State Director as well. To leave with Michael McCormack as my Deputy Prime Minister and John Barilaro as my Deputy Premier is a great joy and I need to thank them both so much for their support.
This has been a big job but also a rewarding one. I’ve served my five years and constitutionally it’s time for me to retire – it’s certainly not because I’ve had enough of being involved in our Party. And I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some great people in the Executive, most recently Grant MacMillan and Jocelyn Jansson, who are our outgoing Vice Chairs.
As you get a bit older, especially when you’re out on a tractor on the farm, you get a chance to be a little philosophical. I’m absolutely thrilled that we have a third term of Government at both a State and Federal level. We have within our grasp the ability to make a lasting impact on our nation, on our state, and on the communities like Inverell that we stand up for.
We need to focus on what it is that matters to regular people, and more often than not it’s closely related to the classic Australian goals of having a good job, having a good family, living in a good community, and growing old comfortably with friends and family around you.
The big issues like water and roads and trade, they’re all very important. But we must remember that they’re important because they effect our communities.
Involving our communities in what we do, making them a part of the process of making our communities better, gives people outside of our Party a stake in our fortunes, because they are their fortunes. Our old slogan of “think local, vote National” is never far from my mind, because all politics is ultimately local. And perhaps, if we work hard enough with our locals, it will encourage new members to join and get involved, and strengthen our ability to make a positive change in our communities.
Leadership is about inclusion, and ensuring people feel that they’ve been heard and that they have contributed. People need to be heard, but they also need to be held accountable if they are given positions of influence in our Party. They need to live up to the expectations that their roles as ambassadors for our Party hold.
Leaders need to know when they don’t know something and not be afraid to defer to expertise. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re the leader, you’re in charge. That’s not what democracy is about, and it’s not what we’re about as Nationals. Leaders can’t just strike out on their own and demand people follow them, they need to bring people along with them.
Ultimately, I think, this is where some of our opponents came unstuck during the recent election campaigns, because they dictated an ideological position and then demanded that people follow them. But when following would mean dismantling industries and jobs and livelihoods, threatening communities and putting people’s futures at risk, the voters said “no”.
See, we need to understand that no one person is an expert on all things, and so leadership becomes about consensus at many levels. You need to let your trusted people convey not only what they think, but why they think it. It’s slow and at times tedious, but the proof is in the pudding I think.
As chair of this Party, I need to exercise great discretion when I express my views. I certainly don’t take to Twitter to let my unfiltered thoughts flutter off into the ether and onto the pages of newspapers. The role of a chairman is not to be particularly close to the Parliamentary teams – for whom I have incredible respect and understanding and empathy for their job with its daily challenges. They’re the elected ones, the faces of our Party. Chairmen are rarely the front face of the Party, it should be all about those who are elected.
See, in the words of Barnaby Joyce, you don’t win it alone. It’s been important to me to take care of our people, from being a host and giving the executive somewhere to go, to not just assuming that things will sort themselves out. All of these important roles held by people in our Party – from the branches to the executive – these are all volunteer roles which demand a lot from the people who hold them. There are the nights away from home and the joys of flying with our regional airlines, the many kilometres behind the steering wheel and late nights and early mornings and seemingly endless reports to read. I can tell you, it’s not glamourous, but that dedication to the Party is something that’s needed to make sure we have Parliamentary teams who can do what they do.
Seeing the Berejiklian-Barilaro Government returned really makes a big difference for our communities. The built-in capacity our State now has to deliver what our communities need is incredible. Five years ago I couldn’t have dreamed that we would roll out a Regional Seniors Travel Card – something that will really help equalise the city-country divide. To hear John Barilaro speak with such passion about wiping out mobile phone blackspots, running ahead of the Federal Government to do it, because it needs to be done and our communities shouldn’t have to wait, that’s just amazing.
Federally, winning Government again brings with it opportunities, but also an extra burden and expectation. For our newest Federal member – Pat Conaghan from Cowper – there’s both a sense of relief that we defeated an old foe again but also a sense of opportunity in this new beginning. If you haven’t met Pat yet, he’s a good bloke with a big heart for his community, and I know he takes his new job seriously. I need to acknowledge the hard work and support of our Federal campaign team, led by Larry Anthony, whose efforts particularly north of the border brought the sort of Queensland victory a New South Welshman can be proud of.
And it’s been absolutely fantastic to see Perin Davey elected to the Senate – something so many people said was unachievable. We were at a real risk of losing our Senator with Wacka retiring, and losing that strong voice for the bush. He’s been such a champion over the years – not just in the Senate – and I’m sure Perin will grow not into those shoes but new ones that also leave a footprint on our regions.
But there have been disappointments too over the past five years. There was the dual citizenship debacle that cost us Senator Fiona Nash. When that started, no-one expected it would have such a long-lasting impact on our Federal Parliament.
The electorate has also been pretty unforgiving of leadership instability and there are clearly lessons learnt there. We must not break the trust the Australian people have put in us. Discipline and integrity is an absolutely essential quality in Parliamentarians. People expect them to behave to a higher standard. I believe that’s right, and as people who work to better our communities, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard as well.
There’s also been the effect of this drought. That, coupled with a changing demographic, saw us lose some State seats. There are lessons to be learned there as well, and we need to remember that people will not simply allow longstanding industries to be scrapped. Sometimes reform is necessary, but it needs to be done with the people, not to the people.
We’ve also lost some great champions for the bush, like Dexter Davies from WA.
So where does all of that leave us? Well, with a returned State and Federal Government I think there is a great danger lurking for our Party. Now that we have clear water for the next three and four years, we need to be careful about how we navigate our challenges both today and tomorrow.
We can’t afford to be complacent or too comfortable. Let’s not forget we have lost Rick Colless from the Upper House and four State seats now, as well as losing to threats that are all too ready to take more seats from us. We need to treat winning these elections as a beachhead, not a fortress. This is a place to fight from, not retreat to.
As I said before, the Nationals are the only grassroots Party in Australia, so we must pay particular attention to those grassroots. I’ve spent so much time today talking about community because it matters so much to me, and it should matter to you as well.
At times we’re seen as the little brothers to the Liberals, or the poor country cousins, but I believe we’re really challenging that notion now. With John Barilaro securing the $4.2 billion for the bush from the sale of Snowy Hydro, we have been able to make our own commitments with our own funding and really remind everyone that the Libs can have the cities, because we’re firmly focused on the country.
As I travel around our State, I am constantly meeting people who live in the best community in NSW. Inverell is the best town in NSW, I’m told. But so too is Cootamundra. So is Bourke. So is Ballina, and Harden, and Gilgandra, and Port Macquarie, and Cowra, and Wentworth, and even Tamworth. And they’re all right. Every single one of these places is absolutely amazing, and it’s all because of the people who make them their home, and generously share what they have with blow-ins like me.
We’re bringing back our regional conferences so that we can get even more of that great local flavour into our Party. Unlike our city counterparts, one size does not fit all, and I’m so pleased to see that our southerners and northerners and coasties and bushies will all get to have their say on their patch.
I firmly believe that The Nationals have a place in all of those communities not just now but well into the future, but we must make sure that we continue to earn the respect and trust of those communities.
Now, as I mentioned at the start our Party is fast approaching it’s hundredth birthday – maybe we’ll even get a letter from the Queen! Right from the start, we’ve been focused on delivering for people outside of the cities, and I’m proud to say not much has changed over that hundred years.
We’re going to celebrate this milestone, and there will be a great opportunity to share some of our great stories with people who maybe don’t know much about our Party. Stories about people like our three Prime Ministers: Sir Earle Page, Arthur Fadden and Black Jack McEwan. There are those who don’t know about our great achievements, like establishing speed limits on the roads to improve safety, or increasing the minimum working age to 15. These are stories we need to be active in sharing over the next year, as we continue to share our story and invite people to become a part of it.
We’re actually changing the emphasis on how Head Office runs, with a renewed focus on our membership. We’re building back into the Party with innovative programs like the NNLI that started last year, where we’re encouraging people to become community leaders and do more of that good work I’ve been talking about. We had a great NNLI event just before our welcome reception last night and it was great to see the next generation really seeking out the wisdom of the older members and learning from them.
That State election slogan is so apt for our Party: “It’s your time”. I really want you all to think about that and think about how we can use the next few years to make a lasting change in our communities.
It would be remiss of me to deliver my final speech as Chairman of our Party without offering a few words of thanks.
Firstly, thank you to Inverell for hosting our conference. I know everyone here will return home with stories about the Sapphire City and I’m sure there will be more than a few who return.
To our local MPs here: Adam Marshall and Barnaby Joyce, and to ‘Wacka’, thank you for hosting us on your home patch. The work these people put in is absolutely mind-boggling, but it’s all for places like Inverell and we can see the stamp of that work all over this lovely town.
Wacka, you’ve well and truly made your mark on Australian history and I could stand up here for half an hour talking about what a great bloke you are, but let’s just leave it as a simple thanks from me, on behalf of The NSW Nationals, to you, for your tireless dedication to the bush and your relentless pursuit of common sense.
I want to thank Christine Ferguson for her guidance and her work, especially recently with elections and on our Centenary Committee. To Jenny Gardiner whose few words always drip with wisdom. To Duncan Gay and to Fiona Nash for your support over the years.
I must also thank the executive and our treasurer John Cameron. You may not know but we were forced to sell our Carrington Street asset a few years ago and park the money, but people like John Cameron and Tom Aubert worked to carefully invest that money and recently we purchased a commercial asset that will lay the foundation to give the organisation a foothold into the future.
We’ve got some truly brilliant and committed people in this Party, who make an enormous contribution behind the scenes. People like Paul Davey, our resident historian, whose daughter Perin will become our newest senator in a few days’ time. And out members who are prepared to go the extra mile, attending meetings or forums and giving a voice to our cause. We need to be prepared to ask new people to come along, to help serve on a booth or attend a function, to thank them when they’ve done a good job. So to them, to all of our members who work hard to make the NSW Nationals what it is: Thank you.
I also need to thank people like Ben Franklin, who I knew as a State Director when I became Chairman. Ben was willing to risk his safe upper house seat for the Party, stepping down to try and win back Ballina for us. And even though he wasn’t successful in winning the seat, he won us an awful lot of support and that’s significant for our Party going forward. He’s given a lot of himself to the Party and he truly deserves my thanks.
To Nathan Quigley and Ross Cadell, my other two State Directors: Thank you for your many sleepless nights and to get things done for our Party. Ross in particular isn’t too fond of being in the spotlight, but he is one of the greatest assets our Party has. His keen mind and relentless pursuit of victory was no small part of our election results this year.
I want to thank all of the MPs it has been my privilege to know and work alongside, some for a long time and others – like Pat Conaghan, Gurmesh Singh and Dugald Saunders – for only a short time. It is your name and reputation on the line as we try to make our communities a better place to live, and it is your personal lives that bear the weight of your responsibility.
If I may, I would offer a few words of advice to our new Executive: There’s a nuance on how to chair a meeting correctly. It’s not something you learn on day one, it certainly took me time to grow into the role and it will take the incoming executive time to grow into theirs. You don’t get it right all of the time, and you need to use the people at your disposal.
Now, it’s important to me that I end where my political career began, with my family. Their love and support has carried me more times than you could count.
Thank you all so much for coming, for listening, for having me as your chair, and for giving your time and effort to make our Party the great force for good that it is. Thank you!