The two new ministers our city counterparts have never heard of

John McVeigh and David Littleproud are fresh faces in the new Turnbull ministry


Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government Dr John McVeigh during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Turnbull ministry by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove at Government House in Canberra on Wednesday 20 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government Dr John McVeigh during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Turnbull ministry by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove at Government House in Canberra on Wednesday 20 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Aa

Every Thursday morning when Parliament sits in Canberra, a group of Liberal MPs get together to talk shop.

Aa

Every Thursday morning when Parliament sits in Canberra, a group of Liberal MPs from regional and rural seats gather to talk shop. The meetings have been happening on and off since the early 1990s. In the past six months, Malcolm Turnbull started coming too.

The rural Libs, convened by South Australian Rowan Ramsey, used the opportunity to press the Prime Minister for better representation in the ministry. It's not just the Nationals that represent regional Australia, they stressed.

And the pressure has worked. Rural Liberals have excelled in this cabinet reshuffle, including the promotion of Dan Tehan, Angus Taylor and the spectacular elevation of Queensland MP John McVeigh from newly-elected backbencher to Minister for Regional Development.

"He's a wonderful choice," says Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald. "It shows that Turnbull has listened to the concerns of rural Liberals, who make up the majority of rural representatives in the federal Parliament."

David Littleproud, a first-term Nationals MP from Queensland, also leapfrogged into cabinet as Agriculture Minister. Neither he nor McVeigh are household names, and neither are regulars on Sky News, the preferred platform for backbenchers with burning ambition.

But both men hail from establishment Nationals families, hold very conservative regional seats and were rated as "quality people" by Queensland's most senior federal politician, the outgoing senator and former attorney-general George Brandis.

Of the two, McVeigh has the more political experience, having served four years on the Toowoomba Regional Council and then as agriculture minister in Campbell Newman's state government. There, he had to manage drought conditions in much of the state, and introduced measures such as the Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate.

"That was a very, very well-received program," says Grant Maudsley, general president of AgForce Queensland. "It helped keep the towns kicking along. He's certainly someone you want there when the pressure comes on."

McVeigh is universally lauded as highly competent and a safe pair of hands. Newman calls him an "ideal" pick for the role, while Toowoomba councillor Carol Brown says he was always "very much there for the community". The straight-shooting Warren Entsch, another federal colleague from Queensland, touts McVeigh as a "bloody good" operator. "I know him and I've got a lot of respect for him," he says. "He's got a lot of credibility, he's got a lot of experience."

Although McVeigh sits in the Liberal party room in Canberra, he is seen as more of National politically. He is descended from Nationals royalty - his father Tom McVeigh was a federal Nationals MP and frontbencher in the 1970s and 80s, holding the seat of Groom for part of that time.

During his first 18 months in Parliament, McVeigh's main job was to chair a committee on decentralisation, a pet project of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. It's an inquiry made necessary by a bungled attempt to shift the pesticides authority to Armidale, which saw public servants working out of McDonalds because it had wi-fi.

In that committee role, McVeigh has kept himself in the headlines of rural media, deploying all the right lines about the supremacy of the bush. "The future of our whole country rests on the shoulders of regional Australia," he told one local paper.

Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure Barnaby Joyce and Minister for Finance and Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Turnbull ministry by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove at Government House in Canberra on Wednesday 20 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure Barnaby Joyce and Minister for Finance and Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Turnbull ministry by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove at Government House in Canberra on Wednesday 20 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Littleproud worked in agricultural banking for 20 years, at NAB and more recently Suncorp. His father Brian was a Queensland MP who worked against the corrupt Joh Bjelke-Petersen and later became a long-serving minister. For some, such wounds never heal. As recently as last year, maverick independent Bob Katter - a Joh-era minister and persisent devotee - wrote to Littleproud Jnr calling him a "stinking useless politician" and labelling his father a "backstabber".

The 41-year-old's sprawling seat of Maranoa, which he took over in 2016, takes in most of Queensland's south-west: from Roma to Charleville, Longreach and Winton. Along with neighbouring Groom, Maranoa was one of three Queensland seats to vote "no" to same-sex marriage, and Littleproud was one of just four MPs to vote against the law in the House of Representatives.

In a recently-aired SBS documentary, one of Littleproud's school contemporaries - farmer Dave Graham - accused Littleproud of homophobic bullying as a teenager. Farmer Dave, who was briefly famous when he came out as gay on Big Brother in 2006, said Littleproud was part of a "culture" of regular, violent bullying in the schoolyard.

Attempts to interview Littleproud on Wednesday were unsuccessful, but those who know him were effusive in their praise. "He's young, he's good fun, he's very personable," said Nationals minister Damian Drum. James McGrath, a Queensland LNP senator, was touting Littleproud as a future cabinet minister and even Nationals leader before Littleproud even entered Parliament. "He is the creme de la creme," McGrath said in April last year.

Other colleagues who spoke to Fairfax Media on Thursday said Littleproud was always destined for quick promotion. Announcing the reshuffle, Turnbull described him as a "very capable" man who was well-qualified for the coveted farming and water portfolios.

Maudsley, the AgForce Queensland president, banked with Suncorp during Littleproud's time as a regional manager, and is a constituent. It was during the difficult days of the Gillard government's live export ban, and Littleproud would have had to cop "a fair bit of flak" from angry farmers. "He's certainly seen the highs and lows of an ag production cycle," says Maudsley. "It was a pretty trying time."

But among some Queensland colleagues, and in parts of the agricultural sector, Littleproud remains something of an unknown. "All I know is what I've Googled," said National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson. "But it seems like he has a good knowledge of agriculture, or at least has been emerged in agribusiness. That's a lot better than [what] we might get sometimes."

In addition to the steep learning curve of taking on a ministry, Littleproud will also have to deal with the very raw consequences of a controversial reshuffle involving the dumping of his Nationals colleagues Darren Chester and Keith Pitt.

"It's incredibly sad," said Drum, who lamented the Queensland LNP's aggressive push for more cabinet representation. "It's taken a bit of the tinge of excitement out of it."

Aa

From the front page

Sponsored by