Rural communities can be fragile.
Take, for example, the small country town of Orbost – one hour’s drive from the nearest large town, and five from Melbourne. Orbost saw the collapse of the local timber industry and the town’s resulting decline. The town has tried to reinvent itself as a tourist town, but it remains a shadow of what it once was.
This isn’t an unusual pattern; the decline of local industries often has a crippling effect on regional areas. As a result, such areas need political representatives who understand this and work to support them, either by propping up existing industries, or by creating new ones. Bob Baldwin, MP for the regional electorate of Paterson and Shadow Minister for Tourism and Regional Development, endeavours to be such a representative.
Born in England in 1955, Baldwin and his family migrated to Australia in 1958 due to harsh conditions in England. In Australia, Baldwin and his family lived in a garage with a shower and an outside toilet, as his parents struggled to provide basic needs like food and clothing.
Before becoming a politician in 1996, Baldwin built and ran a successful dive tourism and leisure equipment business, and also worked in the fishing industry, and as an airline manager.
Perhaps as a result of his experience in the business sector, and his less than prosperous upbringing, much of Baldwin’s focus as a politician has been on supporting regional communities economically.
As member of the Liberal party, Baldwin has represented Paterson since 2001, serving as Parliamentary Secretary for Industry, Tourism and Resources under the Howard Government, and has been Shadow Minister for Tourism and Regional Development from 2010 to present.
During his time as MP for Paterson, Baldwin has worked to bolster local industries such as dairy, beef, poultry, fishing, and oyster farming.
Many communities in the area are also turning to tourism as a source of jobs and income, and while this trend pre-dates Baldwin’s time in office, he has strongly encouraged the shift. In 2012, he launched the Federal Coalition’s ‘staycation’ initiative, which encourages Australians to go on holiday domestically in order to boost the tourism industry.
Baldwin has been outspoken in his criticism of the Gillard government’s carbon tax, citing its negative impact on the tourism industry. In 2011, he claimed that by taxing only domestic flights, the carbon tax would make local holidays less price competitive.
“Ms Gillard is penalising Australians for holidaying in their own country, and it’s a slap in the face to our tourism operators and the five hundred thousand Australians working in the tourism Industry,” he said.
In addition to economic vulnerability, rural communities can also be prone to substandard infrastructure. Telecommunications are a prime example. In many regional areas, mobile phone and internet coverage are poor. Other common problems include badly maintained roads, and a shortage of hospital beds. These problems have been also been a priority for Baldwin. During his time as MP, he has managed to secure upgrades for telecommunications and roads within Paterson, as well as additional hospital beds.
In his support of regional businesses and jobs, Baldwin seems to place higher priority on traditional industries. For example, when a dam was proposed for the Williams River near Dungog, Mr Baldwin opposed the project on the grounds that it threatened the “long tradition of farming practices” on the land that would be affected.
This traditional leaning applies to his politics as well. In 2011, when state and federal MPs were allowed a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, Baldwin announced he would not support same sex marriage, citing his own beliefs rather than the opinions of those in his electorate. “Given my own very strong personal views, based on my upbringing, I won’t be supporting the gay marriage bill,” he said.
He has often attacked the Labor Party on economic grounds, with particular emphasis on their taxes. His website displays banners citing petrol, groceries, and electricity prices, with the slogan “Labor’s taxes. You’ll always pay more.”
Interestingly given these accusations, The Age ran a piece in 2010 which claims Baldwin spent $28,498 of taxpayer’s money on a trip to Papua New Guinea which included five days on a luxury yacht. Baldwin’s report to Parliament claims this trip involved observing the study of a coral reef, and giving medical assistance to a local suffering from malaria.
While he has been criticised for his stance on issues like same sex marriage, Baldwin clearly understands the economic needs of regional communities, and has carved out a niche for himself as an outspoken advocate for local business.
The fact that he has remained Paterson’s MP for 12 years speaks to the effectiveness of this approach in garnering support.
This article is part of our ongoing Backbench Insiders series, you can see the full list of articles here.
Max Williams is a Journalism student at La Trobe University.