Labor eyes rural redemption

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Originally published: The Land

By Roderick Makim

New Labor leader Luke Foley believes his party can make inroads into rural NSW through issues such as Coal Seam Gas (CSG), electricity network privatisation, rural development spending and a potential voter backlash at a State level against Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the federal government's ongoing unpopularity.

A Sydney-based Legislative Council member, Mr Foley was elected unopposed to the Labor leadership on Monday, following the resignation last month of John Robertson.

"We will focus on all of NSW (not just metropolitan areas)," Mr Foley said.

He said he would like to see a return to the Labor tradition of winning rural and regional seats to form government, which went back to the days of Bill McKell who was Premier in the 1940s.

One of Mr Foley's first acts as the new leader was appointing an opposition spokesman for Western NSW - Mick Veitch, an Upper House MP from Young - when he unveiled his shadow ministry on Tuesday, a position which did not exist for the opposition before.

Mr Foley indicated CSG could be a key election issue for some rural areas, and slammed the government for moving ahead too quickly.

"There ought to be a moratorium on CSG in NSW, until all 16 of the Chief Scientist's recommendations are acted upon," he said.

He said the Northern Rivers area should be permanently off limits for CSG.

For other parts of NSW, including areas of prime agricultural land, Mr Foley said any potential expansion of the CSG industry should be halted while options for strict new regulations are investigated.

"There is too much at stake for CSG to proceed unregulated," he said.

As to the proposed privatisation of 49 per cent of the State's electricity network, Mr Foley said rural areas should not feel confident the network in their part of NSW would remain unsold.

"If they get away with selling 49pc at this election, they'll come back and sell the lot... as surely as night follows day."

Mr Foley vowed to work with Premier Mike Baird before the election to implement policies "where they are in the best interest of the State.

"I am not an ideologue. I will always approach each issue on its merits."

One example would be if the government accepted the Biodiversity Legislation Review Panel's recommendation to create an offset fund available for landowners who keep native vegetation on their properties.

"We're very interested in that concept... it protects native vegetation but also looks after people on the land."

The plummeting opinion polls for the federal Coalition could also play a part in the election, similar to the effect in Victoria where a first-term Coalition government was voted out.

Mr Foley said the federal government's "massive cuts to the health system" would hit regional areas the worst.

"The $25 billion worth of cuts will decimate our public health system," he said.

"NSW needs somebody to stand up to Tony Abbott."

Mr Foley was born and raised in Sydney and married Edel, the daughter of an Irish dairy farmer.

He said he had spent a lot of time on the farm when visiting his in-laws in Ireland with Edel and their children Niamh, Aoife and Patrick in the past decade.

He said he envisioned NSW to be the great economic powerhouse of Australia, the great employment generator in the nation and at the same time the nation's social conscience.

"This means both ensuring our economic growth and prosperity is shared across the community and offering a helping hand to those in need," he said.

Originally published as: Labor eyes rural redemption