She’s a woman with farming in her blood and regional Australia in her heart. Senator Bridget McKenzie taking the reins as Agriculture Minister represents a new era for the farm sector.
Not only is she the first female to hold the portfolio in the Commonwealth’s history, she is also a passionate country Victorian with an ambitious vision for Australian agriculture.
Born in the small town of Alexandra in regional Victoria, Bridget is the first generation born off the farm but holds her farming values close. Her farming family history stems back to high-county cattlemen living and working near Omeo, Victoria dating back to the mid-1800s.
Growing up in regional North East Victoria, Bridget has seen and experienced many of the substantial challenges and tests that rural and regional Australians face.
Her journey towards Deputy Leader of The Nationals and Agriculture Minister began by completing a double degree in applied science (specialising in human movement) and teaching (specialising in mathematics). She went on to conduct research in physical activity with young women in regional settings and later became a lecturer for the Faculty of Education at Monash University.
As a self-proclaimed agent for change, these experiences set her up to be elected to the Senate in 2010 and re-elected in 2016. In recent years she’s shot up the ranks, becoming Deputy Leader of the Nationals and Minister for Regional Services, Sport, Local Government and Decentralisation in 2018 and now Minister for Agriculture.
McKenzie had a clear message when she addressed participants at the Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program retreat in Canberra (on her first week in the job): being the first female Agriculture Minister will not define her legacy.
“I’ll leave others to decide if a female Agriculture Minister is overdue however, I will acknowledge it is recognition that women have an important place in Australian agriculture.
“As the first female President of the National Farmers’ Federation Fiona Simson said, women are grossly underrepresented at agriculture’s decision making table,” she said.
In fact, women comprise 41 per cent of the agricultural workforce but only 18 per cent of management roles and 2.3 per cent of CEO positions.
“Regardless of my gender, I want to be the best Ag Minister for this country and deliver outcomes that make a real difference in the agriculture sector and in rural and regional communities,” the new Minister said.
According to McKenzie, one of her top priorities coming into the portfolio is to defend farmers and their families through legislation that protects farms against “agri-terrorism” and on-farm intrusions.
“It has no place in our hard-working rural and regional communities, and it has no friend in government.”
Digital connectivity in the farm sector is high on the agenda. She says she’ll focus on ensuring the Morrison Government delivers record funding for drought, and follows through on commitments to regional communications, health and infrastructure.
“We are an industry that is worth $60 billion to our GDP and employs more than 300,000 Australians, the majority in small businesses. I want to see that regional Australia goes forward and thrives.”
Being all too familiar with the incredible highs and devastating lows the agriculture industry can experience, Minister McKenzie says she aims to leave a lasting legacy of a stable sector that will grow not only when things are good but also during tough times such as the ongoing drought.
While Australia may not necessarily ride on the sheep’s back there is no doubt agriculture is the backbone of the Australian economy.
McKenzie has openly supported the National Farmers’ Federation’s (NFF’s) goal for the industry to reach $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030. She identified digital connectivity and technology in the farm sector as barriers to growth and set it as main focus.
“We also need to continue to ensure our market access is right for our farmers. Australian farmers enjoy a global reputation as being clean and green operators. It is important to leverage this to access new, premium markets.
“History has shown Australian agriculture has risen to meet every challenge. Our farmers are renowned for their innovation and efficiency. I see a very positive future,” she said.
In her early engagement as minister, stakeholders have noted a passion for agriculture and rural and regional communities which sets this new Minister apart from the pack.
As the NFF has said before, sticking to the status quo will not get Australian agriculture to a $100 billion industry by 2030 and indications are this new Minister is prepared to do what it takes to get us there.