Maybe it wouldn’t surprise you to know how constrained and routine most MPs’ lives become. It’s day after day of meetings to hear pleas for help; followed by night after night of dinners to keep party members and local leaders onside.
I’m not complaining, of course; it was an honour to represent 100,000 Australians in the parliament – and you’ve just got to do the work – but one of the reasons I started the Pollie Pedal, 22 years ago now, was to break free of the office, the suit, the white limo, and the departmental brief, to engage more with real people who don’t have an axe to grind or a particular beef with government.
The idea, as it evolved between then-federal MPs Ross Cameron, Jackie Kelly and me, and our NSW state colleague Charlie Lynn, was a long-distance charity bike ride, staying in caravan parks: to raise money for a good cause, to let people see some of their MPs off the beaten track and out of their comfort zones, and to promote cycling as a great way to stay fit and see the country.
It’s now eight years since I last pitched a tent; but in other respects, the Pollie Pedal has kept faith with the original concept; and, by covering about 1,000 kilometres each year, cumulatively raised about $7 million for, successively: Youth Insearch, the Australian Paralympic team, The Royal Flying Doctor Service, Ronald Macdonald House, medical research at Westmead Hospital, the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, Carers Australia and, for the past three rides, the veterans’ charity Soldier On.
On the first night, Kevin Andrews, a Pollie Pedal veteran, sidelined this year through injury, joined us at Currumbin RSL for the Queensland launch of his new book, Great Rivalries, focussing on the decade-long duel between two of Italy’s greatest-ever cyclists, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi; but, along the way, an account of the evolution of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France; with, as well, some fascinating insights into the history of Italy and the place of the Church. It’s a great read, but I couldn’t help thinking that this MP’s talent and energy should be put more obviously to the service of our country. Previous cabinet experience should never be a disqualification from serving on the front bench.
The next morning, Bastille Day, thirty riders: MPs and former MPs, soldiers and ex-soldiers, sponsors, and keen veterans of previous Pollie Pedals, set out for Brisbane via Kyogle, Warwick, Toowoomba, Dalby, Kingaroy, Gympie and Caloundra on minor roads wherever possible. A big thank you to my former colleagues Angus Taylor, Ben Morton, David Gillespie and Andrew Wallace who rode most or some of the route; and also to John McVeigh, Lew O’Brien, Phil Thompson and Julian Simmonds, the federal MPs who caught up with us at different stages, and to Queensland Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington who welcomed us to the Kingaroy RSL. And as for those whose electorates we rode through, and who didn’t front up, you missed the chance to get a good story in the local paper!
One of the highlights was dropping in on small country schools: at Biddeston (near Toowoomba), Kaimkillenbun (near Dalby) and Kumbia (near Kingaroy). I suspect it would be quite rare for these schools to host the local MP, let alone a cabinet minister (in Angus Taylor), a former PM, and one of Australia’s greatest riders (Stephen Hodge, a veteran of six Tours de France). The kids were mildly interested in happenings in Canberra; the boys, at least, fascinated by racing bikes and how their gears worked; and, a universal interest it seems, ‘what did we think of Donald Trump?’.
Like most of eastern Australia, the country we pedalled through, while always beautiful and often spectacular, is severely drought-affected. Warwick has just 6 per cent capacity in the local dam. As Dorothea Mackellar’s poem suggests, severe drought is a recurrent feature of our rural life, not a consequence of climate change.
What the green religion sure has exacerbated, though, is the difficulty of implementing the major water projects which are desperately needed if agriculture is to expand and the population drift to the cities is to be arrested. Urban greenies need to understand how hard they are making it for people in the bush.
How can Australia continue to be a country that grows things and makes things when deliberate policy is restricting access to power and water? White Industries in Dalby, for instance, is one of the very few domestic foundries that’s not succumbed to cheap imports plus sky high electricity and gas costs over the past five years. It’s more than capable of making an artillery piece, for instance, but would it ever get the chance, due to big-is-best tendering requirements? Meanwhile, more of our manufacturing industry closes or moves offshore.
Still, country people are endlessly looking for the chance to create something special, like the mouth-wateringly delicious tarts and muffins at the Goomeri bakery or the Kin Kin general store. And there’s the resilience shown by youngsters like Todd, who stopped us at the bakery to say ‘thank God my uncle made me get my truck driver’s licence to get off the dole – so you blokes are right to be tough about welfare’.
Of course, the main purpose of the Soldier On Pollie Pedal was to pay our respects to members of the armed forces. Surely the first and most fundamental step to improving veterans’ mental health is the reassurance of our country’s gratitude. Then there’s the need for routine and purpose in everyday life. It was an honour for us non-military types to ride with people who serve our country in uniform and who put their lives on the line for us. I wasn’t quite sure whether to be embarrassed or grateful for the push that a couple of the Soldier On riders had to give me on the toughest climb!
As a defeated former MP, I can no longer lead this event without turning it into the ex-Pollie Pedal; but luckily Angus Taylor has agreed to keep it going, as a lasting salute to our veterans.
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