Under the Hill

Friday, June 1, 2012 - 12:28

Trying to forge a bright new future. By Gerard McManus.

Three federal MPs recently launched a program to lever politicians out of the rarefied air of Parliament House and into real work experience in manufacturing and farming enterprises around Australia.

Queensland's Bob Katter, South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon and Victorian Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan have resolved that the gap between the chauffeur-driven, business-class life of an MP and the demands of everyday Australians needs bridging.

The first two MPs are household names, but the third is less well known. Depending on how you look at him, Madigan is an accidental senator, a throwback to a bygone era in politics, or the visionary voice for Australia's manufacturing sector.

Madigan was sworn in as the DLP senator for Victoria last July - the first such representative from the party in 37 years.

The DLP played a significant role in Australian politics from 1955 (when it split from the Labor Party) through to 1974, when the last of its senators departed from the Federal Parliament.

The DLP was the pivotal third force in Australian politics, partly responsible for keeping Labor out of office for two decades. It also prepared the way for the Australian Democrats, The Greens and independents to hold the balance of power in the Senate.

Right up until the day he entered politics, Madigan worked as a blacksmith in Ballarat.

During a lifetime as a tradesman, Madigan has built bridges, sheds and trains, he has made crowbars and pinch bars, stainless steel hand railings and hydraulic post bars, to name but a few.

"Anything in steel, basically," was how Madigan summed up his career.

"I grew up with it, loving it. It was all I ever wanted to do."

Even as a senator, Madigan has kept the same passion for making things as he had as an apprentice boilermaker and structural steel fabricator on the Victorian railways.

However, now he wants to turn that enthusiasm into forging a future for the businesses in Australia that still make things.

"I really believe working with metal and engineering can lift people up and, from a wider perspective, it delivers - socially, economically and environmentally," he said.

"We say we want to be part of the level playing field, but really there's no such thing. Our manufacturers have to pay for WorkCover, super, comply with environmental standards, safety standards and generally look after people.

"Our overseas competitors don't do that, they burn people and they don't care about the environment."

Despite its long dormancy, the DLP has remained a socially conservative party, opposed to liberal economics and strongly in favour of a prosperous, locally owned manufacturing and farming base in Australia.

But Madigan is not completely antediluvian. He does not advocate a return to high tariffs as a means of nurturing and propping up a manufacturing base.

"I think there are a lot of things where we can maintain a competitive advantage. We've got many manufacturers who are world class," he said.

"We have to focus on our strengths and on innovation - we have to find niche products and high-value, very well-made products. We have to focus on where we have the technical edge."

Reflecting on his unexpected arrival in Canberra, the understated Madigan described his new life as "a different world from what I am used to".

"It is a lot harder to see tangible benefits as a parliamentarian compared with forging and fabricating something," he said.

He blames both the major political parties for the decline of manufacturing.

"Their greatest success in exporting has been the export of Australian manufacturing jobs overseas," he said. "All people need to develop a sense of self-worth is gainful employment, and making things provides that opportunity."

But Madigan is far from losing hope and after 37 years in the wilderness, the DLP is back.

"We need to remember a country is what a country makes."