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Milne fires first salvo in opposition territory

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Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald

View more articles from Lenore Taylor

New Greens leader Christine Milne has hit the ground running, LENORE TAYLOR writes

For a moment it felt like a day in the life of a prime minister or an opposition leader - the white cars pull up at the chosen venue for the day's political message, the politician alights, followed by besuited advisers with phones to their ears.

A conversation with the chosen members of the public ensues - only slightly stilted by the presence of a gaggle of journalists recording every word with long fluffy boom mikes. And finally there is a media conference, with the real-world backdrop much more lively than a parliament house lectern.

Julia Gillard does this regularly, often in schools. Tony Abbott does it every other day, his efforts usually involving the driving of heavy machinery, the wielding of knives or the wearing of hard hats.

This week it was new Greens leader Christine Milne who hit the road on what she says will be a nation-wide tour of rural and regional Australia.

There were still a few things that distinguished her trip to Orange - deep in the seat of Calare held by the National's John Cobb by almost 11 per cent - from the big party roadshows.

Her conversations with local apple and cherry growers and sheep graziers were much longer and more detailed and apparently aimed at eliciting information as well as providing footage for the evening news. The major party leaders' media events are usually pretty quick affairs.

Ms Milne even admitted the multi-party climate committee that designed the carbon tax, of which she was a key member, may have under-estimated its impact on big food processors, and promised to look for a remedy. Usually chats with political leaders in front of the cameras do not result in the leader admitting they may have got something wrong.

And on closer inspection the besuited advisers were also slightly different in appearance to their major party counterparts, one had a pony-tail to his waist and his ring tone was a bird call - apparently a powerful owl. But the aim of the exercise was the same - to deliver a political message. And it worked.

Milne's bid to ''start a conversation'' with rural and regional Australia was reported in most major newspapers, the local papers in NSW's central west and was the lead item on that night's regional television news. Ms Milne had received a ''mixed reception'' the report said.

Milne, like the Greens founder Bob Brown before her, insists the party's political imperative is not that of the now defunct Australian Democrats - to keep the bastards honest - but to replace them and form government.

But even she cannot pretend the Greens have any hope of winning the seat of Calare, where new NSW upper house member Jeremy Buckingham attracted only 6 per cent of the electorate, or 5345 votes, when he stood at the 2011 federal election, an improvement on the 2.85 per cent or 2351 votes he got at the 2007 poll. (Being Green in Calare is so unusual, Buckingham refers to declaring himself as a Greens candidate in the area as his ''coming out''.)

The immediate political purpose appears to have more to do with bolstering the Greens' Senate vote.

''It will help support and grow our existing vote over time … it won't, of course, in the short term lead to change in the lower house but it will build our overall vote and that includes the Senate vote,'' she said.

The departure of a dominant leader like Bob Brown always causes uncertainty for a political party, however brave a face they put on it.

Some commentators see a scenario in which the Greens could lose their balance of power position at the next election (Labor losing a seat to Bob Katter's party in Queensland and to the Coalition in Tasmania and the Greens losing a West Australian seat to the Coalition, which would mean bills could be passed with Independent senator Nick Xenophon, DLP senator John Madigan and the predicted new senator from Bob Katter's party).

Others predict a Democrats-style demise without the presence of Brown. Ms Milne expects the three Green senators up for re-election next year to be returned, and also hopes to pick up another Senate seat in Victoria or NSW.

A lot will depend on candidate selection, whether Labor can claw back from its current wipe-out position in the polls and whether the Greens can maintain their consistent polling of about 11 per cent. But under any scenario, the Greens' Senate prospects would benefit from a boost in their vote in the bush.

The Greens also know it is vital to maintain the unity of their team and despite internal differences of opinion over policy and tactics, the leadership transition ran without a hint of public dissent.

Regional Australia also features large in the Greens' policy agenda. Some of what they say sounds very similar to the stance of the Nationals - the dominant party of regional Australia.

Both talk about the ''abuse of market power'' by Coles and Woolworths, the need to keep control of our food production capacity by stopping foreign sovereign-wealth funds buying up agricultural land, over-the-odds charges for quarantine inspections and the unfair impact on Australia of free trade agreements that leave Australian farmers exposed.

Other ideas passed the ''nod test'' with the rural residents she talked to around Orange, like the plan to link city consumers wanting high quality food with rural suppliers via online sales - something cherry farmers in Tasmania are already doing, Milne said.

But everywhere she went her proudest achievement, the carbon tax she helped design, was a bridge too far.

''Farmers around here are petrified of the carbon tax … we just got told Country Energy's going to put our bills up by 18 per cent … hooly dooly that's going to hurt,'' said sheep farmer Scott Hickman, who joined Ms Milne and other local graziers on the shady verandah of a local farm.

''I wouldn't mind if the money went back into environmental works, but it goes back to the big polluters. I don't understand the point of that,'' said another grazier Peter Roberts.

The Greens know it's a political problem, point out the high costs to farmers of doing nothing about climate change, and privately hope that the wild over-estimates of the cost impacts of the tax might take the sting out of the issue once it comes into effect in July. (Apple farmer and treasurer of the Orange branch of the Nationals Party Guy Gaeta who told Ms Milne the tax would threaten his business, based his fears on an estimate it would increase his power bill by 100 per cent, not the estimated 10 per cent.)

The Nationals, slightly affronted by the sudden appearance of the Greens on their patch, add a few other issues to the list of deal-breakers in any relationship between the bush and the Greens.

NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash suggested Ms Milne should add to her tour itinerary a meeting with irrigators in Griffith, worried about losing their water allocations because of the Murray Darling Basin plan and a visit to coal mining towns to explain why the Greens believe no new mines should be allowed.

But Ms Milne was back in the city by then and leaping straight into the national economic debate, arguing against pursuing a surplus at any cost, renewing the Greens' threat to vote down proposed tax cuts for big business and their call to cut the diesel fuel rebate for miners to help balance the books.

She had a preliminary meeting with Julia Gillard last Monday and will have more detailed talks before the prime minister leaves for her Anzac Day trek to Gallipoli. The meetings are paving the way for what will undoubtedly be testing negotiations over the parliamentary passage of the May 8 budget.

And before then Ms Milne's rural roadshow will continue to South Australia. She wants to visit Port Augusta, where the local community is begging for its coal-fired power station to be closed down and Victor Harbour, where some are thinking about energy self-sufficiency, trying to take the community off the grid.

Ms Milne knows the Greens have an uphill battle in rural Australia but says ''that's why I am out here talking to people. You have to talk to people. You have to build alliances. It takes time.''

And while NSW Farmers Federal vice-president and local apple grower Peter Darley won't be voting Green, he was pleased Ms Milne had visited his little township of Nashdale all the same.

''I think it's a start. Politicians have to listen to us as well. She's a breath of fresh air for the Greens.''

Ms Milne says the Greens' smooth leadership transition and the way she has started in the job shows voters that ''we are a professional political party and we are a group of people who look after each other''.

What the voters actually think remains to be seen. But the new Greens leader is intent upon taking on the big parties at their own game.

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