People come first, always: Cowper's rookie MP Pat Conaghan reflects on his first year

Member for Cowper Pat Conaghan.
Member for Cowper Pat Conaghan.

ONE year ago, Pat Conaghan was the rookie with little experience about to the enter the election fray against an experienced political stalwart.

The race against heavyweight Independent Rob Oakeshott got personal and the national spotlight swiftly turned to Cowper and whether or not The Nationals would retain the seat it has a maintained a firm grip on largely since 1919.

It was the election tipped heavily to be driven by "fed-up" voters crying out for change.

But within hours of polls closing, it became clear support in The Nationals' heartland was strong and unwavering. The "quiet Australians" got them across the line.

Congahan had won. He was the underdog who had just earned himself a pair of big shoes to fill.

Victory. Pat Conaghan claims the seat of Cowper over heavyweight Independent Rob Oakeshott in 2019.

Victory. Pat Conaghan claims the seat of Cowper over heavyweight Independent Rob Oakeshott in 2019.

Former Nationals Deputy Prime Minister Ian Sinclair described the new kid on the block at the time as a "remarkable young man".

Born and raised in Kempsey, Mr Conaghan's early working life was as a police officer and prosecutor. He spent the last 18 years of his career as a solicitor before getting the green light from his two young sons to have a crack at politics.

Mr Conaghan was pre-selected for the seat of Cowper in November 2018, and said his strong connections to the Mid North Coast helped secure his win.

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For a newcomer, it has perhaps been one of the most challenging years for the government and its Prime Minister Scott Morrison who, in the face of adversity from drought to bushfires and a global health pandemic, have been forced to put the politics aside and focus on the Australian people.

And in the eyes of the people who have taken knock after knock, this government has and will be judged on how skillfully it has managed a crisis - not just with policy but also with humanity.

On the job. Cowper MP Pat Conaghan speaks in the House of Representatives.

On the job. Cowper MP Pat Conaghan speaks in the House of Representatives.

The Port News caught up with Mr Conaghan one year into his term. Has the career change delivered? What has he learned about himself and is politics all it's cracked up to be?

"There is little doubt the greatest challenge has been COVID-19," Mr Conaghan said.

"The nation at the time was coming out of a severe drought and devastating fires, yet the economy was still in good shape.

"We were about to deliver the first budget surplus in 11 years but the pandemic put an end to that.

"To see so many businesses close and tens of thousand of people out of work was truly heartbreaking. The real challenge now is to get those businesses back and people back into jobs as fast and as safe as possible.

"What was truly extraordinary was the way the people in Cowper and around Australia dealt with all the adversity over the last 12 months.

"During the drought everyone dug deep to donate or to buy a bale, during the fires they volunteered as RFS and SES, or cooked, or donated.

"Then during COVID-19 everyone did their bit and listened to the advice and flattened the curve which we all should be proud of."

The handlebar moustache was a good idea at the time, and raised money for a very important cause, but it now features on Pat Conaghan's official diplomatic passport.

The handlebar moustache was a good idea at the time, and raised money for a very important cause, but it now features on Pat Conaghan's official diplomatic passport.

Mr Conaghan has taken advice from his father with him from day one on the job - "be humble". He said there's no celebrity in the position and it's important you listen and represent the people, even if that means challenging the party position.

"I think the biggest thing that I've learned about myself is that it's easy to coach from the grandstand," he said.

"It's entirely different when you are playing the game. I have tried to be considered in my decision making and be true to myself and the electorate.

"Sometimes you have to be flexible and for the greater good and sometimes you have to dig your heels in irrespective of whether it goes against the party line.

Being a politician is not being a celebrity and a few should be reminded of that.

"What people want from their local pollie is pretty simple. They want to be heard when they have a problem, even if at times you can't fix it.

"I always find it funny when someone sends me an email and I call them and they say "Oh, I didn't realise you would actually call".

"You have to just get on with it and do the job. No fuss, no fanfare. Being a politician is not being a celebrity and a few should be reminded of that."

But then there's THAT moustache which by normal standards was a cracking achievement for the annual men's health campaign Movember.

For the now, and forever more clean-shaven MP, he is reminded of the handlebar horror every time he nervously walks through airport security.

"I look terrible with a handlebar moustache. Last year I participated in Movember to raise money for men's mental health," he said.

"I resembled the lovechild of Chopper Read and a Spanish bullfighter. The worst thing about it was I had to go overseas on a delegation and needed a diplomatic passport.

"It is now my passport photo for the next 10 years."

Pat Conaghan speaking with people in his Cowper electorate.

Pat Conaghan speaking with people in his Cowper electorate.

In any first year on-the-job, there's plenty of wins to celebrate. But there are also disappointments that must be acknowledged.

For Mr Conaghan, knowing his previous career on the frontline could continue to play a pivotal role in decision-making was heartening.

"I was very proud of my appointment as the Chair of the Joint Select Committee for Road Safety," he said.

"As a former police officer in Kempsey going to numerous fatalities in the years I was there, I have a real passion in addressing the crippling and devastating road toll in the electorate.

"Last year there were 1188 deaths on the nation's roads. This is far too many and I can now make a difference.

"As for disappointments, I have to go back to the impacts of COVID-19. As a nation we were in such a strong economic position to really build on our country's prosperity and opportunities.

"The coalition has out of necessity put $320 billion on support packages and strategies which will take several years to pay back. That's $320 billion that could have been spent on schools, health care, emission reduction schemes and renewable projects just to name a few."

I don't know if my boys actually understand what it is that I do for work. They've gotten use to saying "Dad, the Prime Minister's calling you" when he calls occasionally.

But it's not all work. Mr Conaghan has a young family and partner Ilona to go home to at the end of the day. And you can always rely on children to put life into some sort of perspective.

"Not much has actually changed in the house. As a lawyer I spent at least two weeks of the month in Sydney as I still had a practice there.

"If anything I'm home more. Ilona is still not sure whether that's a good thing.

"I don't know if my boys actually understand what it is that I do for work. They've gotten use to saying "Dad, the Prime Minister's calling you" when he calls occasionally," he laughed.

Politics is a brave game for someone with little experience. Has he held his own and does he believe politics in Australia has lost its way?

I don't discriminate with either side of politics - they were as bad as each other. Australians were sick of the revolving door of leaders and just wanted politicians to get up in the morning and do their job, just like the rest of the nation.

"If you'd asked me that question 18 months ago I would have said yes," he said.

"It was one of the reasons I put my hand up for the job. I was sick of the in-fighting, the egos and self interest.

"I don't discriminate with either side of politics - they were as bad as each other. Australians were sick of the revolving door of leaders and just wanted politicians to get up in the morning and do their job, just like the rest of the nation.

"To be elected as a federal political is a privilege and an honour and should be treated that way."

The style of leadership and how you take the nation along for the ride is a choice, he says.

Mr Conaghan, like many of us, has used the past year as a litmus test for the government.

A good government is one that considers the future of the nation first and itself second, regardless of the consequences.

"I am impressed with Scott Morrison, particularly with the way he has lead the nation through the pandemic," Mr Conaghan said.

"I have had countless emails from people saying that they don't vote for my side of politics but they are appreciative of what the Prime Minister and the Coalition has done with the bipartisan support of Labor.

"A good government is one that considers the future of the nation first and itself second, regardless of the consequences.

"At the end of the day the final decision is mine. During a crisis you have to stay calm. Reassure the team, reassure the people you talk to. Then work out how to fix it.

"No-one ever put out a fire by running around in circles screaming."

This story Rookie MP reflects on first year in politics first appeared on Port Macquarie News.