Four months out from the next New South Wales election, Premier Mike Baird’s junior Coalition partner, the NSW Nationals, have sprung into super-charged energy. Someone has put the paddles on the bush party.

Perhaps it’s the result of the Nats’ dismal showing in last weekend’s Victorian election — losing one seat, Shepparton, in the lower house and a couple in the upper house — or the collapse in support for Premier Campbell Newman’s LNP government in Queensland, where the Nats are being mauled by Clive Palmer, Bob Katter and Pauline Hanson.

All the evidence shows that the re-energising of the NSW Nationals is a direct result of their new leader Troy Grant, MP for Dubbo.

The 44-year-old former police inspector has accomplished a meteoric rise since entering NSW Parliament in March 2011: into the cabinet in April this year as Minister for Hospitality, Gaming, Racing and the Arts; elected Nationals leader in October, given the additional portfolios of Trade, Investment, Regional Infrastructure, Services, Tourism and Major Events and sworn in as Deputy Premier.

In the weeks since taking charge, Grant has single-mindedly championed resources and services for rural and regional NSW, where his party holds 19 seats. Towns and communities that have been neglected since the reign of former premier Neville Wran (1976-1986) have been toured methodically and given “cash splashes”.

On Monday, Grant spread $375,000 among seven regional theatre projects, including struggling companies in Albury, Merrigong, Lismore and Wyong.

It is a pittance compared to the luscious funding offered to Sydney-based professional companies, but it was a sign of the new Deputy Premier’s priorities. “With this funding the NSW government is increasing the opportunities for regional theatre-makers to develop and present theatre involving professional artists in their own communities,” he said. “The funding will enable regional artists to tell the distinctive stories of regional NSW.”

Grant’s ability to move outside parliamentary convention — and startle his colleagues — was on display on March 26 this year when he addressed the Legislative Assembly in the Wiradjuri language, a skill he picked up working for the police in regional NSW for 21 years.

Making a member’s private statement, Grant’s praised the work of the North West Wiradjuri Language and Cultural Nest, an organisation dedicated to fostering the tribal language and inspiring the community to take pride in their heritage.

He told MPs:

“Gulbarra Ngurambang-ga, yuwin-dhu Troy Grant. Ngadhu banhi-gu gulbarra Wiradjuri mayiny-galang. Ngadhu banhi-gu gulbarra Gadigal mayiny-galang Eora ngan.gu Ngurambang-ga nginha ngan girra Dhurinya gayi-dhi.”

It was the first time in the 160-year history of Australia’s oldest parliament that an MP has spoken an Aboriginal language.

He paid tribute to the 40,000-year history of the Wiradjuri nation and stressed the importance of language:

“In any culture, language forms the foundation of a community. It is how we communicate and how our history is shaped, with stories told and customs and knowledge passed from generation to generation. Language is the way in which our communities evolve.

“To secure this vital language and its ties to its history and people and in recognition of the importance of language for future generations, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, launched in Dubbo the state’s first Aboriginal language and cultural nest as part of the government’s opportunity, choice, healing, responsibility, empowerment [OCHRE] reforms.”

In reply, Dominello, MP for Ryde, said: “He [Grant] is a member who wears his heart and soul on his sleeve and a person who is passionate about the Aboriginal community.”

Many years ago, then-police sergeant Grant was sent to struggling Walgett in the far north-west after a total breakdown in relations between the white and black communities. There was wild talk of race riots, and townspeople locked their shops and homes after dark.

On arrival, Grant summoned his tiny band of (white) officers and announced the introduction of a scheme called “Adopt-A-Cop”. There was derisory interest from cops, whites and Aboriginal citizens, but Grant led and persisted. Soon there were cricket matches, football games and barbecues, and neighbours began talking again.

The police hierarchy in Sydney got wind of Adopt-A-Cop and were furious. Who authorised it?

Happily, then-governor Marie Bashir had heard of the initiative and so had some forward-thinking MPs and academics. The scheme survived and influential people decided to remember the name Troy Grant.

With the Nats in Canberra, Victoria, Queensland and NSW all desperately searching for the “R” word — relevance — Grant is boldly trying to mark out a new paddock for his party.

Peter Fray

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