CHARISMATIC rural MP Michael McCormack will be acting Prime Minister over the next 12-days, while Malcolm Turnbull is out of the country on official duties, performing a job he once daydreamed about doing in high school.
It’s the first time Mr McCormack, who holds the NSW seat of Riverina, has held the acting PM’s post since taking over the Nationals’ leadership at the end of February from Barnaby Joyce.
He says that’s a “surreal feeling” for a country boy who grew up on a farm just outside of Wagga Wagga in regional NSW.
And his 12-days in the top job will also see him perform arguably the most tongue-twisting duty of any Australian political head in history, tossing the coin at the Mangoplah Cookardinia United Eastlakes versus the Ganmain Grong Grong Matong Australian rules football match, at the Mangoplah Sports Ground in Wagga Wagga.
“It’s an honour and a privilege to do this job; even if it’s only in an acting capacity,” Mr McCormack told Fairfax Media in his first interview after assuming responsibilities from Mr Turnbull.
“It’s a heavy burden of responsibility - I appreciate that - but it’s the big job, even if it is only for a matter of 12 or so days.
“The Prime Minister has important duties with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London and then he’s heading to Europe to hold talks about free trade and then he’ll be in Villers-Bretonneux in France to open the Sir John Monash Centre which will honour Australians who served on the front line in the First World War.
“I’d like to think he’d feel confident that everything will be fine back home.
“But it’s one of those almost surreal moments where a humble kid from Marrar - a little village that probably nobody in Australia has much heard about - is all of a sudden acting Prime Minister.”
Mr McCormack said while he was only Acting Prime Minister the thought of being in charge of the nation had crossed his mind many years before.
“Any kid in Australia who has a fascination for politics at an early age, probably looked out the window of their classroom and thought; ‘I wonder what it would be like to be Prime Minister one day’,” he said.
“I don’t deny thinking that occasionally at High School.
“It feels quite surreal but it’s a real privilege and honour.
“This is the best country on earth and I appreciate it’s only in an acting capacity and I’m only there because due to being the Nationals leaders you’re also the Deputy Prime Minister when in government and by virtue of that, when the Prime Minister is away, you’re the acting leader of the country.
“I understand there are some who are far more experienced than I at politics and appreciate it’s a title or position you get because you’re the leader of the National party.
“But by the same token I think it says a lot about Australia that somebody from a regional area can hold a position in an acting capacity, such as this, even if for only a dozen or so days, now and again, throughout the course of the year.
“It wouldn’t happen in any other country on earth and doesn’t that say something great about Australia.”
Mr McCormack’s schedule in the acting PM’s role will include visiting regional electorates like that of his Nationals colleagues Andrew Broad, in the Victorian seat of Mallee where agricultural policy will no doubt come into focus, and Darren Chester in Gippsland.
He will also attend the traditional ANZAC Day dawn memorial service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra before heading over, later that same day to Junee Reefs in his Riverina electorate, which is well populated by many of his relatives, to attend another ANZAC ceremony.
“A disproportionate number of young men from rural, regional and remote Australia served and indeed sacrificed their lives in both World Wars and other conflicts,” he said.
Mr McCormack’s time as acting Prime Minister will also see him dedicate valuable time to two of his greatest areas of passion; family and sports.
He’s especially passionate about country sports and recently played in a cricket grand final win for the first time.
This weekend, the 53-year-old MP will toss the coin at start of the Mangoplah Cookardinia United Eastlakes Football Club v the Ganmain Grong Grong Matong Football Club, at Mangoplah Sports Ground in Wagga Wagga, which will feature his two sons Alex and Nicholas playing on the same team, for the first time.
“When my political career is over - and hopefully that’s a long way down the track - I’ll still be a husband and a father,” he said.
“This will be the first time my boys have played together in the same team, although they have played against each other many times in the past.
“My wife Catherine and I are pleased that they’re playing in the same team this year for the Goannas – the Mangoplah Cookardinia United Eastlakes Football Club - in the Riverina Football league and I’m delighted that I’ll be able to watch them play.
“Nicholas is playing his first game at a new club and they’ve invited me to go there and toss the coin - but it’s also a great opportunity to shine a bit of national media spotlight on country football.
“These clubs in regional areas are part of the social fabric of the community and they help to combine and bring together country communities like no other.
“People forge friendships for life through sporting clubs and when the chips are down in country communities, they can still always reply on their sporting cubs, like their football and netball clubs, to help them pull through the tough times, whether it’s a natural disaster, economic downturn or tragedies that happen from time to time.
“Country communities are very resilient and they’re very resilient because often their sporting clubs help to bind people together like nothing else does.”
Not giving away budget secrets but building leaders’ bond with Turnbull
Mr McCormack’s week will also include speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra but he won’t be giving away any top level government secrets about what’s in the upcoming federal budget; instead leaving that responsibility to Treasurer Scott Morrison.
“But put it this way, it’ll be a good infrastructure budget and it’ll build on the record $75 billion that we had in last year’s budget and that’ll be good farmers and other small businesses in rural and regional Australia,” he said.
Mr McCormack said he didn’t want to go down the path of “surmising” about Mr Turnbull’s relationship with his predecessor Mr Joyce which fractured earlier this year.
But he said his interactions with the Liberal leader had made a good start, building a working rapport in recent weeks.
“I respect the position Malcolm has and he is the Prime Minister,” he said.
“It’s the toughest job in the country to do and I need to support him in that role whilst at the same time, always remembering that I am the leader of the Nationals and therefore representing the regional and rural Australians who support our party, and the role we need to play as a separate party, yet one that’s united with the Liberals in government.”
Mr McCormack said he’d been in daily contact with Mr Turnbull as their leadership dialogue developed.
“He’s appreciated the role I need to play and understands that unity is everything whilst also acknowledging that we’re two different parties,” he said.
“I stood beside the Prime Minister to announce $176 million for the Rookwood Weir project going ahead; a historic and transformational regional announcement.
“And stood beside him to announce the Melbourne Airport rail-link is going ahead; a transformational urban project.
“I think the Prime Minister has every faith that I am doing the job and will continue to do the job.”
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