Messing about with Bob

Bob Baldwin’s enthusiasm for all things nautical is 100 per cent genuine and positively contagious. I can confidently say this after spending a day on the water with him, during which he shared his thoughts on a lifetime spent on the water. He also had a significant part to play in my capture - and the eventual escape - of a sprightly striped marlin. The larger-than-life honourable member for the NSW federal seat of Paterson could be described as the PT Barnum of the Australian marine industry. He’s a passionate exponent of pretty much every activity that involves water and boats. And as he unashamedly says of his own considerable maritime exploits (tongue firmly in cheek): "I’ve been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and worn it out."

Not surprisingly, Baldwin’s electorate lies on the coast, just north of Newcastle and takes in the boating and fishing Mecca of Port Stephens and Nelson Bay. Prior to entering federal parliament as the seat’s Liberal member in 1996 (he lasted two years, before being re-elected in 2001), Baldwin spent much of his working and recreational time on the water. The son of British migrants, he took to the water from an early age. "Some of my best early memories are of spending some very special time with my father out on the water catching fish," he recalls. "And I’ve loved pretty much everything else I’ve done on boats, from powerboat racing, doing the Sydney Hobart and working as a professional scuba diver and instructor."

His yacht-racing exploits include Sydney Hobart campaigns in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on Genghis Khan and Parmelia, as well as a few Sydney-Mooloolaba campaigns and Montague Island races, plus numerous other competitive efforts under sail.

Husband to Cynthia and father to twins David and Robbie (16) and Samantha (14) Baldwin, 52, is one of those characters who gives the impression that salt water would flow if he pricked himself with a filleting knife. Which almost happened when Club Marine CEO, Mark Bradley and I caught up with the burly Parliamentary Secretary to the Federal Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources in Port Stephens a while back. Our paths had previously crossed at various marine industry functions, with Baldwin taking the opportunity to issue an invitation to discuss some of the government’s boating initiatives, most notably its Marine Industries Action Agenda. And since our discussions would have a decidedly nautical flavour, Baldwin suggested we conduct them on the water. Better still, he arranged for respected marine industry identities and local boat builders, Bruce and Alan Steber, to host us aboard their brand new award-winning 3800 Flybridge Sports Fisher (see Built to fish, page 178). And even better, Baldwin offered to supply the rods, reels, bait and tackle - plus act as our deckie and guide for the day.

As the sun rose over a beautiful, crystal-clear Port Stephens dawn, we clambered aboard Steber’s new gamefisher, welcomed by Alan and his father Bruce. Baldwin was already onboard, having packed the cockpit to the gunwales with enough fishing gear to target everything short of a migrating humpback. It was obvious Bob had more on his mind than just answering probing questions on his portfolio. First and foremost, we were here to fish, he announced, explaining that his parliamentary workload had prevented him from indulging his piscatorial passions for over a year. Today was catch-up time.

As Alan pointed the boat towards the horizon, Baldwin busied himself preparing rods and lures, obviously relishing the opportunity to get tangled in the tackle; to forsake the normal daily demands of his job for the more mundane, but soul-enriching rituals of bait preparation, knot-tying and line rigging. I had the impression this fishing trip was well overdue and would be hugely appreciated. On the way out to the serious fishing grounds - where, according to Baldwin, some good-sized marlin and tuna lurked - we managed some time out to discuss the honourable member’s background and his parliamentary responsibilities and aspirations.

Wealth Of Experience

From a boating perspective, Baldwin’s pre-parliamentary career has covered the whole gamut, from sail and powerboat racing, to water skiing, professional diving, game fishing and charter work. He’s also worked in the marine retail sector. For his constituents and fellow parliamentarians, it means he brings a wealth of relevant experience, including both professional and recreational, to his portfolio, so there is no doubting his expertise and understanding. When Bob Baldwin talks boating, people take notice.

"The bottom line for me is that, because of my experience in the marine industry, it’s very hard for people to pull the wool over my eyes," he says. "As far as the industry’s concerned, I can see issues from a variety of angles." Baldwin says the role of a parliamentary secretary is to engage with stakeholders in the portfolio and work on various initiatives under the direction of the Minister’s office.

"Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not about sitting around taking minutes, doing shorthand and making the coffee. Basically, you’re there to work as part of a team. Areas of responsibility for the portfolio include the various action agendas and I’m delighted that one of those is the Marine Industries Action Agenda. "The Marine Industries Action Agenda is not driven by government - it’s driven by the industry. The good thing about action agendas is that the government works with and listens to the people who are in the business; it’s not about bureaucrats and politicians telling the industry what’s good for them. "We work with strategic leaders in the industry and together network down the line to bring onboard ideas and identify opportunities. Then we work to try and implement the ideas and achieve outcomes. It’s really very much about working together with industry in a united way, rather than having government, the industry and others going in a million different directions."

Specifically, the Marine Industries Action Agenda has adopted a number of goals, including encouraging, identifying and developing export markets, striving for excellence, addressing regulatory impediments, encouraging innovation, enhancing training and skills development and developing industry leadership. Baldwin says working with the industry has been one of the highlights of his parliamentary career.

"It has been an absolute pleasure dealing with people in the industry, like the people at Riviera, Austral Yachts, Alan (Steber) and all the others; people who have a genuine passion for the industry - and not just for boating, but also in their striving for perfection with their products. Boaties have been viewed for too long as rough characters who go around in old shorts and thongs all day long covered in fibreglass dust. Today’s boating industry professional is a far cry from that image and I have to say it’s a real privilege dealing with the industry in my current role."

Within the industry, Baldwin is seen as an effective ally who gets out and about to canvas views on a range of issues and who is not shy about going to bat when the situation calls for action.

"Bob is a strong proponent for the industry at parliamentary level," says Wes Moxey, CEO of Australia’s largest boat manufacturer, Riviera. "He recognises the issues that confront the industry, like skills training, because he’s taken the trouble to get out and visit us and talk to us. He’s certainly good at what he does and, from what I’ve seen, he’s highly thought of in parliamentary circles. Plus, he’s an avid boater, so he understands the industry on a variety of levels. Put all that together and you’ve got a very effective advocate for boating and the boating industry."

Midway through our cruise out from Port Stephens, Baldwin took time out to rig our baits in preparation for trolling the marlin grounds. It was a picture-perfect day, with a mild rolling sea. As Bob busied himself with tweaking the lines and baits, we watched and waited; not for too long, as it turned out...

"Quick, you’re on, grab the rod and get ready to hit the strike," bellowed Baldwin. Actually, it has to be said that this is a heavily edited extract. His actual verbal instructions were generously peppered with some fairly unparliamentary expletives, as I recall. With my line disappearing towards the horizon at a brisk pace, an animated Baldwin leapt to the transom and began directing proceedings.

As he deftly adjusted my stand-up harness (no game chairs required for Baldwin as he reckons he does enough sitting down in Canberra), all the while continuing to offer advice, I looked up to see a writhing striped marlin doing the dance that excites game fishermen the world over.

"Don’t look at the (bleeping) fish. Here, you should be (bleeping) over here. And keep winding; you won’t get your fish if you don’t keep taking in (bleeping) line." On it went for the next 40 or so minutes. Baldwin’s fishing mate, Anthony Grugeon manoeuvred the boat expertly, while I attempted to stay in touch with my fish. It’s always a buzz when you’re connected to a marlin by a few hundred metres of fine 8kg monofilament fishing line, but I was also connected to one very large parliamentarian, who had a steely grip on the back of my rod harness. When Baldwin thought the fight would go better if I moved from one side of the cockpit to the other, I was simply placed there - all the while receiving colourfully derisive and good humoured commentary on my angling prowess, or the lack thereof, from my excited fishing coach.

Eventually the fish and I both tired - fortunately it seemed a little more exhausted than me - and we were able to bring it to the back of the boat where deckie for the day, the Honourable Bob Baldwin MHR was waiting with a tag pole. Alas, the fish took one look at the pole - or perhaps the person on the end of it - spat the hook and headed rapidly for the deep.

He Likes To Watch

Nevertheless, it had been an exhilarating encounter and was my first stand-up battle with a marlin. In actual fact, I believe that Baldwin was more elated than me. As he said later, for him game fishing is more about watching others do battle, while he prefers to offer advice and keep an eye on the fight and the boat. "For me, it’s more about the hunt. I’ve caught and released a lot of marlin, but the best fish I’ve caught are for others when I’ve been skippering the boat. I just love the hunt!"

Our piscatorial pursuits sparked a discussion on another of Baldwin’s political agendas. He’s very much aware of the current trend towards establishing extensive no-fishing zones and the effects these marine sanctuaries are having on both recreational anglers and the charter fishing industry.

Having won a few awards and trophies during a game fishing career that included a NSW GFA Ultra-light Tackle Championship for a 69kg striped marlin on 6-kilo line, Baldwin says he understands the frustration that some feel when they see their traditional fishing grounds being permanently roped off.

"Look, as far as the marine national parks go, there’s no denying that some areas should be quarantined. But on the Great Barrier Reef, I think they’ve been a bit heavy-handed," he says. "I can understand that some sections of the fishing industry are a bit frustrated and I think there needs to be a better balance in the way they designate the (no fishing) zones. And I think there’s a good argument that there needs to be more consultation, with a better balance of people and scientists involved."

Baldwin also sees boating infrastructure as another challenge confronting both the industry and government.

"It’s not part of my portfolio, and much of this issue is the responsibility of the State governments, but I’d like to make the point that the Federal government’s recreational boating grants have done a lot for general services, whether its upgrading boat ramps, putting in pontoons, fish cleaning tables or restocking programmes. But there is still much to be done if we are to encourage people to become involved in boating and then to ensure we keep them. If they have to walk miles from the trailer parking area to their boats, or wait ages to launch them, we’ll see people looking for other areas to spend their money.

"Canal and marina developments are important issues, too. Some States are reluctant or slow to approve these developments, but they should remember that every boat parked in a canal development is one less parked at a marina, and that opens up more berthing space."

But it’s the industry and the challenges ahead that really capture Baldwin’s attention.

"The industry is in a vibrant period of growth at the moment, which is fuelled by initiatives like the Grow Boating campaign and the Action Agenda. And the cohesion throughout the industry and the desire to take the industry forward is encouraging," he says. "Plus, the quality of Australian-made boats has never been higher and many now are amongst the best in the world.

"But there are challenges there and we need to focus more on skills development, apprenticeships and training, plus continuing to work on quality and expanding export markets. The challenge really is that we need to invest in the future, and in particular, we have to invest in people. They are, after all, our best asset."

Far from his beloved sea, Baldwin maintains living arrangements unique to our nation’s pollies. Like many other federal politicians, Baldwin shacks up with a few mates "purely on a platonic basis" when parliament is sitting in Canberra. In his case his housemates are Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister, Joe Hockey and Member for Deakin, Phillip Barressi.

Passionate And Effective

Brendan Nelson was candid in his assessment of his colleague and housemate. "Bob may not be pretty, but he’s pretty effective and is a passionate and effective advocate for boating."

Himself an avid boatie and fisherman, Nelson said the pair try to get together at Port Stephens every now and then for a bit of quiet time. He recalls one particularly graphic example of his housemate’s approach to fishing.

"We had just caught this yellowfin tuna and Bob was filleting it, so I expected that we’d be having some sashimi and a bit of a nibble. Instead, Bob just peels off a big slice and eats it.

"But spend any time with Bob on a boat and you’ll appreciate what an enthusiast he is. Plus, he handles a boat better than anyone else I’ve ever seen." A big man with plenty of attitude, Nelson says his housemate belies his, at times, gruff exterior.

"He’s really a very sensitive guy - he won’t like me saying this - and he’s a very generous and loyal friend. That’s rare in a place like Canberra."

Baldwin undoubtedly has a big appetite for boating and the marine industry, which he summed up as we were preparing to disembark at the end of the day. "One of my favourite quotes comes from that wonderful children’s classic, Wind in the Willows, when Ratty is extolling the virtues of river life to Mole and says: ‘There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’."

Having messed about in a boat with Bob Baldwin, I can vouch for the fact that he’s certainly in his element, far away from the halls of power and industry where he spends so much of his working life. But he’s also very obviously comfortable is his role promoting and fostering growth in the marine industry.

For Baldwin, it’s all about passion, and for the Australian marine industry and lifestyle, there is no more passionate, outspoken or committed advocate than the Member for Paterson.

Baldwin with our skipper for the day, Alan Steber