November 2009


Changing frontiers

By John Birmingham
Changing frontiers

The former premier of Queensland Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Melbourne Town Hall, 20 February 1981. © Newspix/News Limited/3rd Party Managed Reproduction & Supply Rights.

The National Party

The travels of my fellow writer and one-time co-author Dirk Flinthart and I are a tale of two countries. We took up the pen at the same time, about 20 years ago. Whereas I moved from one skanky inner-city share house to another, shuffling up and down the eastern seaboard but never straying more than a few minutes from the concrete heart of a capital city, Flinthart went bush. It seemed an unusual choice for a self-styled anarchist looking to pay the bills by writing jokes and fantasy novels, but his wife is a doctor and she was attracted to the life of a country GP. They were both drawn to the idea of giving their children a less frantic, less cluttered upbringing.

The Flinthart of that once-upon-a-time rarely flinched from the confronting, and occasionally violent, practice of direct action when demonstrating his displeasure with the black-hearted devils of the old Bjelke-Petersen regime in Queensland. Thus, he found himself very much out of place when he and his wife moved to the South Burnett region, three hours out of Brisbane. It is hard, dry country, marginal even for farming beef and peanuts – and that’s when the rain actually falls. But in those days, it was the Nationals’ heartland and had been treated very well by its lords and masters.

“It was booming, last I saw it,” says Flinthart. “Bjelke-Petersen may have been a viciously corrupt human hat rack but, after two years near Kingaroy, I know why they voted for him. Our town had maybe four streets, and three hospitals within twenty minutes’ drive, but it still had a modern hospital of its own. The whole [of] South Burnett had fantastic roads. It had dams. It had phones. It had tax breaks and subsidies. The wheels were greased past the axles, because it was National Party home central, bought and paid for.”

Clan Flinthart is now tucked away in the rich hill country north-east of Launceston, Tasmania. Comparing it with the bare, parched plains around Kingaroy, the writer considers his new surrounds an idyll: “We’ve got rivers, waterfalls, gorgeous beaches ... The local dairy produces the best milk I’ve had in my life: rich, full and creamy ... The red soils around Scottsdale will grow pretty much anything that can be grown. The local lamb is unbelievable ... We’ve got half-a-dozen permanent (if small) rivers teeming with game fish.”

Their respective professions meant they could live anywhere, but the couple wanted the countryside and now they have it in abundance: mountains and forests, where they can hike; fields of semiprecious stones and fossil beds, where the children can fossick. “We’ve got historic sites out the wazoo,” he says. “We’ve got blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, plums, peaches, nectarines … We’ve got spring water [so good] an old couple down the road actually went into business bottling theirs … The place is fucking brilliant.”

Then his tone changes, becomes harder, angrier (and more familiar to me from our days of riot and protest): “… but we can’t get a road wide enough to safely pass a fucking [B-double] logging truck. And we can’t get any attention to schools, telecommunications [or] medical care, so the place is increasingly fucked up socially. We get promises every election, and fuck-all afterwards.” Elsewhere, Flinthart elaborates, “Scottsdale has lost the vegetable plant that employed half the town, and one of the two sawmills that employed the other half. Old Joh would have been in here like the bloody cavalry, trumpets blaring, distributing largesse left and right. Instead, we got vague promises about roads, which disappeared within a year.”

The Nationals, according to Flinthart, used to understand something that has forever been beyond the comprehension of Labor and Liberal: the bush is not simply a place where you work as a miner or a shearer, not simply a place where you dig up, chop down or rip out the local wealth, and not somewhere you go just to get a bit of designer mud on your Range Rover. The Nationals once understood that people live in the country and that living people – city or country – have the same needs.

“Politically, I’m about as radical as you can get without being locked up,” Flinthart jokes. “But if the Nationals showed up tomorrow promising to drop the half-witted 1950s social agenda and really represent the bush – not more bloody jobs and businesses, but roads, schools, doctors and telephones – I wouldn’t just vote for ’em. I’d join up, go to the meetings, wave the placards … and I bake a mean pumpkin scone.”

“We did quite a bit of research a few years ago,” said Warren Truss, “and it clearly identified that when people were making the sea-change and tree-change move, they were prepared to reconsider almost everything about their lifestyle, including the way they voted.” The Nationals leader, a quiet, decent man – who is also the least charismatic party boss since Charles Blunt tried to rub the caked cow manure from the Nats’ elastic-sided boots in the late 1980s – undoubtedly was not thinking of someone like Flinthart when he made this statement. While most people fleeing the cities in search of a simpler life probably sit much closer to the political centre than Flinthart, once exiled from metropolitan Australia, everyone faces the same pressures and privations: the tyrannies of distance manifest in a lack of services and amenities that are taken for granted in state capitals. “There was an openness,” said Truss of the big-city exiles his party surveyed. “People were making a conscious decision to change their lifestyle, to live in a different environment, to do things differently. Their work, their family, their life and the way they voted. So there is an opportunity there.”

If there is a hint of desperation in his words, it is because the position of the National Party is increasingly desperate. As the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green recently wrote, the party has been in decline since its last real high point in 1975. Although the Nats have staged recoveries at several subsequent elections, Green points out that “each new peak in National vote has been lower than the previous peak”. A quintessential numbers man, he lays the blame on the “continuing decline in the proportion of Australians who live outside of urban areas”, a line of reasoning that doesn’t take into account the flight of sea changers and tree changers to coastal settlements and regional towns, where, here and there, the Nationals remain competitive.

Consider one of Green’s simpler, but more brutal, statistics: of the 25 federal seats that have been held by the Nationals (or the Country Party, their former title) since 1977, only 9 remain in their control. Critically, not all of these seats have been lost to the Labor Party or to deserters and mavericks like Bob Katter and Tony Windsor. While the ALP may be the declared enemy of the Nationals, the real existential threat facing Truss and his comrades comes from their Coalition colleagues in the Liberal Party. While Labor has seized five of the Nationals’ former seats, the Liberals have stolen eight. And what the Nationals have really struggled to do, says Green, “is win any seat back once it has been lost to the Liberals” – a difficulty he attributes to the party having allowed its previously robust and independent image to be subsumed for the sake of Coalition unity after the disastrous ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign of 1987.

The most succinct (and mordant) account of these goings-on comes from the party’s Senate leader, Barnaby Joyce. Addressing the National Press Club earlier this year, the sometimes inconveniently plain-spoken Joyce made no effort to underplay the inherent difficulties in Coalition attempts to market one political product to two very different audiences, often with divergent or even opposing interests. “Our electoral standing is at root a consequence of the party’s decision to blend in, chameleon-like, with the approach of its Coalition partner,” he said, before going on to apply a bit of shoe leather to an unnamed Liberal Party colleague who had suggested a purge of the Coalition’s “dead wood” (read: unsophisticated, unthinking rednecks, concentrated largely – if not exclusively – within Joyce’s party).

Joyce bristled at the suggestion that only somebody from a leafy affluent suburb in a capital city could have a monopoly on political smarts, common sense or electoral appeal:

They suggest over a cup of coffee that when you do stand up for regional issues – read: don’t agree with them – you are divisive. May I suggest that when it is your electorate, and you don’t stand up for it, you are weak. Ultimately this “please don’t be difficult” approach really should be translated as “you must remember it is politically correct that my views are more worthy than yours because I say so.”

Despite Warren Truss’s best efforts to play down contention between the Coalition partners, subterranean pressures are beginning to rumble like the grinding of tectonic plates. After the National Party’s federal conference this year, Truss decried any mooted split with the Liberals, insisting Turnbull and company understood and respected that there were some issues – such as a carbon tax dressed up as an emissions trading scheme (ETS) – on which the minor partner simply could not, and would not, compromise. “When there are times – and they happen occasionally – where there can be no reconciliation, then we will vote separately,” he said. “We’ve done that in the past. From time to time we may have to do it in the future.”

The future arrived with more dispatch than he perhaps expected. Several weeks later, Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull issued an ultimatum to his party – and by extension to the Nationals – to support his decision to negotiate with the government over the ETS or to remove him as leader. “Whether my leadership prevails or not on this issue, time will tell,” he said. “I could not possibly lead a party that was on a do-nothing-on-climate-change platform.”

Inaction on the issue of climate change, according to Turnbull, was simply “not in tune with the mood of the nation”. It was, however, almost perfectly in tune with the mood of Senator Joyce. For months preceding Turnbull’s ultimatum, Joyce had been traversing the country, proclaiming loudly that support for a carbon tax stopped dead at the edge of each capital city and that no party claiming to speak for the country could possibly support it. When the Liberal member for Hume, Alby Schultz, pushed back by arguing the Nationals should be dropped from the joint Senate ticket, Joyce shrugged it off. He wasn’t at all concerned by the idea of fighting an election without the Liberals – or even, presumably, by the idea of campaigning against them – because there is a huge constituency within the 7 million Australians living beyond the urban fringe “that just fervently disagrees with the ETS”. Describing the scheme variously as “fraudulent job-destroying policy waffle”, “a tax on people just because they exist … a tax that’s accompanied by an army of bureaucrats”, “immoral and wrong”, and an empty but “extremely dangerous” gesture, Joyce also welcomed it as the greatest boon to his party in a long, long time. The destruction of the country, but the salvation of the Nationals.

The option of splitting from the Coalition is neither new, nor solely driven by the prospect of an ETS. It may, however, have something to do with the ascension of Turnbull to the Liberal Party leadership. Barely one week after the millionaire barrister and businessman saw off Brendan Nelson, both Truss and Joyce were publicly contemplating divorcing the Libs. Less than three months earlier, Truss had reportedly been considering a merger with the Liberals. The motivation at that time was a post-election review of the party – both its current performance and future prospects – by former leader John Anderson and former NSW director Michael Priebe. Anderson forecast a “slow declining death” for the Nationals unless they undertook root-and-branch reform or merged with their senior Coalition partner. Now, a year later, the merger option seems to have died, with Joyce confirming in late August that the party room had even considered tearing up the Coalition agreement.

In the Nationals’ stronghold state of Queensland – home to both Joyce and Truss – the merger debate is over, at the state level at least, thanks to the last election there. The parties combined in the lead-up to the state election to form the Liberal National Party (LNP) in an effort to maximise the conservative vote, to minimise the use of resources traditionally wasted on fighting each other and, almost incidentally, to unseat the ALP’s Anna Bligh. As a game-changing strategy, it arguably failed on all three counts. Even the traditional sniping and infighting continued as former Liberals battled for their professional existence within the new political entity. The LNP quickly came to resemble the old National Party, albeit with a fresh paint job and a handful of uncomfortable-looking Liberals trying to pretend they hadn’t been kidnapped by a gang of toothless yokels. Their discomfiture is exceeded only by the surviving federal Liberals and Nationals who must decide whether they will run under the banner of the LNP at the next election.

In early October, a harbinger of doom arrived in the form of a preselection fiasco involving Peter Dutton, one of the few stars of the federal Libs, whose safe seat was rendered anything but by a redistribution. Dutton had attempted to move to a surviving blue-ribbon electorate, only to find himself outmanoeuvred by a gang of old-school Nats within the LNP. One unnamed Liberal described the ambush to the Australian’s Glenn Milne as “an expression of collective National Party contempt for the LNP, for the federal Liberal Party and its best interests”. Another described it more prosaically as “myopic and fucked”.

Given the recent emphasis by Truss and his colleagues on carving out an identity separate from the Liberals – as the champions of regional Australia – an LNP presence in Canberra seems unlikely.

Is the party doomed? Will it join the Democratic Labor Party, the Democrats, One Nation and Bob Menzies’ United Australia Party in the footnotes of Australian political history? Demographics are not trending well for them, with so many members of their natural constituency drifting away from the towns and villages where allegiance to the party is taken in with mother’s milk. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of former big-city dwellers – with their big-city ideas and preoccupations – have moved into regional areas to replace them. Voters like Dirk Flinthart and his wife, for instance, or Simon and Jenny Bedak.

Until recently, Simon, a former playwright turned paralegal turned cattleman, and Jenny, a nurse with an applied science degree in art conservation, ran an 890-hectare beef and cropping property at Book Book in Kyeamba Valley, NSW. Situated halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, the valley is at the beginning of the foothills and gets an average of 70 millimetres of rain per year; Simon Bedak describes the land as “fat lazy country doing it tough”. The long drought is the immediate cause of the parched, almost lunar-looking landscape, but decades of over-grazing and ill-considered chemical use haven’t helped. Over the past six years, dams have run dry, animals have grown thin, crops have regularly failed and hundreds of kilometres of pipe have been laid to pump brackish water from local aquifers into the dying paddocks.

Like his fellow exile – Flinthart of Tasmania – Bedak of Book Book was not born with a farmer’s thin-lipped, hard-headed conservatism written into his DNA. He was, after all, a former surf bum and pot-smoking playwright. On a whim, and smiling at the unlikelihood of it all, he did sign up for National Party membership when he and Jenny first arrived in Book Book. Like volunteering for the Rural Fire Service or joining the local Rural Lands Protection Board, it seemed the right thing to do. He’s no longer a member. “I got a weekly email forwarded by someone in the local Nationals’ office,” he shrugs, “who incidentally had a surname that was the same as one of the roads we’d pass on the way to the cattle sales … Having once been [a] global co-ordinator of the Building and Construction Group in what was [then] the largest law firm in the world, I wasn’t averse to jotting down thoughts about new legislation and forwarding these to my betters. Seeing I imagined I was now part of a local unseen posse, I spent a few hours outlining some ideas and sent them in by email.”

The response to his enthusiasm was less than underwhelming. “Nada. I tried contributing again. No replies, zilch. After a short while, bugger it, I thought. The worst drought of recent memory took over and my need to assist where I wasn’t required diminished. I took more interest in the affairs of the local private members club instead, as my monthly bar account will clearly attest.” The Nationals could very easily win Bedak back, however, just as Joyce and Truss insist. Not because he feels any loyalty to a party that never particularly appealed in the first place, but because – as with Flinthart – the better part of a decade spent living close to the bone a long way from the inner-city latte land of his youth has given him to understand that his immediate interests, as well as those of his family, do not necessarily align with the interests and obsessions of that earlier time.

For Flinthart, with a wife working as a country doctor, with children coming up through the local state school and with his own career dependent on a very tenuous telecommunications connection to the world, the under-resourcing of the bush is a live issue. For Simon Bedak, having handfed starving cattle for five years to earn a wage well south of the poverty line, it’s the ETS that’s of real significance (though as much for the larger issues it represents, as the actual, immediate threat it may pose). “To put it in perspective,” he says, “the $25 to $40 per kilogram you pay at the checkout for beef we’re doing well to crack a buck and a half to two bucks for. The margins we work on in livestock production are piss-poor. Unless any ETS burden [comes on] after an animal is sold, and is worn by the purchaser and the others down the line, graziers would rather see the nation become one half vegetarian and one half cannibal than wear it. Speaking from ground zero, the mood is that it might even take a ‘starve the cities’ kind of counter campaign against an agricultural ETS to get the public’s attention.”

The longer Bedak holds forth on the topic, the angrier – but more profanely articulate – he becomes. Only when discussing the haplessness of the National Party can he become yet further animated, displaying the sort of ruthless pragmatism for which the old Country Party was known. “Personally, whether it’s a National–Labor coalition or a National–Liberal coalition doesn’t bloody matter to us. There’s no point being out of government if you can be in government. They need to understand the power that they’re wasting is ours. Not just their own.”

Far away to the south, across the cold, heaving waters of Bass Strait, a like-minded utilitarianism holds sway at the Flinthart property. “If the Nationals had the brains to drop the old-school bullshit, and simply came here to represent the people who live here … they’d be a permanent fixture. But they see the seat as unwinnable. And as long as they [present as] a bunch of hat-wearing zombies … [pushing] the morals and lifestyle of … Ma and Pa Kettle – yeah, it is unwinnable. All they need to do is promise us the basics of living. We can take care of the rest.”

Therein lies the challenge for the National Party. They have correctly identified the huge demographic shift sometimes labelled tree change and sea change as both a threat and an opportunity. “Any party that does not change will soon lose its relevance,” admits Truss. “It’s a key element of our approach to politics to engage with the sea changers and tree changers … yes, we compete on occasion with the Liberal Party in some of those electorates, that’s part of the reason we’re branding ourselves now as the party unashamedly representing regional Australia. We’re not making claims or promises to win capital city seats … We want to be a team of local champions, to stand up for our local area and get results.”

While the party’s research has correctly identified the willingness of new frontier settlers, such as Flinthart and Bedak, to question and change their politics as much as their lifestyles, what is the chance the party can question and change its own politics in order to capture them?

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


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