April 2020


Inside the Nationals

By Paddy Manning
Photo of Barnaby Joyce

Barnaby Joyce. Photograph by James Tolich

As the National Party celebrates its centenary, its future is in the hands of bitter rivals Michael McCormack and Barnaby Joyce

Barnaby Joyce is not happy sitting on the back bench. In case there was any doubt, half a dozen framed letters of ministerial appointment are prominently displayed on the wall of his office in Parliament House. “I think I’ve been more ministers than most people in this building,” Joyce says. Signed off by prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, the letters are a constant reminder of the good old days, before his career exploded. Considered by Abbott to be the best retail politician in the country, Joyce is itching to get back in the fray. “It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying to someone in third grade, ‘Would you like to play first grade?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m just happy playing third grade.’ ”

Now the member for New England, Joyce rose from maverick Queensland Nationals senator – elected in an upset in 2004 – to party leader and deputy prime minister under Turnbull, but it all unravelled in early 2018 when it was revealed that his marriage had broken down, former staffer Vikki Campion was expecting his child, and he was threatened by unrelated sexual harassment allegations. As he wrote in Weatherboard and Iron – part memoir and part manifesto – it was the way of politics: up the stairs and out the window. At least Joyce knows how to have an impact from the back bench – during the Howard years, he crossed the floor nearly 20 times – and right now he has a bit more time on his hands.

The former leader is in an expansive mood when I speak to him ahead of the National Party’s centenary celebrations in March.

For Joyce, the outlook for the party is conditional. “As long as it challenges itself,” he says, “as long as it focuses on its constituency, then it’s got a great future, and it needs to have a great future.” He credits himself with changing the party culture from the “old-school, wool-tie and picnic-race club boys” to something more genuinely reflective of the regions. And he says his pet hate is when the Nationals lurk in the shadow of the Liberals, leaving voters unclear what the junior party for regional Australia stands for. “You’ve got to speak in a loud voice and bright colours, so people know you’re there. They don’t even have to agree with you.”

When he successfully ran against independent Tony Windsor for the seat of New England in 2013, Joyce became the only federal politician to have won back a seat for his party in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. He fears the Nationals are sliding into irrelevance, but reckons he knows how to stop it. “You don’t do it by saying, ‘I’m a stooge that’s only going to vote the way I’m told to vote’,” he says. “You do it by saying, ‘When the issue is right, I will vote on behalf of you.’ ” If that means crossing the floor, or even just threatening to do so, Joyce says that’s not being a renegade, “that’s a democratic right”.

Joyce’s latest stunt was to submit a private member’s bill to radically overhaul the Senate without going to a referendum. The bill would limit the representation of Australia’s six capitals to just two senators out of the 12 in each state, with the other 10 seats distributed among the regions. It is a malapportionment that would make Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Nationals’ long-serving premier of Queensland, blush. “Political representation brings investment,” Joyce says, “and investment brings the spread in population.”

It will never happen, but Joyce’s proposal speaks to the dilemma facing the Nationals. Hemmed in on all sides by political rivals – from One Nation to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, and a bevy of micro­parties and rural independents – the country party has no obvious source of electoral growth, and few seats it might hope to pick up. West of the divide, it’s all about protecting what it’s already got.

“They’re not going to disappear,” says ABC election analyst Antony Green. “The Coalition agreement protects them, in their weakened state. But they’re not about to grow.” Over the past 30 years, Green says, the Nationals have lost more seats to their Coalition partner, the Liberals, than to anyone else – and hardly ever won them back. “They’re struggling to maintain a separate identity to the Liberal Party,” he says. “That’s their biggest problem.”

When I ask the federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack about the Joyce proposal for regional senators he plays a dead bat, although he agrees there is a need for more representation in the bush. McCormack says the party does have growth prospects – he lists a handful of Labor-held seats in NSW and Queensland, and also hopes to regain Bob Katter’s giant Kennedy electorate when Katter retires. Longer-term, McCormack hopes to finally get federal representatives elected from Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, where the Nationals have hardly made inroads. “We’re not going to grow … unless we can get some of those outposts with representation here in Canberra,” he tells me. How that will suddenly be achieved, after a century, is not clear.

The Nationals cling to 16 lower-house electorates that are, on average, worse off financially than those represented by Liberal or Labor members. The seats in rural Queensland, NSW and Victoria tend on average to be older, less diverse and less well educated. Although rural commodity prices and land values remain buoyant, the share of acreage, output and income going to the agribusiness giants has risen markedly. Get big or get out is the mantra, as technology advances and farm employment declines. The overall population trend is downwards. Rural and regional Australians are suffering economic hits, including from trade wars and now the coronavirus mayhem. Since early 2017 – and longer in parts of Queensland – the Nationals heartland has suffered the worst drought on record. The woes have been compounded by the Black Summer of bushfire and smoke. Recent rains have raised spirits but the drought is not over – more than 90 per cent of NSW was still affected at the end of February.

Again McCormack applies the positive spin – “regional Australia ain’t broke,” he says, and he says it often – but it’s generic lines like these that leave many observers wondering if he can ever cut through as leader. Good natured and jovial in private, McCormack is wooden in public (one broadcaster said unkindly he could “bore for Australia”). Even ardent supporters don’t see him as a transformational leader of the party.

Hope has to come from somewhere, and it has to be real. Where McCormack talks blue sky, Joyce talks of regional depression and has done for years. In a letter responding to the very first issue of The Monthly, Joyce compared the view from the roof of a house in Melbourne or Sydney with that from a roof in Mungindi, on the border of NSW and Queensland. Take in the public infrastructure within 10 kilometres, Joyce wrote, and you’ll understand the kind of disparity of opportunity that fuels the likes of Pauline Hanson in the regions.

For Joyce, Senate reform is an unlikely attempt to address that disparity. At the very least, it provides colourful fodder for the Weatherboard and Iron podcast he runs with close friend and ally, Queensland Nationals senator Matt Canavan. Canavan, who once worked for Joyce as a staffer, was resources minister but stood down ahead of Joyce’s shock challenge against McCormack in early February. The two former ministers and their guests natter on in furious agreement about everything from regional senators to zonal taxation to the Adani mine and the plight of Julian Assange.

Joyce denies his pitch is populist. “Man, if I was a populist, I wouldn’t be supporting Assange… If I was a populist, there are so many things I’d just shut up about. I’ll give you one that I know a lot of your readers won’t agree with: I don’t believe in abortion. But I’ll tell you what – if I was a populist, I’d just shut up, because that is not a popular position to be in.”

So the Nationals find themselves in a curious situation. Two of the party’s most talented politicians – Joyce the former leader, and Canavan the rising star – languish on the back bench, freelancing on air and taking pot shots at the government. The situation is so unstable, it can’t last. Joyce and McCormack represent two sides of a smouldering argument over the future of the party, and nobody knows how it will resolve.

In response, National Party president and former leader Larry Anthony chooses his words carefully. “I can’t predict the future,” he says, “all I can do as president is to ensure I bring out the best in people. I think things have settled down, but ultimately everyone has to perform.”

The current trouble began in January when the Australian National Audit Office handed down a damning report into the $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program administered by the Nationals deputy leader and then sports minister, Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie. It found the grants were overwhelmingly funnelled into marginal seats in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election. The “sports rorts” affair spiralled: the Nationals were heavily involved in a series of grant programs that turned last May’s election into a multibillion-dollar pork-barrelling exercise. The $222 million Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, for which both McKenzie and McCormack had sat on selection panels, was the subject of a scathing report by the auditor-general. The $841 million Building Better Regions Fund, administered directly by McCormack, awarded 94 per cent of its grants to electorates held or targeted by the Coalition. The $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program, managed by McKenzie, was meant to develop community pools in remote and regional areas, but was overwhelmingly spent in marginal Liberal seats, including in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, where the North Sydney pool got $10 million.

Most damaging for the party, the sports rorts affair showed safe Nationals getting shafted in favour of Liberal-held marginals. A roller derby upgrade in Darren Chester’s electorate of Gippsland missed out despite scoring 98 out of 100 for eligibility using Sport Australia’s assessment criteria, while new change rooms for the Pakenham Football Club in the marginal Liberal seat of La Trobe received the maximum $500,000 grant, despite its score of 50, which should have disqualified it.

After a secret report by the head of the prime minister’s department found McKenzie had failed to disclose her membership of a gun club that received funding under the community sports program, she stepped down from cabinet as agriculture minister and from the deputy leadership – although subsequent evidence would show that the prime minister’s own office was deeply implicated in the funding decisions. With the deputy leader’s position up for grabs, Queensland MP Llew O’Brien moved for a spill of McCormack’s position as well. Joyce seized the opportunity to challenge for the leadership, standing on an out-and-out anti-green platform – more coalmines and coal-fired power stations, more water for irrigators and less for the environment, and no shift to emissions reduction in the wake of the bushfires.

The “country-minded” Nationals are fairly agricultural when it comes to leadership spills. The practice was completely unknown until stalwart Ian Sinclair was pulled down by the forgettable Charles Blunt in 1989. Sinclair was a casualty of the disastrous “Joh for Canberra” campaign that split the Coalition parties in 1987, and burned a lesson into the collective memory of conservative politicians: Queensland is different.

The Nationals’ convention is to conduct a secret ballot, after which the returning officer announces a result but not the numbers. McCormack was re-elected on February 4, but the Joyce camp claimed the vote was just 11 to 10. In the thick of the spill, Sky News put up a list of the supposed Joyce supporters. Most were from Queensland, but Victorian McKenzie was there too. Afterwards, O’Brien withdrew from the Nationals party room to sit as a lone member of the Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP), which was formed in a 2008 merger. There was even speculation that the Nationals’ Queenslanders might break away entirely – although party sources say that is exceedingly unlikely this side of October’s state election. Commentators talked of a north–south divide in the party, setting the sunshine state off against NSW and Victoria. The Member for Maranoa, David Littleproud, was elected deputy leader, helping to keep Queenslanders on side.

McCormack’s backers claimed their numbers were 15–6. The truth is likely somewhere in between. It is easy to count eight or nine likely Joyce supporters, suggesting the party remains divided. In Canberra folklore, a leadership challenge that goes close is often a prelude to a second, successful tilt. Asked if he had fired the one shot in his locker, Joyce is unequivocal.

“No, I’m not a quitter,” he says. “When I believe the job is done, you finish. It’s a democratic institution. I absolutely reserve my right for that challenge, and we did it. I lost. I just lost, but I lost, and that’s democracy. You’re allowed to sulk for a little bit because that’s human nature … You get over it and you move on. And now it’s the McCormack–Morrison government, and they’ve got to win. It’s over to them.”

Bridget McKenzie remains the party’s Senate leader, but is relishing the prospect of ranging widely from the back bench. She makes no comment on who she supported in the ballot. But she is keenly aware of the dilemma facing the Nationals whenever they’re in power, of how to differentiate themselves from the Liberals.

Speaking on the condition that the sports rorts affair would not be discussed, McKenzie points out that the threats from the right of politics are more pressing in Queensland, where the two parties have merged to form the LNP.

“All I can say is it’s easier when you have your own specialised political party and voice and representatives, as we do in NSW and Victoria and WA, to actually be able to articulate what the Nationals stand for, and what the concerns and needs are of the regions, than to try and have that conversation as a faction.”

In his book, Joyce said much the same thing: “… the LNP in Queensland is seen as the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Party in regional seats is seen as the Sydney–Melbourne Party”. The party’s challenge is differentiation, and if that turns into division, well, so be it.

Although a rough start to 2020 has taken the shine off the Nationals’ centenary, the country’s second-oldest political party does have things to celebrate. Firstly, they have survived. Larry Anthony says that feat, in itself, is amazing. “Every decade we’ve been written off,” he says.

Australian National University professor Ian McAllister, founder of the long-running Australian Election Study, says that of a wave of agrarian socialist parties set up around the Western world in the 1920s – all seeking government intervention and subsidies for the rural sector – only the Nationals are left standing. Australia’s electoral system is part of it, but McAllister says the real key is the permanent coalition with the centre-right Liberal Party. That has made the Nationals unique – a minor party, but also a party of government – and allowed it to survive even as the proportion of farmers in the national electorate has declined from just under one in five a century ago, to one in 50 now.

A second cause for the Nats to celebrate is that last May the party defied predictions and held on to all 16 of its lower-house seats, after a series of setbacks in state elections in Victoria and NSW. The rot had set in with the loss of the seat of Orange in a NSW byelection in November 2016, at the height of a backlash against Premier Mike Baird’s ban on greyhound racing, and council amalgamations – both issues that bit hard in the bush. There was a stunning 34 per cent swing against the Nationals in the previously ultra-safe seat, and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Phil Donato, a local police prosecutor, vaulted into parliament. More was to come.

Gabrielle Chan’s heartfelt 2018 book, Rusted Off, examined the growing resentment of rural voters, particularly the “neglected class” of mostly white workers in smaller regional towns, who feel disconnected from governing elites and could provide an Australian disruption comparable to the electoral shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016. Writing from her small farm near Harden-Murrumburrah, north-west of Yass, Chan was particularly inspired by the successful “Voices for Indi” campaign by independent Cathy McGowan in 2013, and the success of independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in the balance of power under the Gillard government. Windsor’s line was that country Australia represented 30 per cent of voters and could permanently be in the balance of power if it voted strategically.

Chan divided the history of the Nationals into four periods. The first was the formation of state-based farmers associations seeking political representation, leading to the formation of the Country Party in 1920. In the second, from 1920 to 1949, the Country Party experimented with levels of independence from the Liberal Party’s forerunners, the Nationalist and United Australia parties. The third period was a stable Coalition from 1949 to 1996, most notably in the Menzies government, supported by treasurer and Nationals hero John “Black Jack” McEwen, who was briefly prime minister. There were no rural independents for nearly half a century.

But in coalition, the party – renamed the National Party in 1982 – lost a measure of product differentiation and began to lose rural seats to the Liberals. Then in 1996, with the advent of the Howard government, three things happened: rural voters were shocked to find the Nationals under deputy prime minister Tim Fischer had embraced the same economic rationalist policies as Labor under Hawke and Keating (and banned semi-automatic rifles to boot); disendorsed Liberal Pauline Hanson was elected in the Queensland seat of Oxley, going on to form One Nation; and broadcaster Peter Andren was elected as independent member for the country NSW seat of Calare. Andren was followed onto the crossbench by Windsor, who won New England in 2001, and Bob Katter, the former Joh Bjelke-Petersen minister and member for Kennedy who quit the Nationals over the GST. A new era of political uncertainty had opened for the Nats, and has continued.

The Nationals’ big failing, Chan wrote, had been to align themselves with the “landed gentry”, cultivating “close connections to established landholders and the business class in rural Australia, while leaving behind the issues of the rural working class and underclass”. Those business connections, in mining and agribusiness, have proved divisive.

Australia’s China-fuelled resources boom in the 2000s spurred enormous growth in the coal industry in the regional heartland of NSW and Queensland, competing with farmers for land and water in some of the most fertile districts, and was compounded by the rise of fracking and the coal-seam gas export boom in the ensuing decade. The Nationals had always been pro-mining but too often they were now siding against farmers. Former leaders John Anderson and Mark Vaile both made small fortunes in resources after quitting politics.

Anderson, chairperson of Eastern Star Gas, profited in its sale to energy giant Santos, which is still trying to develop the Narrabri gas project it acquired in the 2011 deal. Vaile got a multimillion-dollar stake in the float of Nathan Tinkler’s coalminer Aston Resources, which had a contentious mine at Maules Creek. Larry Anthony has lobbied privately for the Chinese giant Shenhua, which has bought up farmland worth millions for its Watermark coalmine, hollowing out communities in a real-time demonstration of the miner’s curse. Anthony also did some media work for Clive Palmer, whose wife made a $300,000 donation to the Nationals at the last election – surprising, given Palmer was running a rival political party. A subsidiary of Adani also donated $100,000 to the Nationals ahead of the last election, although McCormack tells me he was not even aware of it. The connections are deep and ongoing. The current federal director of the National Party, Jonathan Hawkes, was at one time in a public affairs role at the Minerals Council of Australia. Matt Canavan’s brother John runs Winfield Energy, which last year made an unsuccessful $435 million bid for Queensland coking-coal miner Stanmore Coal.

In a 2019 interview, broadcaster Waleed Aly asked Michael McCormack whether he could name one occasion in which the Nats had backed farmers over miners. He couldn’t then, and a year later still can’t or won’t, preferring to talk about how the two industries complement each other. “Ag and mining don’t have to be in a competition and they aren’t,” he insists, pointing to many examples where mines and gas wells provide off-farm income during drought.

Barnaby Joyce has taken on miners pushing into prime agricultural land, including BHP’s proposed Caroona mine on the Liverpool Plains, which was later abandoned. He downplays his connection to mining magnate Gina Rinehart, who famously handed him a $40,000 cheque in 2017. “The most surprised person was me,” says Joyce, who declined the money after an uproar. “I’ve never been offered a job by any of these people … Gina and I haven’t really spoken maybe for two or three years.”

Even more divisive is the issue of water, which has dogged regional communities since the reforms kicked off by John Anderson and Malcolm Turnbull as ministers under Howard, and the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, which included water buybacks that angered irrigators.

When Turnbull took the Liberal leadership in 2015, he had to get the signature of the then Nationals leader, Warren Truss, on a new Coalition agreement to enable him to form government. Truss and Joyce drove a hard bargain, crowing in a press conference that they’d gotten everything they wanted. The details in their agreement were kept hidden from the public, but it tied Turnbull’s hands on climate change, same-sex marriage, the republic and more, and went a long way to explaining why the public never got the centrist prime minister they expected. Joyce got the water portfolio and proceeded to unpick the Murray–Darling Basin Plan to favour irrigators.

Former Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) executive Maryanne Slattery says the result is growing tension in basin communities – between north and south, and between previously dominant local irrigators who have been dwarfed by big overseas corporations, such as pensions funds, trading water rights.

Slattery says the farmers-versus-environment debate is a convenient furphy for both the Nationals and the Greens. “It suits either end of the political spectrum, to pitch these two white-and-black arguments, when really the issue is big corporates versus everyone else.”

As the drought worsened, with towns fed by the Darling progressively running dry, the divisions have turned poisonous. Slattery is advising a wealthy Riverina farmer, former mining and commodities executive Chris Brooks, who with a group of southern irrigators has broken away from the state body, the NSW Irrigators Council. Brooks funded both Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Helen Dalton’s successful tilt for the state seat of Murray in the 2019 NSW election, and Albury mayor Kevin Mack’s close run as an independent for the federal seat of Farrer. Brooks is not done yet, according to the latest Quarterly Essay by Margaret Simons, and is now leading a class action worth up to $1.5 billion against the MDBA.

The Coalition has both protected the National Party and stymied it. In the Howard era, from 1996 to 2007, the Nationals’ representation in the lower house nearly halved, dropping from 18 seats to 10. The Liberals picked up three former Nationals seats – Hume and Farrer in NSW, and Murray in Victoria. After losing the 2007 election, former Nationals leader John Anderson revived plans to fully amalgamate the two Coalition partners. Those plans had been conceived two decades earlier, in the 1988 report into the future of the Nationals by former politician Peter Nixon, which was commissioned in response to the disunity created by the “Joh for PM” campaign. In his report arguing for amalgamation, Anderson wrote that if things stayed the way they were, “the party will ultimately die”.

Joyce remembers hearing Anderson make the case for amalgamation in the party room. “They said, ‘Well, I think we’ve passed our use-by date. We should amalgamate with the Liberal Party.’ And I was saying, ‘Like hell.’” Joyce is a scrapper, admiring how McEwen threatened to bring down the Menzies government one day if he didn’t get his way on the wool trade. He says the Nationals have to treat the Liberals like a business partner, not their mates.

When former Kingaroy mayor Warren Truss took over as leader in 2007, with Joyce as deputy, they started to rebuild. “We fought tool and nail, tooth and claw to keep the National Party going,” says Joyce. “With Warren Truss and myself, we never lost a seat.” By 2013 the party was back up to 15 seats and in 2016 they added another.

For the Nats to hold on to all those seats in 2019 was as surprising as the Morrison victory itself, although much less remarked upon. McCormack kept his job as leader, and he suggests the results put paid to Gabrielle Chan’s Rusted Off analysis. “I look forward to the sequel,” he says, in a good-natured way, noting that Chan is one of his constituents.

Joyce’s pitch is not just to farmers, who he points out represent just 12 per cent of his electorate, but also to blue-collar workers generally. “That could be farmers,” he says, “and that could be people who work outside, who just feel they’re not represented anymore.” It’s a refrain heard in parliament every other day: that Labor has betrayed its working-class roots, and it’s the Nationals now who represent those people who pull on hard-capped boots and wear hi-vis. Joyce and his new family are moving out of their Armidale duplex and on to the family farm near Woolbrook, just north of Tamworth. Joyce describes it as “hillbilly heaven … [but] they’re my people. I love them.”

In keeping with Joyce’s blue-collar push, the Nationals hope to win the NSW federal seat of Hunter, held by Joel Fitzgibbon, the Opposition’s resources and agriculture spokesperson and head of the party’s tiny “Country Labor” caucus.

But asked what kind of threat the Nationals present to Labor, Fitzgibbon has a one-word answer: “Zero.” At the last election, when Fitzgibbon copped a large swing against him, it all went to One Nation, while the Nationals went backwards. Fitzgibbon says that while the Riverview-educated Joyce presents as a man of the people, he really is typical landed gentry, and the Nationals betray the very people they claim to represent.

“Their model is to keep those farmers on the land but as poor as they might be,” Fitzgibbon says. “This is why they’re so obsessed with the family farm, and so against corporate farming, because if you ever got that sort of consolidation in the farm sector west of the Great Dividing Range, they lose their political base. So they’re readying for this inevitability by trying to find this new working-class base. They’re attempting to chip away at Labor.”

Fitzgibbon reckons that if the Nats keep on going the way they’re going, they will be “eaten alive by One Nation, independents of the Bob Katter ilk, and at a state level, the Shooters and Fishers”. But that, he contends, is where Joyce remains relevant. “Whatever people might think of Barnaby Joyce, he’s a good retail salesman and he is capable of gaining traction in rural and regional seats. Whereas Michael struggles to be even known, let alone to persuade. But the big challenge for the Nats now is to product-differentiate themselves from the Libs, and Barnaby Joyce looks a lot more like product differentiation than Michael McCormack does.”

While McCormack and Joyce feud over the future of the Nationals, in the heartland seats where they live the ground is shifting beneath them.

The train from Sydney to Wagga Wagga, in Michael McCormack’s seat of Riverina, is slow, there’s no wifi and mobile coverage is patchy. Wagga’s mayor, Greg Conkey, describes the 40-year-old XPT train as a “disgrace”. At least it’s running – between Albury and Melbourne passengers switch to buses after a shocking derailment a fortnight earlier, which killed two pilotmen on a section of track maintained by the federal Australian Rail Track Corporation. In his role as infrastructure and transport minister, McCormack insists the trains are a state issue and notes there will be an investigation into the Victorian tragedy. “The XPT arriving late at Wagga Wagga is not Michael McCormack’s fault,” he tells me. It’s worth noting the Nationals have held the federal transport portfolio for 18 of the past 24 years.

Hanging round Wagga pubs on a Tuesday night and talking to locals, it seems the city likes having a deputy prime minister as its member, although most struggle to point to anything in particular they can thank him for. McCormack has his own list, including the new Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, “which we fought for, for decades”.

McCormack also cites the $900-million federal government investment in Wagga’s two defence force bases. And, of course, there’s the Nationals’ signature $9 billion inland rail project, to carry freight from Brisbane to Melbourne. The route is contentious and many analysts consider there is simply not enough freight volume to justify the investment.

None of this comes up at the Farrer Hotel, however, where the Wagga City Rugby Male Choir has a singalong most Tuesdays. One Labor voter among them speaks harshly of McCormack, but it is a Nationals voter who is more damning, albeit with faint praise: “We love him, but he’s not up to it.”

Independent mayor Conkey has known McCormack for 30 years – they were rival newspaper editors back in the ’80s, when McCormack was at The Daily Advertiser and Conkey at The Leader. Conkey tells me the deputy PM works hard to get across a large electorate, and attends every citizenship ceremony. He says Wagga is about to become the transmission hub for the national electricity market, with the state network Transgrid building high-voltage power lines from Snowy 2.0 to the South Australian border to support the vast solar farms opening up in the Riverina region. “Wagga will be the solar capital for Australia,” says Conkey.

For a long time Wagga voted Liberal at state level, but when long-serving member Daryl Maguire resigned in a cloud of corruption allegations in 2018, the independent Dr Joe McGirr swept the seat in another “rusted off” moment.

McGirr, too, differs with McCormack on climate change and thinks the Nationals are shifting. “There’s two discussions going on,” McGirr says. “There’s one, which is the culture war and the virtue signalling, and that’s about not being associated with the Greens … Then there’s the policy level, where I think there’s a large number of National Party people who accept the reality of climate change.”

Young doctor Trudi Beck grew up on a farm near Goulburn, moved to Wagga Wagga to study under the rural entry scheme, married a farmer and has started a family there. Over a quiet drink at the tables outside the Union Hotel, she tells me she thinks McCormack is stuck in the past, when women like her were in the home. “He longs for yesteryear,” she tells me.

From a conservative background, Beck turned politically active on climate ahead of the 2019 poll. She and a handful of professional mums started having picnics outside McCormack’s office every Friday morning, garnering national publicity. She is not a member of any party, but is helping to organise a Voices for Indi–style campaign in the Riverina for the next federal election.

Beck and her supporters infuriate McCormack. “That particular group has twice burst into my office,” he says, “against requests, and videoed my staff who, let me tell you, do not get paid to have people thrusting cameras and phones in their faces.” He says Beck would never vote for the National Party anyway, and should go volunteer for Meals on Wheels.

“I’m not so sure how long she’s been in town. It’s been a great city – was in yesteryear, is now, will be in the future. I’m not going to go down the Greens’ policies, or indeed, some of the lefty versions of the Labor Party policy … just to suit Trudi Beck. We took our climate policies to the last election and I was re-endorsed, the National Party won all our 16 seats and we got back into government. That’s the way democracy works.”

When I visit Tamworth in early March, it’s deceptively green and pleasant. Three months ago, according to local Adele Mazoudier, the city looked like “Armageddon”, encircled by bushfires in the nearby hills, suffering from the smoke and heat, and with trees and gardens dying everywhere. The city has been on strict water restrictions for nearly six months, the local Chaffey Dam is only 14 per cent full, and the region is still in drought. Now, though, it’s “green drought” – grass has sprung up, but the subsoil is dry and the bores are still empty. Yet Barnaby Joyce would rather shout at the clouds – as he did in a recent Facebook post – than do something about climate change.

Mazoudier is a retired teacher and former principal of the city’s Westdale Public School, and I meet her by chance in the tiny growers’ market by the Peel River on a fine Saturday morning. The river is full and brown and still, the kids are out in the playgrounds, and the coffees and bacon-and-egg rolls from one of the stalls are going down nicely. Decades ago, Mazoudier was state secretary of the Young Country Party. She was appalled when the ABC revealed its successor, the Young Nationals, had been infiltrated by far-right extremists, who were swiftly driven out after an internal investigation. “It’s an indication of cultural problems in the organisation,” Mazoudier says.

Mazoudier and her partner have a hobby farm out of town. She lost her stepson, Hamish, to suicide three years ago. The young man had mental health problems and was due to face court over minor criminal charges. “We believe the reason that Hamish took his life was he thought he was going to go to jail,” Mazoudier says. His mental health report was not provided to the magistrate, because the court liaison officer position was unfilled at Tamworth’s Banksia House mental health unit.

Mazoudier says Hamish’s story is not uncommon, and fits a broader picture: Tamworth has high levels of youth unemployment, smoking, obesity, domestic violence and suicide. The public schools face 40-degree days without air-conditioning, the internet is hopeless, the hospital is ill-equipped. Servicing a population of more than 60,000, Tamworth is the biggest city in Australia without a university. “That’s all totally unacceptable,” Mazoudier says, “and I think you’d be flat out to find anyone who isn’t ‘rusted on’, as we call them, who is happy with the way we’ve been treated. The National Party has sold out country people at all sorts of levels – they’ve sold out in health, they’ve sold out in education, they’ve sold out in infrastructure.”

In the pubs of Tamworth, Joyce is predictably divisive. At the Imperial Hotel, early, a young cattle farmer with an angry mullet and covered in tattoos – including a Eureka flag on his throat – tells me he hates Joyce, who he says has done nothing for farmers. He does rate his state MP, Kevin Anderson, also a National, who has a cattle property near his own.

Later, I get a glimpse of the landed gentry celebrating on a Friday night in the beer garden under a leafy pagola out the back of the Tamworth Hotel. Not much weatherboard and iron here. There’s a wedding party down from Queensland – the men in pastel check shirts with the collars turned up, jeans and boat shoes, the women dressed to the nines. It’s an illustration of a point Joyce makes in response to those who call him a de facto Queensland politician: the north of his electorate is on Queensland time, and is much closer to Brisbane than Sydney.

When I sit down with Tamworth mayor Col Murray in the chambers, he tells me early on he is “a fairly solid Barnaby supporter”. Murray is a carpenter by trade who set up his own business, and describes his politics as conservative. Although he’s an independent, he has been criticised in the past for politicising the council by endorsing Nationals candidates. Nonetheless, like Mazoudier, Murray is a big fan of Tony Windsor, whom he says had an ability to negotiate and build relationships that was “very, very rare”. If the Nationals had played their cards right, in Murray’s view, Windsor might have led the party and “he could have been PM”.

Murray is secretary of the Regional Capitals Australia lobby group comprising mayors from 22 regional cities across the country. He believes the Nationals have had the fear of god put into them by the return of Hanson and the loss of NSW seats to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers. “I really think the Nats have had a strong reminder that they need to remain relevant,” Murray says. That means remaining relevant to the future of the regions, not just the past.

Murray doesn’t always align with National Party thinking. He describes cotton- and rice-growing in Australia as an anomaly, for example, saying “I’m not convinced, myself, that we’ve got enough water to service those.” He is trying to find a middle way on climate change, without stooping to culture wars. He recognises deep community divisions over the controversial proposal for a wind farm near the village of Nundle, south of Tamworth, but declines to take sides. He doesn’t support a Tamworth climate emergency declaration, but points enthusiastically to practical initiatives the council is taking, such as investing heavily in 11 different solar projects and methane recovery at the tip. And he seems aware there is a lot of upside to taking action, too.

“One of the things I really struggle with,” Murray says, “is we’ve got this incredible opportunity in Australia as a clean, green leader in agricultural production, and yet we don’t have the political will or the understanding of the opportunity for future generations that are here and with us now, but probably in another 10 years won’t be … The Nats are pattering about, trying to understand what all that looks like, but they’re too distracted with what’s happened yesterday and they haven’t got the visionary strategies out there before the government, and before the people, for the benefit of those they represent.”

The Nationals celebrated their centenary on a wet Friday in Melbourne, with leaders past and present gathering inside the state parliament for a photo before convening an old-timey re-enactment of the first speech explaining why it was necessary to have a new political party representing the primary producers of Australia. We then rose for both anthems – “Advance Australia Fair” and “God Save the King” – and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Addressing the wood-and-leather legislative assembly, where the federal parliament sat before Canberra was built, Michael McCormack opened proceedings with an Acknowledgement of Country. It would never have happened in 1920, and seemed incongruous given the Nationals have a lamentable track record on land rights and native title.

Kristian Jenkins, the director of the party’s think tank, the Page Research Centre, dressed up as the party’s first federal leader, Tasmanian MP William McWilliams, sporting a bushy moustache. The trained actor Jenkins delivered some of McWilliams’ first speech as leader, outlining just where the Country Party stood at the very beginning.

“We take no part in the deliberations of ministerialists or of the Opposition,” he said. “We intend to support measures of which we approve, and hold ourselves absolutely free to criticise or reject any proposals with which we do not agree. Having put our hands to the wheel, we set the course of our voyage.”

Overwhelmingly full of white males, if the chamber was photographed in sepia it might have been casually mistaken for the original sitting a hundred years earlier.

“We crave no alliance,” McWilliams had gone on to say. But such fierce independence did not last long. The Country Party soon realised that its best course lay precisely in an alliance, with the Liberals, and that’s how things have remained – a party preserved, outlasting its rural counterparts around the world.

The party’s celebrations went on into the night, closed to media. In his keynote speech on the party’s achievements over a century, published in The Australian, president Larry Anthony boasted of the Nationals’ more recent “key role in removing opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 on climate change policy, and again in 2018 as prime minister on the same policy”.

So the Nationals carry on – a handbrake on progress, applied in the name of rural and regional Australia but holding back the people who live there. And nowhere is this more evident than on the issue of global warming. McCormack acknowledges his party’s constituents are on the climate frontlines and will be most impacted. “We get hit,” he says, “but let me tell you what, we always did, back from the time when Macquarie and others started [the first farms]. We were always hardest hit by the effects of weather, by the effects of climate. We’ve been hardest hit from day dot, by fires, by floods, by everything else that besets our nation. Regional Australia cops it the worst.” Maybe that’s just how the Nationals like it.

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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