The tradition-bound party of the bush is in all sorts of strife
Old-fashioned, boofheaded organisation mishandles complaint about sexual harassment … you wouldn’t read about it. But there is a deeper problem gnawing at the Nationals: who exactly do they represent nowadays, and what’s the future?
Normally the former Country Party is the back paddock of Australian politics, and it feels kind of strange to see them in the news every day. The latest in the tit-for-tat war is over the party’s handling of the confidential and disputed allegations against former leader Barnaby Joyce by former WA Rural Woman of the Year Catherine Marriott. WA Nationals leader Mia Davies is fending off an internal party backlash triggered by her crucial intervention in the debate, for expressing no-confidence in the then deputy PM. Davies told the ABC today that any suggestion her intervention, partly informed by knowledge of Marriott’s confidential complaint, was part of a conspiracy to knock off Joyce was “ridiculous”. Fairfax Media’s Mark Kenny reported this morning that there was an “avalanche of allegations” coming against Joyce, who has responded that the report containing the allegations is “patently absurd”.
For many of us Mia Davies’ intervention was in fact a surprise reminder that the WA Nationals have no representation at all in the federal parliament, and never have. Ditto South Australia, Tasmania and of course our bush capital, the ACT. In fact, the Nationals is a complete misnomer. It should be called the Western-Half-of-the-Eastern States Party, or something, plus a bloke from the Northern Territory. The whole Barnababy crisis was a surprise reminder that the PM couldn’t sack his deputy because of that confidential Coalition agreement, which binds the government to a whole bunch of unpopular policy positions and is arguably the main reason why Australia feels like it’s driving with the handbrake on. The Nationals’ comic, almost endearing inability to stage a leadership coup was a surprise reminder that they are nevertheless factionalised. Finally, Joyce’s resignation was a surprise reminder that the Nationals are drawn from a very thin talent pool. Hardly anybody knew who any of these blokes were (there are only two women in the Nationals’ party room, deputy leader Bridget McKenzie and Queenslander Michelle Landry, out of 21 MPs). McCormack who? Littleproud what? Perhaps the only Nats with real name recognition are Senator Matt Canavan, for being a possible dual citizen, and everything-phobic floor-cross-threatener George Christensen, who wants his party to quit the Coalition altogether.
In short, for such a long-lived institution the Nationals are surprisingly vulnerable, organisationally and electorally. Country areas are ageing and depopulating (only likely to accelerate as the country hots up). Plenty of farmers have felt betrayed by Nationals who put mining and onshore gas first, agriculture second, and in many cases have jumped straight into bed with resource companies after politics. And in Queensland and NSW the Nationals are under siege from the far right – Hanson, Katter, and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. What power they have, the Nationals are clinging to, barely.
The Nationals’ strong performance at the 2016 federal election has been much commented upon, but it is surprising how narrow the voter base is. The party only won lower house representation in three eastern states. Now this fairly agricultural analysis is far from perfect, but if we add the first preference vote of the six victorious LNP candidates who sit in the Nationals party room – from the seats of Capricornia, Dawson, Flynn, Hinkler, Maranoa and Wide Bay – to the Nationals primary vote in the rest of the country, 624,555 (4.6 per cent), we get 853,189 primary votes, making 6.3 per cent of the country. This delivers 16 seats in the House of Representatives (or just over 10 per cent of the 150 seats). It’s the concentration of Nationals’ support in those 16 seats, combined with the Coalition prohibition against three-cornered contests, that gives country voters outsize influence over the rest of Australia, via the Coalition agreement. By banding together, and ignoring seats they can’t win or don’t aspire to represent, the Nationals concentrate their resources and get results.
Contrast the Greens. They contest every House of Representatives seat – boosting their Senate vote – and at the last election got 1.4 million primary votes, representing 10.2 per cent of the country. They scored just one seat in the lower house, Adam Bandt’s seat of Melbourne. Greens voters are spread out all over the place, but there are concentrations of support, most particularly in inner-city Melbourne, but also Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra combined with the odd outpost like Hobart and Byron Bay. For the sake of comparison, take the Greens’ 16 best seats in 2016. Combined, 321,593 voters in these electorates put the minor party first, and the Greens generally polled third. Imagine if progressive, cosmopolitan Australia was to wise up and adopt the same strategy as their country cousins – a mirror-image, in some form of coalition with Labor, not just occasionally and traumatically, but on a regular basis. An inner-city copycat – add that to the Nationals’ nightmares.
since this morning
Two years after losing the race for secretary-general, the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark has told Crikey [$] “the UN has to be better, and I think it is struggling”.
The Guardian reports that a pro-gun lobby group that helped to bankroll One Nation’s push for seats in the Queensland state election has links to a far-right anti-Islam group whose leader once called for Adolf Hitler’s portrait to be hung in classrooms.
in case you missed it
The ABC reports that two Bureau of Meteorology employees are being investigated by the Australian Federal Police for allegedly running an elaborate operation involving the use of the bureau’s powerful computers to mine cryptocurrencies.
Alex Turnbull, the prime minister’s son, has told The Australian [$] that he was sidelined from his executive position at a global investment bank after blowing the whistle on billions of dollars of allegedly dodgy deals done with scandal-ridden Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
On his way to Chile for the TPP signing ceremony, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo spoke to ABC RN Breakfast about the possibility that Australia will be exempted from US President Donald Trump’s new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
The Australian reports [$] that Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government leads the Coalition 52 to 48 per cent on two-party-preferred terms, an election-winning lead.
A feature in The Australian explores [$] how gentrification is turning former Labor seats like Melbourne’s Batman into Greens heartland. Meanwhile, Crikey reports [$] that Cate Faehrmann, former NSW state Greens MP and chief of staff to Richard Di Natale, is bringing legal action against the Greens’ NSW branch over a looming preselection.
The ABC reports that on the eve of International Women’s Day Energy Australia shut the gender pay gap, announcing women will be paid the same as male colleagues for doing the same job. Energy Australia will be spending $1.2 million to boost salaries of 350 women who were getting less than their male counterparts.
Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and the Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
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