The Politics    Thursday, September 10, 2020

‘We’re not anti-koala’

By Paddy Manning

Image of NSW Deputy Premier and state Nationals leader John Barilaro

NSW Deputy Premier and state Nationals leader John Barilaro. Via Facebook

NSW Nationals pitch Berejiklian government into crisis

From the wrecking-ball school of politics, NSW Deputy Premier and state Nationals leader John Barilaro has today thrown the Berejiklian government into chaos over koala conservation policy just when it is battling both a pandemic and a recession. At a stunning press conference, a barely comprehensible Barilaro announced that all Nationals MPs would join the crossbench over the issue – leaving Premier Gladys Berejiklian with a minority government – but they would keep their ministries and remain in cabinet. Go figure. In a statement, the Nationals said its MPs would not attend joint partyroom or parliamentary leadership meetings until the koala dispute was resolved, and would abstain from voting on government bills, but the party “reserves the right to support bills and motions that are important to regional NSW”. Although he was triggering a state crisis to oppose a planning policy designed to protect habitat of the declining koala population, Barilaro said the National Party “stands for a thriving population” and wanted to see the koala population double. “We’re not anti-koala,” Barilaro said, “and this idea, that somehow the National Party is anti-koala, is wrong.” An emergency meeting between Berejiklian and her wayward deputy was underway this afternoon, and perhaps by the time state parliament resumes next week Barilaro’s koala stunt will be fading into the long history of Liberal–National spats. As of this afternoon, however, Opposition Leader Jodi McKay was right to observe that “the government is no longer functioning”. 

Barilaro’s antics are a free kick for Labor, which has otherwise been struggling – like opposition parties around the country – to cut through during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, McKay raised some important questions at her presser this afternoon. “I don’t know how you can walk into cabinet and be bound by cabinet solidarity,” she said, “and then walk into parliament and not support government legislation.” Likewise, McKay questioned how the Nationals can be part of the Coalition yet still sit on the crossbench. She urged Barilaro to rip up the Coalition agreement – the deal between Liberal and National parties that underpins the state government. The fact that Barilaro has baulked to do that suggests this is all about grandstanding rather than a serious split. Is this what the NSW Nationals have to do to get a turnout at a press conference these days? Constitutional law expert Anne Twomey has said that all National Party ministers should immediately resign because “their continuance in office would be a fundamental breach of the constitutional principle of responsible government”.

Nature Conservation Council chief executive Chris Gambian said in a statement that the koala planning policy was one small measure to ensure the animals do not become extinct in NSW by 2050. “Wanting to retain the right to kill koalas is an extraordinary hill for the Nationals to want to die on, but here we are,” said Gambian. “The Nationals have dictated environmental policy to the Liberal Party and the whole state for a decade. They’ve ramped up land clearing, defended feral pests, bungled water management and intensified logging after the bushfires.”

Barilaro is a protégé of former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who says the junior party should keep its distance from the Liberals, and that the Libs should be treated as business partners, not friends. Joyce himself harks back fondly to the days of former leader John “Black Jack” McEwen, who stormed into the office of then prime minister Robert Menzies with a resignation letter in his pocket, threatening to bring down the government if he didn’t get his way on the wool trade. But Barilaro is not a politician of the same stature as McEwen – the former was memorably said to be in the political “Z-grade”. Barilaro last came to attention during his short-lived tilt at the federal electorate of Eden-Monaro, apparently a prelude to a mooted challenge to Nationals leader Michael McCormack, but which exploded within hours, leaving egg on everybody’s faces (and no doubt helping Labor’s Kristy McBain to win the seat). The Nationals need cut-through in the face of rural independents and candidates from One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, but not if cut-through looks like Barilaro. The Nationals are better off with a safe pair of hands. 

The Nationals and Liberals have split before – twice in Victoria, for example – although (to my knowledge) no prior dispute has brought down a serving government. If Berejiklian has any strength, she will do as upper house Liberal MP Catherine Cusack demanded yesterday and sack Barilaro. That will no doubt trigger a leadership challenge. At a time when 300,000 people are unemployed in NSW – including 30,000 in the regions – who’s got time for cries for help from self-serving pollies like Barilaro, who think it’s all a game? 

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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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