Why can’t the Liberal Party call the National Party’s bluff and put an end to this dog-wagging blight on the Australian polity?
Without the Liberals showing some spine, it can only get worse. It is now obvious that Barnaby Joyce’s unsuccessful tilt at the leadership is not over. The election this week of Joyce supporter Llew O’Brien as Deputy Speaker over the Nationals’ official candidate – with the help of some deliciously calculated tactical voting by Labor – shows Joyce’s continued profound influence on the party and therefore its policies.
It means the anti-charismatic leader Michael McCormack will always be looking over his shoulder and, worse, will be paralysed when it comes to any sensible agreement with the Liberal Party, if such a thing is possible, over a range of policies, particularly climate change, environment, energy and governance.
The Liberal Party has always allowed the National Party tail to wag the government dog. The Nationals sided with the far right of the Liberal Party to cripple Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull through the joint party room on same-sex marriage, energy and climate.
If Turnbull had early on had the political kajones to call their bluff and pursue the policies that opinion polls suggested made him so popular initially, the nation would be in a better state. They could hardly have turfed him out if he was on top of the polls.
National Queensland Senator Matt Canavan (he who cannot get his parliamentary declaration of interests right) supported Joyce’s leadership because he thought rural and regional Australia needed a bigger voice in government to match the city greenies. McCormack, too, has lambasted city greenies for having too much influence. But this is a Trumpian self-pitying piece of fakery. The truth is the Nationals have far too much voice in Canberra in comparison to their voter base.
In 2019, the Nationals got about 7.5% of the vote. For that they got 10.5% of the Members of the House of Representatives (16). Overall, they have 21 Members and Senators, six of them are Ministers and two are Assistant Ministers in portfolios that control nearly all of the very things important to rural and regional Australia.
The Greens, on the other hand, got 10.4% of the vote but just one Member of the House of Representatives (0.65% of Members) and nine Senators. They have no ministries. It is the Green view whose voice is under-represented in the Federal sphere compared to their voter base.
Further, it is the climate-and-environment-concerned city voters generally whose views are under-represented in Australian Government policy-making. The call this week by Independent MP Zali Steggall for a conscience vote on an emissions-reduction and renewables-promotion plan illustrates the point. She urges that MPs be permitted to vote according to either their conscience or how their electorates think. She estimates that with Labor, the crossbench and a considerable number of Liberals, a solid emissions-reduction law would pass the Parliament.
This is not to suggest that that would happen. But the fact it won’t illustrates how the National Party tail is wagging the whole Government dog against the national interest.
Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the public wants greater action on the climate crisis so Australia can be in a stronger position to call on other nations to do more. The public wants more action on renewables, endangered species, the Murray-Darling Basin and action on corruption.
The Nationals, on the other hand, have sold out their traditional voter base of family farmers and regional small business to big agriculture and big mining.
The Nationals should never be allowed the Agriculture ministry. Within a couple of years of Barnaby Joyce getting Agriculture and then having Water added to his ministries, dead fish by the hundreds of thousands floated in the algae-infested Darling River. The Nationals had handed over far too much water to the big croppers and the water-market dealers to the cost of small farmers, the water supply of regional communities, and the environment upon which we all depend.
And Joyce wonders why the Nationals are losing to Pauline Hanson and the Shooters.
Rather than conspiring with this dog wagging, the sensible people in the Liberal Party (hopefully a majority) should demand that the party leadership cut the Nationals loose as a reputational hazard.
The reputational hazard comes from a long history of the Nationals grabbing as much public money as possible for their pet projects, irrespective of merit. They socialise the loses and capitalise the gains. Canavan’s latest urging for publicly funded coal-fired power stations is typical.
Handing out money to mates is in the Nationals’ DNA. Former Nationals Minister Bridget McKenzies’ corrupt efforts to favour her own with sports grants now seems to have infected the whole Coalition modus operandi.
Good investigative journalism has now revealed that $640 million under six grants schemes was handed out in the six months before the last election in Coalition or Coalition-targeted seats. Nearly all the schemes required the community or sporting group to give the relevant Minister a chance to attend the public function where the grant was to be announced.
This is not mere low-level pork-barrelling, it is corruption. And also exposed this week was a Nationals plan to artfully shift official business so all its MPs could attend a party 100th anniversary shindig at taxpayer expense.
And this is the Government that talks about the evils of government spending waste and is ambivalent about setting up a strong anti-corruption commission.
Secrecy and unaccountability are gaining ground in Australia. Even the Coalition agreement itself is not a public document. The public is not to know what the Liberals have promised the Nationals. And it does not look as if the Liberals took a long spoon to the table.
Mercifully, most social issues are state matters, otherwise the Nationals’ poisonous influence on same-sex marriage (a federal power) would have dog-wagged troglodyte positions on abortion, capital punishment, drug policy and a raft of other issues into the national legislative agenda. But beware the cause of “religious freedom” being used as a Trojan horse to burn the torch on these things for the National Part.
There are two more reasons the Liberals should cut the Nationals loose. They are a threat to the Liberal Party’s entrepreneurial spirit. We should embrace and promote new, efficient technologies not cling to the old because they are owned by people who give political parties money. But the National Party has captured the Liberals to the extent that Prime Minister Scott Morrison says asinine things like not changing one bit on climate or energy policy if it costs so much as one job in coal. We would still be harvesting whales for oil for lighting if that attitude had prevailed in the past.
Besides, there are very few jobs in the increasing automated coal industry compared to renewables.
Finally, in an increasingly authoritarian and populist world, it is imperative that major democracies do not succumb to the unintelligent, evidence-free nonsense pushed by the likes of Joyce, Canavan and, alas, a dangerously increasing number of far-right Liberals, such s the bushfires being lit by eco-terrorists. Really?
Sensible Liberals should call this lot’s bluff. They should remove this barnacle from tbeir underside and institute some market-driven emissions and renewables policy. What are the Nationals going to do? Install a Labor Government? Hardly.
Crispin Hull. This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 15 February 2020.