Sold down the river
There are basically two factions in the Nationals. In NSW they used to talk about a North of the State vs South of the State, or west of the Great Divide versus the North Coasters - but now the battle for the Nationals is joined and, appropriately, it is a national one.
One faction is the Coalitionists, the genteel duffers who have led the party to steady decline but have secured quiet backroom influence with Liberals when in government, when they are disposed to listen. From Doug Anthony through the de-clawed Ian Sinclair to that wombat-in-headlights Mark Vaile, the Coalitionists have been in the ascendancy through sheer weight of patronage ... when the Liberals can carry them into government, that is.
The other faction is the Barnaby faction, the bomb-throwers who think the best way to get loot for their constituencies is to distance themselves from the Liberals and cut the best deal going with whichever major party is most desperate for office.
Given the fact that the Liberal Party does not have the lock on power that it did in the thirty years or so following 1949, it is the latter who have the momentum with them. In South Australia Karlene Maywald
The Federal Nats have become as irrelevant to the Liberals as their own moderates are. The Coalitionists in their ranks just want to sit around and lose seats - possibly including that of their own leader, Warren Truss - to the ALP or the independents. On the other hand, Truss and the other Coalitionists would hope to position themselves in order to get back on the gravy train
Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter are honorary Barnabyites (whether they know it or not) and loathe the Coalitionists. If Barnabyites take over the Nationals they may be enticed back, particularly if there is a tight race between Labor and the Libs.
Not that this is an issue at the moment. Even Blind Dennis can see the Libs are not an alternative government. This is mainly because they are policy-lazy, not offering an alternative and hiding such plans as they do have like a dowager vouchsafing her modesty. In a party where Tony Abbott is considered an intellectual and Nick Minchin a master tactician, sharp and fresh thinking on Australia today and the policies that might best serve it is too much to expect. Nonetheless, the Liberals will eventually get sick of losing and will toss some of the holdovers from Howard that are a little too precious at this stage, a little too raw this soon after defeat; they won't let Turnbull do that, not now, not yet, and if he pushes it they'll turn on him.
Labor will welcome a decoupled Nationals with open arms, particularly if they split the LNP and return Anna Bligh in Queensland (along with the poster boy for born-to-rule ALP apparatchiks, Andrew Fraser) as seems likely. NSW, Victoria and SA Labor are old hands at managing the Nationals, and if Chris Evans starts consulting some of Labor's experienced Nat-wranglers on Senate tactics, it will be Minchin who'll be a foregone conclusion. Rudd can do that boy-from-Eumundi stuff to build bridges with the Nats better than Turnbull ever could.
At the next election the Nationals will appear refreshed and vigorous by comparison with all those braying kill-the-Nats Liberals like Heffernan or Alby Schultz. Crusties like them aren't the future of anything, and won't win seats from a reinvigorated Nat-Labor alliance. However, they won't accept any blame - that will go to Turnbull, who is done for if he lets the Coalition fall apart. The Liberal Party held its breath when it shackled itself to that monstrous ego, but if he seeks to take the Liberals too far into unknown territory they will not go with him.
Malcolm Turnbull has to demonstrate that he can win seats in the bush, but not to the point where he threatens the Nationals. Turnbull has to paint the big picture on Australia's economic future, while including the rustics as a community-service obligation. Turnbull has to manifest an appeal that will win the Liberals a clear majority of seats in their own right, obviating an looming ALP-Nationals alliance, something that has happened only a few times in living memory and which looks highly unlikely for 2010.
The sole issue on which the Nationals, and the Coalition, will live or die is on water flow into the Darling River. Barnaby Joyce is of one mind with the large-scale irrigators of southern Queensland, and is happy to ignore those rural Australians down-river from St George. If Labor are too, the Nationals will deal with them - but any hope for the Murray-Darling basin will die, and on Rudd's watch, for the most despicably craven political reasons.
The Nationals' worst-case scenario is if they do a deal with Labor, only for them to tank and for Malcolm Turnbull to become the first Liberal Prime Minister since Joseph Cook who doesn't need or want a Coalition with the bushies.