09 December 2008

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 has ensured that the country's driest state never goes thirsty again snagged herself a possie in Cabinet, the Labor government falls over itself to help her constituency. In WA, the Nats have ensured that the fruits of the minerals boom are put to good use at least secured a promise that the school might get a lick of paint or that a road from nowhere to nowhere else might become the sort of superhighway that people in the eastern states might visit on their holidays.

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 if when the next Coalition government comes around and ride it until that government loses office. The Barnabyites, on the other hand, want to be the brokers of government for the major parties - in the event of a tight race, the major party that concedes most to the Nats wins government of the country.

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.


  1. "Barnabyites" Interesting viewpoint Andrew.

    In fact, your outline here used to be (many decades ago) a commonplace of Australian politics:- the Country Party will go with whatever party gives them the most.

    I recall at the time of the Gair appointment to Ireland that Whitlam/Sneddon managed a sort of joint soundbite revolving around "the old whore of Australian politics" with Whitlam referring to the Country Party and Sneddon getting confused.

    Your analysis also reflects the actual vote flow in the bush - if there isn't a National party candidate then many of those votes can end up going to the ALP as the rural poor can't bring themselves to vote for Liberal city slickers.

  2. That's why three-cornered contests (Nat-ALP-Liberal) are no bad thing for the Coalition, JM - the Labor vote generally goes down. The Queensland ALP have learned that porkbarrelling works for them and the environment is the loser as a result.

  3. excellent analysis. The LNP will fragment whenever the next Qld state election is called so its all upside for Labor.

  4. Too early to tell, wishful thinking on your part I suspect.

  5. Excellent analysis, Andrew. The Nationals are a subject of constant fascination to me: they're a party with a constituency but not much ideology. No other party is QUITE so blatant about being in it entirely to score favours for their constituents.

    Of course, the natural extension of such a purpose would be a National Party that sold itself to the highest bidder at each election. Royalties for Regions, the WA Nats plan, is far more left-wing in its big-government, big-spending, egalitarian intent than anything Carpenter had on offer. A Barnabised National Party with only vague social objectives (because really, banning gay marriage doesn't buy tractors) but a clear commitment to populist economics (Whitlamist in its spending, Ruddist in its pragmatism) would be a very dangerous political player -- dangerous, that is, for the major parties. Such a party could even compete in the 'provincial' heartland of Labor, the Hunter and the Illawarra.

    Could our two-party duopoly be on the verge of collapse?

  6. No, it'll be Labor and Liberal with the Nats joining the Greens etc. as "honest brokers" - little honesty but plenty broke.

    My favourite example of Nat pragmatism was their railing against communism while at the same time selling wheat-n-wool to the USSR and what was then known as "Red China". The kind of duplicity involved in the oil-for-food scandal is eminently understandable in that light.

    If Whitlam were reading this he'd pick you up on your spelling of 'unrepentant', comrade.

  7. Oops -- boy, is my face red.

    By breakdown of the duopoly, I didn't mean Prime Minister Barnaby storming the citadel, Treasurer Brown by his side. I meant a move closer to the German or New Zealand model, whereby no party can hold a majority and genuine negotiations are required with minor parties. The Coalition is largely nominal, and has been for decades -- it's a party, just not organised as one.

    Even in so-called 'multi-party' systems, there really are almost no countries where more than two parties have a genuine chance of forming government -- there are two broad-based parties, who will provide the prime minister, and masses on either side. The Nationals' power was originally based on their potential to bring down the government by crossing the floor -- a laughable prospect today, but they will only regain some purpose if that possibility is regained.

  8. NZ system: different, I'll grant you ... but better? I thought Clark disgraced herself by doing a deal with Winston Peters and the NZ Greens gained about as much as Meg Lees did when she passed the GST.