16 November 2009

Adding value

Peter van Onselen has been emotive and sentimental in overlooking the fact that a structural separation of the Liberal and Nationals would benefit both parties. Using the word "divorce" likens the Coalition to a family, with children and chattels to think of, when it is really more like the kind of corporate demergers that release value for all involved.

It is a distinct possibility that the Liberal and National parties could go their separate ways, just as they did ahead of the ill-fated 1987 election campaign during the ill-conceived "Joh for PM" push.

It's not 1987 any more, Peter. The Liberal Party has been able to represent itself to rural and regional voters as a legitimate representative of their interests. This outreach to regional communities, made possible by changes to transport and communications which make cities and regions less remote from one another, breaks down the sense of implacable divide implicit in the idea that only the Nats can effectively represent rural Australia.

Some Liberals, especially those representing non-metropolitan electorates, are dissatisfied with the Coalition because the Nationals, despite being the junior partner, are heavily represented in the allocation of rural and regional portfolios such as trade, regional development, agriculture and fisheries.

This was probably an issue when the Coalition was in government: not now. Why is trade a "rural and regional portfolio", when most of Australia's exports come overwhelmingly from the major cities? Given that Mark Vaile made such a has of the US Free Trade Agreement, why have they been allowed anywhere near this issue? Why aren't health, education or even Broadband & The Digital Economy "rural and regional portfolios"?

Equally, some Nationals are sick of their party being treated as the poor cousin in the Coalition relationship. They feel they don't get enough respect for what they bring to the table as a party representing the non-metropolitan regions prepared to follow the Coalition line on most issues.


So, the Nats don't get everything they want - does this make them "the poor cousin", or just another bunch of whingers? How about some analysis of how good they've had it, and a link to the degree to which they are obliged to STFU.

If they don't, it will guarantee that the conservatives don't win their way back into government for many years to come, as happened after the 1987 split.

The Coalition split over Joh was history by the following election in 1990. It wasn't drawn-out, like the Labor split over Communism in the 1950s and '60s.

It's true the Nationals benefit - and they know it - from the funds generated by taking a share of the public funding from the joint Senate tickets in NSW and Victoria. But if the Coalition were broken, alternative revenue sources would fast open up if the Nationals pursued a populist policy approach in the bush, which is exactly what they would do. And the electoral benefits would soon follow as well.

The downside for the Nationals breaking from the Coalition is that while they would likely maintain or even increase their representation in parliament, they would do so at the expense of achieving a share of power incumbency brings. The reason the Nationals are a political force able to disproportionately deliver for regional communities is because they are regularly part of a Coalition in government.

If they know that they benefit, why don't they stop whingeing? If they think they can make as much or more after a Coalition split, why bother with the Coalition at all - just grab the new opportunities with both hands. Why this gutless sniping followed by cloying declarations of fealty to the Libs and Turnbull? Never mind the nostalgia act Peter, the better story is to call it as it is.

If the Nats cut themselves off from funding sources in the cities, where exactly might these "fast" funding sources come from? Third parties in Australia have a history of loudly proclaiming their own purity by spurning the corporate coin, whether we're talking about the Greens, the Democrats or even the DLP. It's unlikely that the Nats would follow suit, but even so I think Peter overestimates how much largesse is available from, say, a meat tray raffle at Dubbo RSL.

One example is the proposal to drill for gas on the Liverpool Plains, potentially poisoning the water table in one of Australia's richest farming areas. Now imagine the gas producers wanted to make a friendly donation to the Nationals - to accept, or not accept? That is the question ... the very kind of dilemma that could scupper the Nats, like the GST did for the Democrats.

For a start, Joyce would immediately become Nationals leader. Warren Truss's strength is that he is a bridge between the parties. Without a Coalition the maverick Joyce would easily win a leadership ballot and, as head of a minor party not in the Coalition, being based in the Senate wouldn't be a short-term problem for him. He would move to the lower house at the next election, quite possibly winning a seat at the Liberal Party's expense.

All the other minor parties know the real action is in the Senate. Why would Joyce want to move to the lower House? He doesn't want to and can't become Prime Minister, and if there is a party rule that says that the Senate leader must defer to the House leader, Barnaby can change it.

Let's assume he did - which seat would he go for, Peter? Probably the seat where he lives, Maranoa, currently held by the Nationals. He might go after Ian Macdonald in Groom, but it's not clear that he'd knock him off given that Toowoomba is increasingly an urban settlement in its own right. If the good people of Groom wanted to knock off a once (and future?) Cabinet Minister in favour of a populist loudmouth, van Onselen would need to re-examine all his assumptions about the wonders of being part of government.

Warren Truss's strength is that he is a bridge between the parties.

Yairs. And what a great job he's doing.

Joyce would be free to become even more populist than he already is and not just on the basis of his opposition to emissions trading, about which rural Australia has serious concerns.

He might even embrace policy positions such as giving farmers back their guns, highly selective immigration reforms or a quota for spending in rural communities, similar to the royalties-for-regions policy the WA Nationals successfully took to the previous election.

Let's leave aside the fact that van Onselen is starting to sound shrill here, and doesn't quote any hard data.

Part of the perils of being an honest broker is that you need at least one of the major parties with you. Let's do something that scares Peter van Onselen - let's unpack his assumptions:

  • Emissions trading - after the exemption for farming nutted out between Labor and the Libs, the response to this is only too easy - be part of the solution or we'll lift the exemption. That would negate Joyce from the whole debate, and give him nowhere to go on carbon risk mitigation.

  • Guns - Labor won't back it, the Liberals might prevaricate but it was John Howard who bought the ban in - and urban MPs of either party want fewer guns rather than more and can be persuaded that the current regime works for farmers, shooting clubs and other legitimate users in the regions.

  • Immigration - rural communities know that the only way they can get infusions of either unskilled willing workers or professionals is through immigration. Pauline Hanson lost a rural seat in 1998 (to a Liberal) and Hansonism won't be the powerful tonic in 2010 that it might have been a dozen years ago.

  • Royalties for regions - would that be such a big departure from Nationals' standard operating procedure?

At this point you'd hope van Onselen would have a cup of tea and a lie down, but he digs himself in further:
On the back of such populism, Nationals candidates would happily take part in three-cornered contests in rural and regional seats right across Australia. This would threaten the futures of a good number of Liberal MPs and it would certainly make marginal Labor-held seats unwinnable for the Liberals or likelier to be picked up by the Nationals.

To be sure, the Nationals would not limit their push into new electorates to non-metropolitan seats: they would also contest some city-fringe electorates such as Macarthur, McEwen and Paterson in a bid to increase their statewide Senate vote. So the Liberal MPs whose future would be on the line would include those holding marginal seats in or on the outskirts of big cities.

It is sheer crap that the Nationals could win Macarthur or Paterson, or Robertson or any other "urban fringe" seat for that matter. If the Nats can't even win Indi or Corangamite and are not that strong in Gippsland, then they've got Buckley's in McEwen (regardless of whom it's named after).

Let's have a look down the list of Labor's most marginal seats. A CLP member for Solomon NT would more likely side with the Libs than the Nats or independents. The Nationals might have a chance of winning Herbert or Flynn in Queensland, but only with a 1996-style landslide. The Nats are not a strong asset to the Liberals.

By contrast:

  • Nationals seats Calare, Cowper, Gippsland and Hinkler are vulnerable either to Labor or the Liberals - and if the Liberals are more likely to deny these seats to Labor then the Nats should stand aside.

  • Riverina's standing as a Nats seat owes more to its local member, Kay Hull, than the brilliance of the Nationals machine. The same can probably be said of Bruce Scott in Maranoa, and John Forrest in Mallee. All are aged in their 60s: if Joyce were to run for Maranoa it would not be a bold gambit, but a holding pattern.

  • Wide Bay is up for grabs without Truss, it's one of the poorest electorates in the country. There's nothing stopping Truss joining the Liberals.

  • This leaves Parkes, and a one-man party is not much of a party at all - a point proven by the craven Fielding insinuating himself with those abused in adoption centres - nice attempt to deflect churches' responsibility for that abuse, eh Senator.

This leaves aside the possibility that, in one or more of those dwindling numbers of seats, there are people amassing war chests and volunteer rosters to run as Independents.

You'd have to consider the Nationals a net liability as a Coalition partner, and not much of a threat to the Liberals (nor, indeed, Labor) as a competitor/enemy. The Nationals are more trouble than they're worth.

There would be no guarantee the Nationals would even preference the Liberals.

An average of 28 per cent of Nationals' preferences flowed Labor's way in three-cornered contests at the previous election, even though in every instance except the seat of O'Connor the Nationals officially directed preferences to the Liberal Party.

Again, van Onselen has shot his own argument. Official direction of preferences are irrelevant, and if the Liberals want to run a gibberer in O'Connor then more fool them. If the Coalition is built on mutual preferencing then it's already done for.

The loss of support for the Liberals if Nationals ran against them in a large number of electorates would be fatal.

No it wouldn't, you've already blown that argument. In those circumstances the Labor vote tends to go down - spend more time as a political scientist and less time doing Glenn Milne impersonations, and this may be clearer than it appears to you now, Peter.

Then there is the difficulty of breaking the newly formed Liberal National Party in Queensland. If the LNP were to disintegrate it would leave what remained of the Queensland division of the Liberal Party more or less bankrupt (a reason the merger was approved by the Liberals in the first place) and shatter the state wing for both parties.

It does not follow that a demerger at the Federal level requires one at the state level. The LNP has the Labor state government on the ropes (if not quite on the canvas, as in NSW), led by a former Liberal. Besides, the Liberal Party's Queensland Division has been blowing huge political opportunities since Gordy Chalk's day - no sympathy for that lot.

In NSW, where the conservatives are considered almost certain to win in March 2011, the Coalition would once again have found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

This is the nearest van Onselen comes to having a point.

The 1987 Federal split did not prevent the Coalition winning government in NSW the following year. The Nationals realise that all issues are regional issues, which is why their Deputy Leader is also the Shadow Minister for Education. The O'Farrell-Stoner relationship appears strong. The nearest thing to a Joyce-style ratbag, Andrew Fraser, is stepping down and is no threat to anyone (apart from Joe Tripodi, heh heh).

The NSW State Director of the National Party may be forgiven for losing one or two Federal seats next year, but he will fail utterly if all NSW Legislative Assembly seats currently held by the Nationals are not National-held after 2011. He's failed upwards this far, but no further: no Legislative Council seat for someone who doesn't come through.

And where would a federal break-up of the Coalition leave the WA government?

Given that WA Labor is a rabble, it would put them in the box seat for a crushing win at an early election ... but you're the WA-based political scientist, Peter, you tell me.

And Liberals couldn't be happy about the likelihood that the Nationals would try their hand in Tasmania, a state they have always left for the Liberals to contest.

This isn't a courtesy on the Nats' part - they simply can't run an operation on the ground, they can't convince rural communities that they can both reflect their concerns and represent them effectively in Canberra.

Now that the Liberals can operate in the city and the bush, and now that Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor have proven that the only popular Nationals are ex-Nationals, the Nationals themselves are redundant. Unlike 1987, a demerger would benefit both parties - indeed, no other political action in Australia would improve the body politic nearly as much.


  1. Off topic, but can we have your views on the current mess in the Liberal Party? It's insanity gone mad, and we need someone to make sense of it...


  2. Kymbos, more later this evening.