They made a solid case for the environment as an economic asset, and for elevating big issues like the Murray-Darling basin over threatened species. They made the non-partisan Landcare movement partisan. They also managed to neatly defuse the perceived threat to rural landholdings posed by Indigenous land claims arising from the Mabo and Wik land rights cases using these notions of a combined economic and environmental custodianship that only seemed to include non-Indigenous farmers.
In the 19 years since then, the Coalition has held federal government for 13. The sheer extent of their failure on brown issues is such that rural seats that were once rock-solid for the Coalition - particularly the Nationals - are vulnerable to improvised coalitions of farmer interests, Greens, small-scale community populists, and other groups that could never work together unless presented with a common threat, such as small and scattered outposts of Labor people. Whatever the Nationals gained from not prosecuting clear-fellers on pastoral leases has long since been frittered away.
Cathy McGowan developed her community organising techniques in Landcare and women's farming movements, not in some inner-Melbourne commune, and knocked off a would-be Cabinet minister. She received very little mainstream media coverage and none from the supposedly savvy press gallery, until she actually won Indi in 2013 and Abbott had to do without Sophie Mirabella in his Cabinet.
Every Coalition MP is potentially as vulnerable as Mirabella was then - but you'd never know it. Broadcast media organisations have cut back their regional presence. Big-city news desks look down their noses at the regionals. Regional journalists feel obliged to cultivate relationships with sitting MPs, who look dimly upon coverage of movements that might upset them. Journalists trained to cover politics as a two-horse Labor vs Coalition race find it hard to define or comprehend movements combining conservative landowners, Indigenous organisations and Green activists. They do not keep tabs on or follow up long-simmering issues. If there are any McGowan-style movements afoot in regional federal electorates, the broadcast media wouldn't know until a polling company deigned to turn its gaze beyond the same suburban marginals that have changed governments since 1972, and even then they'd pooh-pooh them like they did in Indi.
One selling proposition for Coalition MPs is that you have more direct influence at the Cabinet table with a Coalition MP than with some independent or other MP kicking against the bricks. The Shenhua mine approval near Gunnedah NSW puts paid to that. Barnaby Joyce is the fourth-highest ranking member of Cabinet, where he sits with Greg Hunt, the minister who approved the mine.
Compare this to the previous parliament: the then MP for New England, Tony Windsor, would have been able to prevail upon Labor Environment ministers not to approve a deal that sacrificed prime farming land to a coal mine. Labor has no love for Liverpool Plains squatters, and nor they for it; both could have avoided dog-whistle concerns about Chinese government interests to kybosh the mine on the basis that threats to groundwater in prime agricultural land were simply too high. Abbott would have made some fatuous statement but the Nationals would have recognised the importance of the issue and been seen to stand up for farmers.
The press gallery was focused on Bill Shorten's appearance before the Trade Union Royal Commission yesterday. There are almost two hundred individuals in the press gallery, yet they are only capable of focusing on one story, despite the ferocious competitive pressures that buffet their industry. They cover it in much the same way - little scope for diversity on whether Shorten did well or badly, and what either outcome might mean for his prospects as Prime Minister.
Whenever the press gallery decide there is only one issue they will cover at any given time, it is easy to surprise them by making an announcement that might otherwise attract more coverage. None of the experienced editors or veteran journalists make contingency for the possibility that an issue other than the agreed one might pop up. And always, those announcements come out, and always they're a surprise. Journalists and editors all do this kabuki routine of shock and then reduce coverage of what they have decided is a secondary issue, and continue to resist the urge to cover them in-depth later - even on slow news days - as though an issue like a giant mine designed to last for decades goes off after a few days like a dairy product.
As Minister for Agriculture and MP for New England, Barnaby Joyce apparently isn't happy with the mine, but so what?
- Is Joyce going to override Hunt? Hardly - coal mining interests are still powerful and alert to any threat to their survival. If that mine were not approved, is any mine safe?
- Is Joyce going to resign from Cabinet? Hardly - the motto of the political class is: never explain, never complain, never resign, leave a good-looking corpse, put your staffer in your seat to replace you, and secure some consultancies into retirement. Joyce would not go that far as a rabble-rouser, not even as far as Bob Katter, and this government would freeze him out even if he just started talking about it.
- Is Joyce going to move against Hunt? Hardly - Hunt has ticked all the boxes and bloodlessly followed instructions to the point where he is regarded as a muppet by everyone outside the Liberal Party. If the Nationals were to demand Hunt's head, and were Abbott to give it, Liberals might start wondering why anyone would tick all the boxes and bloodlessly follow instructions as the PMO would have them do - and that would spell the beginning of the end for Abbott.
He might have a well-funded campaign, but funding isn't everything - after yesterday, do you reckon Shenhua will fund Barnaby's campaign manager? His ability to campaign for other Nationals will be sharply limited, his public goodwill will evaporate. Whether Tony Windsor runs again, or someone else does, Joyce is on a hiding to nothing.
The CSIRO was founded to examine soil and water quality from a scientific basis: it has been gutted by this government and there is no point lobbying Joyce to restore it. The University of New England, Joyce's alma mater and a major location for agricultural research, is for Joyce a hotbed of political opposition. The Nationals could not run a campaign on brown issues if their lives depended on it.
For years the Nationals, particularly in NSW, overestimated how clever they were in securing support from mining companies while claiming to represent rural communities. That model is pretty much broken now. It leaves them representing the poorest and less well-educated communities - communities whose urban and Indigenous equivalents never vote Coalition - without the fundraising clout that both stops the Liberals from dictating terms, and limits grass-roots insurgents from winning elections.
In addition to New England, look to the Nationals-held seats of Cowper and Lyne on the NSW north coast. Conventional wisdom holds that Lyne MP David Gillespie will cruise to re-election because Everyone Gets Two Terms - Gillespie's sole political asset is that he is Tony Abbott's personal friend, an asset that has been markedly depreciated if not stranded. It's too early to talk about other seats, because we don't have the required information thanks to press gallery limitations.
Not that Greg Hunt can take much comfort from sticking it to Joyce. His electorate of Flinders is conservative heartland, held by former PM Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Cabinet ministers Phillip Lynch and Peter Reith. Hunt entered Parliament at the same election as his contemporary Sophie Mirabella, with the understanding that each was a future Cabinet minister. Regardless of their personal relationship, he would have felt the chill wind from her demise more than most.
Maybe Labor will get some try-hard up for one term in that seat, but if they really wanted to knock Hunt off they would support the kind of grass-roots campaign that Cathy McGowan developed: motivated, diverse locals turning a negative focus (dump the incumbent!) into a positive, community-based one (Mornington Peninsula/Phillip Island locals, you tell me) of the sort described by Jane Gilmore.
This government's whole messaging has been about protecting Aussie soil; you don't despoil the best of it with a coal mine. This government says coal is good for humanity; food is good for humanity, and this lunge for coal above all other considerations reveals an unedifying desperation. This government sticks it to conservative farmers, making voters less rusted-on wonder when the government will sell them out too. Whoever thought this decision was clever stuffed up badly - but to go against due process would also have been bad. It only shows that voting for the majors is no guarantee of effective, consistent, mature government.