09 July 2015

The brown word

Before the 1996 election, the Coalition was at a disadvantage on environmental issues. Their environmental credentials (e.g. Fraser Island, ending whaling) were far in the past, while their environmental failures (e.g. the Gordon-below-Franklin dam, the Daintree) were more memorable. The NSW Greiner government's slogan "warm, dry, and green" was little more than that. So, they changed the conversation. Instead of talking about "green" issues (e.g. biodiversity and rainforests), they began to reframe environmental debates in terms of "brown" issues (e.g. soil degradation, water quality).

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.
Barnaby Joyce will go to the next election facing a furious, motivated, diverse and well-organised opposition in New England, egged-on but not led by Labor, the Greens, and Tony Windsor. It doesn't matter how cheesed-off he is, his name will be mud and his impotence exposed. If the price of coal falls the mine may never go ahead, but this will not be the same as Barnaby saving the day and everyone knows it.

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.


  1. If Barnaby Joyce really cared, he would resign. But he won't. I think he is crying crocodile tears. Tony Windsor certainly thinks so and Tony Windsor looks like returning to politics and will fight for the Liverpool Plain.

    If that happens, and it looks likely, It will be bye bye Barney. I doubt too that Sophie Mirabella will be able to take back Indi.

    This decision to turn the Liverpool plain over to coal emphasizes the utter hopelessness of the Nationals to look after the interests of farmers.

    Coalition MPs love to slap on an Akubra for a bit of banter at a country show. You always knew that John Howard was about to engage in some 'straight talking' with rural folk when he put on the national hat. On really important visits to the regions he rejoiced in strutting around the paddocks in an oilskin, like a cloaked Napoleon.

    The coalition will need more than fancy dress now. The Nationals have shown themselves to be either complicit in allowing the destruction of some of Australia's most fertile agricultural land or just simply powerless.

    What a joke. We keep being told that Australia needs to become the food bowl of Asia and yet this government is turning productive agricultural land over to mining. At the same time they keep talking about turning the north of Australia into a Garden of Eden. Well good luck with that one!

    1. The only reasons I can see country people keep voting National is that the candidates try hard to look like them, and talk the same way, and the give the illusion they think the same way. Or ingrained habit.

      The Nationals float about rural electorates like local princes, pretending to distribute funding or to be concerned with local issues on this cushion, but still wield influence. It is still a sore point with the Indi Liberal Party branch, who effectively showed the couldn't run a bath, that a previous State Nationals member Ken Jasper endorsed Cathy McGowan.

      Cathy McGowan had the huge advantage over Mrs Mirabella of being a genuine local candidate, and entirely at ease at cattle and sheep sales where she was well-known already. While those people may not have voted for her, they impression made in the local press was strong and supported her long background and skill in small-scale agricultural community building.

  2. When the Mirabella globe went out, Sept 13 2013, it should have switched lights on in other brains, as you say, but no. On the election night coverage, it seemed to me that the only person who really got the significance of McGowan's win was Kezza O'Brien.

    To extend the analogy of the dairy products, (apt in this discussion), Kathy was the contaminant in the LNP's yogurt. The tub will go off.

    Have any of them followed up her performance in Indi.. like 'properly'; bothered to run up or down the Hume (it's not feckin' Kalgoorlie) and see what she's doing.. talk to constituents/groups.
    Maybe some have, but I've missed them if so. She is a potential case study in showing where they might be headed, (the Nats). But nup.

    .... crickets chirruping in the Shepparton evening...

    (There was a 'Lunch with...' in News Review, if I recall correctly. Not aware of other journalism).

  3. I meant Wangaratta, not Shepparton. No good sending me...

    1. Consider the state seat of Shepparton at the last election - nobody picked that until it was all over (and Antony Green's software was knocked for a loop)

  4. Great, insightful column again, Andrew. I'd be interested to hear how many other seats you think there might be that are vulnerable in this way? I note, though, the difficulties here when the press gallery pays so little attention to anything outside the Canberra bubble. Here's one tip: I imagine that a bit of help from Nick Xenophon could easily see Christopher Pyne sent packing.

    1. They're all vulnerable, John, but to know who's running and how they're running local knowledge is key. That local knowledge, as I said, is what's missing from Canberra coverage. See also my response to Paul above.

  5. All the Nationals want to do is be part of a Conservative government, and people like Bananaby Juice and Warren Jockstrap don't give a shit about rural people as long as they think they have a say in politics (which Abbott makes sure they don't)

  6. Andrew: I fear I have put my comment on this story under the one below!!! Can you look?

  7. This is all well and good but I'm focusing on the 423 pages in the Age analysing Shorten's body language.

    So much easier to write about body language as opposed to considering his evidence, which would: a) involve actual work; b) be complex; and c) reveal even more proof that Abbott thinks nothing of spending $80 million from the public purse for his personal political objectives.

    As for the next election, wouldn't it be great to see Gillespie lose to a local Green?

    1. Lyne is the oldest electorate in the country, and has one of the lowest incomes and highest dependencies on welfare. Greens could do it but so too could a determined local. One to watch for sure.

  8. Believe it or not - but just last week I saw that Mirabella won pre selection for Liberal candidate in Indi! As if one national humiliation wasn't enough, they are going to try to win it back with her!

    1. Saw that - always an inevitability after the Victorian state election led to the conservative control-freaks taking over again. They'd rather lose than admit they're wrong.

    2. If Mirabella had any sense at all, she would've sought pre-selection in a seat where no-one knows her ...

    3. Seriously, I thought she would go to the Senate like Michael Ronaldson did.

  9. I think it's time, Andrew, for another declaration at the top of your blog: "Turnbull will never be Prime Minister."

    1. I'm going to take that as a comment

    2. Anon and Andrew
      I think Malcolm would agree.
      I would be very surprised if he contested the next election as the Min for Communications.
      He has been communicating so well lately about important matters like rule-of-law that I suspect he is communicating with his peers in law and business.
      I suspect he is thinking about life after politics.
      Still it may increase his chances of becoming PM if he continues to sound lucid about the security of the nation while his leader stutters about a grocery code of conduct.
      I keep waiting for TA to tell us all that 'life is just a box of chocolates'.

  10. They don't give a shit about rural people. ..

    Our p.m's nasty manoevre on The Project when a camera was present says it all really...

    He completely ignored this farmer and walked away to do another photo stunt near a fence as he put it!

    Absolutely disgusting. ..

    1. IMO (humble of course) they don't care about any of us.
      It is all a game called Crush Your Opponent. It has no rules. Winning is everything. Go for it. Hit hard and hit often.
      People under-estimate Abbott. Some continue to take him at his word as Andrew shows here time and time again.
      He makes me nervous because he is a person for whom conflict is a natural state. He is energized by it.
      Btw has anyone else noticed that Drum articles on the ABC website have been closed for comment over the past few days. What is all that about?

    2. It is amazing that the media still won't admit what we all know: Abbott is a dangerous person, an amoral politician lacking in the sort of internal moral guide we all have that says 'enough'.
      There is nothing - nothing - in his personality that prevents him from going one step further or one rung lower than his opponent if he thinks it will help him win.
      David Rowe clearly spotted this a long time ago and has been warning us how dangerous Abbott is to Australia's future ever since. Yet the rest of them carry on oblivious to his distinct lack of charms. Or maybe they just don't care.

  11. I was at a hairdresser recently at there was a puff piece on Margie Abbott.

    On their first date...he talked about the D.L.P split in the Labour party...she found him interesting.....

    Really? Get a life woman

    Obsessed with politics....weird man our p.m

  12. A lot of media with our Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson and his expenses in the" lefty lynch mob press"

    So we're paying for his "gay lifestyle" as our p.m so eloquently describes minority groups....

    What exactly does he do again. ..?

    The student politician mould is still intact with people like him...that's gen y Andrew

  13. A good example of rubbish journalism is under way.
    Last year Bill Shorten made it absolutely clear that the ALP was considering a carbon tax.
    Today there has been a leaked discussion paper saying the ALP was considering a carbon tax, one measure to deal with climate change.
    So what do we see.
    The Murdoch tabloids had a representation of a muddied, wild-eyed zombie Shorten clambering Gollum-like from the grave.
    And then ...
    The pack started baying predictably about a 'leak' and what it meant for Shorten's leadership. More annoyingly it dealt with The Leak out of context as if Shorten had not made the ALP's position clear 12 months ago in a speech to Parliament and which was covered in the media.

  14. Re post on 'carbon tax'. All ref to carbon tax should be 'carbon price'.

  15. Andrew, off topic but why oh why are we being subjected to Joel Fitzgibbon's blabbering head at every turn? Is it as simple as removing any possibility of media leadership speculation?

  16. Abbott's becoming more self-parodic and unhinged on this issue by the day. Now a successful court challenge to the Carmichael mine approval is "sabotage", the judiciary should (it seems) follow government policy and "everyone needs to support these projects because ... well, I say so."