NSW Nationals self-destructing?

For at least the last 50 years, pundits have been predicting the imminent end of the National Party – or the Country Party as it was half a century ago.

Its happening again in NSW precipitated by, of all things, the protection of koalas. It could happen in Queensland in the less than likely event that the LNP does not win the State election at the end of next month. A loss would probably lead to the LNP splitting at which point the Nationals, once the dominant partner, would be aggressively attacked by Liberals and all manner of right-wing fringe parties including those identified with Pauline Hanson, Robbie Katter and Clive Palmer.

The current crisis in NSW was the improbable creation of its parliamentary leader, the Deputy Premier John Barilaro. He threatened to take his party out of its coalition with the Liberals and onto the cross-bench. The issue was a set of guidelines to be issued under the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) governing land clearance guidelines to protect core koala habitat. The policy changes the development application process and adds significantly to the types of feed trees to be protected.

Mr Barilaro, and some of his colleagues, claimed the SEPP would severely impact on many farmers, reducing the value of their land by 20 percent.

But his threat to quit over the issue was even less credible that the economic impact on the bush that he alleged. Premier Gladys Berejiklian called his bluff, telling him she would swear in a new Cabinet excluding him and the rest of the National Party’s then ministers unless he withdrew he threat to cease its support for her government. He caved in, and a dew days later went on mental health leave for a month.

While most of the National Party MPs backed Mr Barilaro at the time of the confrontation, in its aftermath, dissenters were plentiful. The most significant was an MP, Leslie Williams, who holds the ultra safe seat of Port Macquarie. She expressed her disapproval with the actions of her (former) leader saying they were ‘unnecessary, unhelpful and frankly politically reckless and unreasonable’.

Former leading lights in the state Nationals from both the parliamentary and machine wings, joined the exodus. One such was Jess Price-Purnell, a former chairwoman of the NSW Nationals Women’s Council, who quit the party last week after been asked to show cause why she shouldn’t be sacked from membership.

This week she provided an interesting insight into what makes the Nationals a very different political phenomenon from the Liberals and the ALP – and from other minor parties in Australia. She wrote about joining the party when she was 24 and:

‘As I got more and more involved in the party, I grew to love the family atmosphere of party events and the “broad church” that people often talked about. What was amazing about the Nats, and one of the reasons I joined, was that it was not a party of ideology but rather geography. It didn’t matter if a policy was left or right,
conservative or progressive: all that mattered were outcomes for people who lived in rural and regional NSW. Sadly, it feels like those days may be over.”

She first expressed concern about this ‘broad church’ being under threat in 2018 when the party was being infiltrated by far-right groups. She thought it was frightening and felt uncomfortable having her children involved in party activities.

You get the picture: the Nats were really like a political version of the Country Women’s Association, social rather than politically partisan. No wonder they have always had such an extensive membership base – far bigger, relatively, than the city-based Liberals and Labor Parties.

Till now, I never really thought of the party in those terms, having only associated with tough elected Country/National Party politicians (e.g. Doug Anthony, Peter Nixon, Ian Sinclair) rather than branch members.

But in retrospect, this picture of the membership helps explain why the party’s political leadership for half a century could get away with advocating and putting into effect policies that had little connection with the party base. So long, that is, as they delivered on the only truly fundamental principle of the party – make use of government intervention to help the rural sector capitalise its gains and socialise its losses.

Sir John (‘Black Jack’) McEwen for example, was a protectionist, a lion of manufacturing industry. His successors have championed mining – iron ore, coal and gas in particular. And the really big irrigators – like the very few producing cotton. The party’s finances may have benefited through donations as a consequence of the alliances the leaders were forming, but not the practical interests of most of its members.

In recent times the party’s leaders have been steadfast climate change denialists – while the agricultural base of the party has been conscious and aware of real climate changes and adapted farming practices to the changing environment.

[For a detailed analysis of the failings of the National Party federally, see John Menadue, ‘The National Party has deserted country people on Climate Change, NBN and health services and more’, johnmenadue.com Oct 29, 2019.]

The political gap between the parliamentary leadership of the National Party and the practical needs of its base are now being addressed and courted by another political party – the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (SFF) – ‘Farmers’ was added to the title just four years ago – and to a lesser extent, the Greens.

The SFF has graduated from fringe status (in the NSW upper house more than 20 years ago) to being a genuine threat to the Nationals. It won its first Legislative Assembly seat (Orange) from the Nationals in a by-election in 2016, and two further seats in the 2019 state election. Its three seats cover the whole of the western half of the State.

In the federal Eden-Monaro by-election this year the SFF won 5.3 percent of the vote and the Nationals 6.4 percent. The Liberal candidate had 38 percent and narrowly missed winning on preferences – possibly because of the leakage of SFF preferences (only 44 percent to the Libs, compared to 77 percent from the Nationals).

With the defection of Leslie Williams to the Liberals, the Nationals now hold their equal lowest number of seats in the Legislative Assembly (12). It could get worse.

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David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.

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