Traditional party of the bush wracked by personal scandals, leadership instability and a raft of new competitors on their turf.
A portrait of the Queen still hangs in most country halls so it seems fitting to use one of her most memorable phrases. For the Nationals, 2018 has been an annus horribilis.
The traditional party of the bush has been wracked by personal scandals and rare leadership instability. After the all-too-technicolour Barnaby Joyce, the party is stuck with a beige leader, Michael McCormack, at least until the next election, which is threatening to be a landslide against the Coalition.
A raft of competitors are on the march across their traditional eastern state turf. There are independents in Victoria, independents and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidates in New South Wales and the ever-present One Nation in Queensland. The Labor party is eyeing off a clutch of regional seats, including George Christensen’s seat of Dawson. If the swing is on, the Nationals could lose a Senate spot, currently held by the retiring bank campaigner John Williams. His preselected replacement, Perin Davey, is in doubt of winning. Tasmanian Nationals senator Steve Martin, who was dumped by Jacqui Lambie when he would not stand aside for her after the citizenship, is unlikely to get up again. This would leave the Nationals with four senators and officially below “party status” of five in the Senate.
Yet probably the biggest threat faced by the traditional party of the bush is the new conversations about politics, within towns and across the country.
In the eastern states, the Nationals have historically held a stranglehold on traditional rural seats and their influential networks. Competitors can be crushed and socially isolated. In small towns and regional centres, if you need funding for your community organisation or if you need access to government gateways, you need to stay sweet with the local member and their allies. Anyone who presents competition is an easy target, particularly if you run a business or a club.
But every time a seat peels away to an independent or strong minor party candidate, it provides the cultural safety to vote for other people. Once someone dares to speak against the status quo, their friendships and connections can influence others.
Women are vital to these deep networks, boosted by decades of capacity-building leadership courses and rural women’s awards. Rural women across the country are stepping out to lead and are connected by social media. It is no accident that many of the new rural independents are women.
Inside the Nationals
These new conversations are not happening in a vacuum. The traditional party of the bush, the Nationals, is making it hard for rusted-on supporters to tick the usual box.
Having just survived his byelection over citizenship allegations, 2018 began with Joyce’s affair with his media adviser, Vikki Campion, and her pregnancy plastered on the front of the Daily Telegraph. He faced sexual harassment allegations from a prominent rural woman, Catherine Marriott, whose allegations were leaked, forcing her into the public. Joyce has consistently denied the allegations, which have never been fully detailed in public, but the episode forced Joyce to resign as leader.
This left the field open for the new leader McCormack, who won in a divided partyroom after the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, pulled out of the race. Littleproud remains a contender after an election.
The Nationals federal director, Scott Mitchell, belled the cat when he wrotethat history would record Joyce “was the first leader to factionalise the 98-year-old party”.
“The newly factionalised Nationals – divided not by philosophy but by personality, populism and ambition – were unattractive to voters,” Mitchell wrote. “The Australian people are sick of this style of leadership and the political soap opera of Canberra.”
While there was no love lost between Mitchell and Joyce, the Nationals campaign director identified the key change in the party room. For all the attention he attracted in the electorate, Joyce fundamentally changed a party that was used to coming to decisions behind closed doors.
No one has been able to unite the party since. In a reflection of the Liberals, there remains a fundamental split between the more progressive members led by the Gippsland MP, Darren Chester, and capital C conservatives such as Matt Canavan, Christensen and co. Meanwhile Joyce bounces around like a pinball looking for its home. The former NSW senator Fiona Nash, known as the Barnaby whisperer, has left the building and no one is carrying out her bridge-building inside the party.
All the while, McCormack is holding on to the leadership by his fingernails, surviving Joyce’s attempts to redeem himself, signalling to his colleagues via Sky News that he would take the leadership if it was offered. McCormack also faced opposition to his ham-fisted attempts to establish an agricultural visa. The Liberals resisted, causing grief for McCormack and outrage in farming groups.
While Joyce pulled his head in by year’s end, Mitchell’s soap opera has continued with Andrew Broad’s sugar baby scandal breaking in true soap journal New Idea. Broad’s alleged behaviour, like Joyce’s before him, stood in stark contrast to the high and mighty principles argued vociferously by both men in the marriage equality debate. Yet Broad’s career will come to an end at the 2019 election – after McCormack publicly advised him to consider his future – even though Joyce was allowed to stay on.
Outside the Nationals
Meanwhile, Nationals communities are moving beyond them. In short, country towns are not what they used to be.
Field evidence shows an attitudinal shift on issues which are conflicted for the Coalition: climate change, native logging and mining on farmland as well as social issues.
Women are playing bigger leadership roles in rural companies, farm advocacy groups and agriculture boards yet there are only two sitting members in the National party, equal only to the two scandals in 2018.
This year one of the Nationals’ key constituency groups, the National Farmers’ Federation, urged action on climate change and declared climate change was exacerbating drought as the Nationals resolutely backed coal.
The NFF also supported Malcolm Turnbull’s doomed national energy guarantee (Neg) at the same time as sections of the Nationals were backing away from it.
Native forest logging was considered unacceptable by 65% of rural/regional people and 70% of urban people across Australia, and acceptable by 17% of rural and 10% of urban residents. Those surveyed also considered it “on a par” with extractive industries such as coal seam gas. Yet the Nationals have not moved, having previously urged the Victorian state government to open up areas of protected forests in Victoria for logging.
And on social issues, it was a given that country people opposed same-sex marriage until a majority in most rural seats voted for marriage equality in the 2017 plebiscite. Chester was the only one to sniff the wind on the marriage debate, declaring his support in line with the majority of rural Australians.
Breaking from the mob
The deep disenchantment with politics across Australia is palpable – city and country. In rural areas, the feeling that politics has separated from its own communities has increased the difficulties for major parties and this is particularly so in the past five years.
Though born in the bush, Labor faces a cultural wall of suspicion as to its commitment to country voters. It also faces stubborn resistance on issues like native vegetation laws particularly in northern NSW and Queensland.
This has historically given conservative parties a free pass in the bush unless a strong independent can break through. Notables have included the former Nationals Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott as well as Peter Andren.
Cathy McGowan broke through in Indi in 2013 with the help of an unpopular sitting MP in Sophie Mirabella, a well-organised community network Voices for Indi working years before an election and a very local policy suite.
Post-McGowan, there have been upsets in the NSW seats of Orange and Wagga Wagga and big swings in Murray and Cootamundra. Every time a seat breaks from the traditional choice of National or Liberal, the area is more culturally open to change, fuelled by personal connections and experiences.
Next door to Indi, independent Suzanna Sheed came out of nowhere to win the state seat of Shepparton in 2014. In the November election this year, there were a rash of women independent candidates who took conservative seats down to marginal status. All knew or worked with McGowan personally.
Further west, a progressive young woman lawyer, Ali Cupper, overcame an 8% margin from the Mildura Nationals MP Peter Crisp. He wasn’t unpopular like Mirabella, just traditional National party. Cupper leveraged off the attention lavished on Sheed’s seat with the slogan “I’ll have what Sheed’s having”.
In the March NSW election, the Nationals face increased opposition from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, independents and the generic Anyone But Nats coordinating candidate forums and urging voters to put the Nationals last. Never before has the old country party faced such coordinated opposition.
Whither to for the Nats?
The most telling decision in the Nationals was the backbencher Kevin Hogan’s move to the crossbench after the Liberals replaced Turnbull. Hogan is the member for Page, a NSW north coast seat with rapidly changing demographics, taking in old farming country towns like Casino, retirement communities like Coffs Harbour as well as the alternative communities of Nimbin.
While Hogan still sits in the party room and votes with government, he read the national mood after the sixth prime minister in a decade. Some said he was trying to save his skin in his own seat. But his position reflects the Western Australian National Party, which has always acted more independently than the eastern party.
Hogan’s decision presaged talk in the party room over whether the Nationals as a party should join him – a task made nearly impossible in government by the merged Liberal National party in Queensland. If the Coalition does lose the next federal election, as the polls widely predict, there will be serious conversations over whether to stand apart from the Liberals in opposition. Post election, it would not be the time to align with a riven Liberal party.
Taking a seat for granted is no longer an option in country Australia. How the National party responds will determine its future.
This article was published by The Guardian.
Former political correspondent Gabrielle Chan is a writer for Guardian Australia and is the author of Rusted Off – why country Australia is fed up. She has been a journalist for 30 years.