GREG BAILEY. The New South Wales Fires, the National Party and Climate Change. PART 1

Nov 15, 2019

In responding on Monday to the severity of the NSW and QLD fires two senior NP politicians made statements attacking the Greens in a manner that was most intemperate and which has attracted almost universal criticism? But was their underlying motivation genuine concern for those affected by these predictable fires, or a desperate attempt to win back some of the electoral support slowly dripping away from them?

David Crowe (the Age 11/11) cited Michael McCormack’s savage and intemperate attack on the Greens which, referring to those directly affected by the fires, included such statements as “They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes, when in fact they’re going out in many cases saving other peoples’ homes and leaving their own homes at risk.” There were 3287 comments posted on the blog following Crowe’s article. Never have I seen so many comments offered to the Age blog. And the print media elsewhere has given it attention sufficient to prevent it from being forgotten easily. But does McCormack want it to be forgotten, and judging from the savage expression on his face when he uttered the remarks, he would prefer it not to be forgotten. It is a typical trope of National Party bluster and whilst the Deputy PM has always had difficulty in presenting nuanced critiques of his opponents and colleagues these remarks have evoked a massive reaction.

Then Barnaby Joyce comes out with the suggestion that two of those killed in the fire near Glen Innes “most likely” voted for the Greens (the Age 13/11/19). Why did the leader of the NP and the previous leader–who still harbours ambitions for the leadership-come out together attacking the Greens, or were both events independent? Yet it continues the National Party’s ongoing attack on the Greens as the enemy of country folk, with a viciousness matched only by some in the ALP who see the Greens as weakening the ALP vote.

Such reactions tell us much about the National Party itself and the desperation of its response to the worsening environmental situation faced by all of us, but increasingly now by country people on the front line. The “bush” – a mythological concept if ever there was one–and the regions are the bailiwick of the NP, their baby as it were, and so the bush must always be presented front and foremost over anything else.

Yet, the on-going failure of the NP in many areas has been extremely well documented by John Mendaue in an earlier posting ( in P and I. One of the principal reasons for this failure is that the Nationals now represent the interests of the large mining companies and agribusiness corporations, not the small farmer or resident of a regional city. This means they have completely lost sight of what rural and regional Australia is really about for most of those who live there and who suffer from the failures of the NP to represent their constituency over the last two decades, if not longer. The “bush” may remain important for the Nationals symbolically, but they do not represent it in a legislative sense.

This has an historical dimension. I remember seeing a political scientist in the mid seventies on ABC television arguing that the NP had moved away from Jack McEwen’s agrarian socialism to representing large mineral development interests, especially in Western Australia and Queensland. Doug Anthony was appointed as Minister for Trade and Industry in 1971, and more pointedly when he was Deputy PM he had responsibility for Trade and Resources from 1977. In one sense this was understandable as Australia’s trade in agricultural products was still huge then, but even this was subsequently taken over by iron ore, coal, copper and gas. This shift has only increased in the intervening years, but the vote of the NP seems to have held up as if its supporters were unaware of this shift.

However, the figures provided by the Parliamentary Library for all elections since 1901 show a declining vote outside of Queensland for the NP since 1987, but a consistent vote for the Queensland LNP since 2010 of between 8 and 9%. In New South Wales the vote holds between 8 and 10%, so the fact that both states are the main catchment areas for the (L) NP, whilst suffering severely from the most recent fires, means the NP will be doing all they can to maintain their support in these areas. The danger they face from One Nation in Queensland has been pointed out many times, but will their supporters really abandon them in the face of increasingly extreme circumstances?

For the senior nationals, who are not prepared to abandon their mining constituency, it is much easier to blame the Greens who, though in no position to effect policy in a legislative sense, have consistently issued warnings about anthropogenic climate change and the causal relation this has with bush fires and worsening droughts. As such McCormack and Joyce are clearly playing to theconstituency they have only marginally represented for the past three decades. They must surely be realizing this constituency is beginning to take seriously the reality of climate change and that this will not just affect their own livelihood but also the country towns around them already suffering diminution in size and service possibilities, such as banking and health. (See Gabrielle Chan: On the basis of admittedly hearsay evidence I have heard that many younger farmers are now drifting to the Greens, albeit reluctantly because of the risk of alienating their parents

It is highly likely the tide is beginning to turn in the country areas where many farmers are realising that anthropogenic climate change is real and see its effects–the drying up of the land and diminishing water supplies–before their own eyes. When this acceptance becomes widespread amongst much of regional Australia then the realization of how much the National Party has betrayed its traditional supporters may well become a landslide and this could well affect their other partners in denial, the Liberal Party. I stress the word “may” because country people have traditionally been notoriously slow to change their political and cultural allegiances.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit. He has just published a novel on early Buddhism called In Search of Bliss.


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