Barnaby Joyce’s downfall has exposed the National Party as an outfit more concerned with dealing with corporate rent-seekers than with attending to the interests of its traditional rural base. It has also exposed Turnbull’s lack of resolve in dealing with deep fissures in the political alliance between the Liberals and the Nationals.
In the wake of revelations about Barnaby Joyce’s behaviour, Monday’s Newspoll was bound to be a bad one for the government.
As it turned out however, two-party support for the Coalition has slipped by only one point, well within the poll’s margin of error – therefore signifying nothing. Understandably Joyce has come in for strong disapproval. But the surprising result is a sharp fall in Turnbull’s lead as preferred prime minister, down from 45-31 to 40-33, and a rise in his disapproval rating.
At first sight it’s hard to explain this reaction. Turnbull’s Liberal Party and Joyce’s National Party are separate entities, and over the past week spokespeople from both parties have stressed that separation. Turnbull’s public rebuke of Joyce – “a shocking error of judgement” – was strong and unequivocal, as was his suggestion that Joyce “consider his own position”.
So why the public disenchantment with Turnbull?
Perhaps people are realising that our federal government is indeed a coalition, and not a single united party. Outside Queensland and the Northern Territory, where the parties have merged, voters in our big cities would hardly be aware of the National Party. In Tasmania and South Australia the National Party is virtually non-existent, and in Western Australia although it is comparatively strong, it does not form any coalition with the Liberal Party, in government or in opposition.
The National Party has been exposed, and what people see is not appealing. The party’s constructed image is one of bucolic innocence, drawing on Australians’ romanticised idea of the bush. Akubra hats, battered Toyota Land Cruisers, rusting Southern Cross windmills, and kitchens with freshly-baked pumpkin scones, all form part of the Party’s backdrop for public presentation. Even George Christensen’s Facebook post, brandishing a handgun and condemning “greenie punks”, conveys an impression of redneck stupidity – too idiotic to be taken seriously.
But as Stephanie Dowrick points out in her contribution Issues of integrity, not sex, Joyce and his National Party colleagues are far from country bumpkins trying to represent people in the bush. They are well-connected political players, dealing with some of the nation’s most effective and privileged rent-seekers.
We are reminded of Gina Rinehart’s $40 000 gift to Joyce, which he initially accepted with the intention of spending it on his farm, until his minders persuaded him that accepting it could look a little smelly. We are reminded that while Joyce had responsibility for water resources, his department was lax in responding to evidence that big irrigators were stealing water from the Murray-Darling system. We are reminded that in response to Bill Shorten’s policy of establishing a federal anti-corruption commission, Joyce gave a spirited defence of boondoggling, claiming that such a body could unnecessarily restrict ministers.“You’ll be terrified to make a decision that’s different to your department”, he said. One should not be constrained by trivial concerns such as biosecurity, cost-effectiveness, or the interests of farmers in a decision to shift the Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale.
And even more recently, with an exquisite sense of timing, the National Party has invited people to a “corporate observers” fundraiser meeting, where, for just $6 600 a head, participants will have an opportunity to meet National Party Ministers, and perhaps even the Deputy Prime Minister himself. (Presumably Christensen will be asked to leave his sidearms at the cloakroom.)
Turnbull may try to convince voters that the Liberals and the Nationals are separate parties, but the parties are joined at the hip. One astute political observer has reminded me that four out the Nationals’ five Senators are there only because they get a sweet spot on a Liberal-National joint ticket. We might recall that the government’s decision to hold a postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage, rather than a parliamentary vote, was a concession to the Nationals. We can see the hand of the Nationals in economically irresponsible Coalition policies such as the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, and support for the Adani project.
The Nationals’ influence is manifest in the government’s pitiful response to climate change, even though Australia’s farmers are among the most badly affected by global warming. But then it’s doubtful if farmers struggling with a high exchange rate, inadequate transport infrastructure, a run of poor seasons, debt, and high household expenses for electricity, health care and education, are going to turn up to the Party’s “corporate observers” meeting, even if they are offered valet parking for their work-weary Land Cruisers.
And the Party seems to be even less interested in other rural constituents. Aboriginal people living in remote communities, environmentally responsible and law-abiding farmers trying to compete with farmers stealing water, clearing forests and underpaying wages, and teachers in remote schools struggling against under-resourced public budgets.
As Dr Paul Williams said on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live on Monday night – Can the Coalition last? – the National Party is one of the world’s last agrarian-based political parties. It’s an anachronism. As I pointed out last July in “The National Party’s Dämmerung” on Pearls and Irritations, its policy influence is way out of proportion to its parliamentary representation and even more out of proportion to its popular vote.
In most other democracies such a party would be consigned to the political fringe, but here it is dragging its coalition partner into opposition, because Turnbull, for all his bluster, lacks the resolve to cut away the stinking albatross hanging from his neck.