The downfall of Barnaby Joyce and his replacement by Michael McCormack from Wagga Wagga as Nationals leader shows once again that maintaining the Liberal-National coalition has a considerable impact on the nation, and thus it deserves greater attention and transparency. Instead it is clouded in secrecy and often taken for granted.
The two parties are usually described as senior and junior partners, though the arrangement is sometimes described as a marriage, even if it is a marriage of convenience in which there are no alternative suitors.
But the term marriage has never fully captured the flavour of the relationship between the Liberals and the Nationals. The Coalition is a strictly business relationship struck between two exceptionally hard-headed organisations whose business is politics and whose aim is election victory and then government.
On both sides there is suspicion and condescension. Heaven knows how the Liberal National Party works harmoniously in Queensland.
What brings the parties together is the same thing as in any business deal. Each side has something that the other wants and which can only be achieved by working together. The Liberals need the Nationals to form a parliamentary majority. There are no other realistic options. The Nationals need the Liberals to gain entrée to government. The Liberals won’t risk minority government by standing alone, while the Nationals won’t risk losing the perquisites of office. They want to be inside the tent.
This Coalition is only maintained by stringent non-competition rules for sitting members for the House of Representatives and joint tickets for the Senate.
Even then the precise governing contract is negotiated in private between the two leaders whenever a government is formed or whenever a party leader changes. This happened when Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in 2015 and again in 2016 after the federal election. The Nationals have always driven a hard bargain. It is unclear though whether any alterations have been made on this occasion or whether discussions between Turnbull and McCormack have been restricted to personalities and the distribution of ministerial portfolios.
The public aspects of the bargain are the division of portfolios according to the number of seats each party holds and the gift of the deputy prime minister’s position to the Nationals leader.
McCormack’s election and subsequent promotion reminds us what a tremendous gift that is. A virtual non-entity is catapulted into the second most senior job in the government over the head of much more experienced senior Cabinet ministers, who happen to be Liberals, like the Treasurer and the Foreign Minister to name just two.
The private aspects of the bargain, never published, are agreed behind closed doors, including the concessions demanded by the Nationals and agreed to by Turnbull when he became prime minister. These included no change to same sex marriage policy and to Nationals’ control of water policy.
Even given all these concessional arrangements the Nationals have always felt free to attack the Liberals without fear of retribution.
Nationals leaders strive for an independent rural identity, hence Joyce’s style and his symbolic Akubra hat. Nationals members and voters applaud any sign of independent behaviour, no matter how outrageous or silly, even to the extent of supporting ex-Nationals like Bob Katter. McCormack will be under pressure to maintain such a spirit of independence.
All this explains the position Turnbull found himself in when Joyce’s perilous personal situation became public. Coalition government weakens the power and control of the Liberal prime minister. It was that weakness which led Turnbull to engage in megaphone diplomacy with his deputy rather than trying to assert his authority privately.
The elevation of an unknown quantity like McCormack may have cost the government communication and campaigning fire-power, because Joyce shared with Abbott a reputation for vigorous plain-speaking which cut through with the electorate.
But even if that deficit proves to be true Turnbull will be eager to swap a turbulent relationship with the hard-driving, media-hungry and unpredictable Joyce for an easier one with McCormack, even though the latter will be under pressure within his own party to match Joyce’s profile and aggression.
There are plenty of precedents for such an approach, including the role played by the quietly-spoken Warren Truss during the Abbott and early Turnbull years. If that relationship can be replicated Turnbull will be a relieved man.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.
This article first appeared in Eureka Street.