Mungo MacCallum writes that the National Party may not yet be out of control but it represents a far more frightening prospect to Turnbull and the Liberals than the cross-benchers ever will.
The Nationals are feeling their oats – also their sugar, their water and their pump-action shot guns. Quite suddenly the traditional party of conservative rural socialists are turning feisty and uppity – partly in self defence, but largely just because they can.
The new rambunctiousness arrived with the new leader, Barnaby Joyce, generally seen as the loose cannon needed to shake up the somewhat torpid regime of Warren Truss. Joyce was always going to be a bit of a risk, but one that was worth taking: the Nationals were generally seen as a rather limp appendage of the Liberal Party dog. And initially, at least, the risk worked: the Nationals did far better in the July election than their coalition partners and secured an extra cabinet position and enhance portfolio responsibilities as a result.
But there was a downside: the re-emergence of the minor parties, and in particular the perilous Pauline Hanson and her born again One Nation. Her own renaissance in Queensland was regarded as inevitable, but when she gathered another seat in the deep north and one each in Western Australia and New South Wales the alarm bells turned into a clangour.
With state elections looming in both Queensland, where the Lib-Nats were hoping to win and Western Australia, where the Nats were trying to stage a comeback the national hegemony was threatened. And then came New South Wales, where the Nats were creamed in Orange – not by One Nation but by the well-armed Shooters and Fishers, who had also blasphemously misappropriated the Nations’ treasured title of Farmers.
That result was seen as the acquiescence of the party to Liberal Party policies from the inner urban elites. So clearly something had to be done, and the chosen solution was to be tougher, to be more independent – to be rebellious. In the past the Nationals has generally been regarded as a relatively peaceful bunch of social conservatives – or perhaps more accurately conservative socialists.
But now it was time to rise up, and given the world-wide movements sparked by Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the European ultra-right, there was only one way to go. So instant populism was the cry – get back to your roots.
Joyce led the charge: coal is good, but there are more than a few farmers who think that mining on their properties may not be an unalloyed bliss. But surely sugar is even better. When a report came out suggesting that a tax on the crystalline sweetener might prevent, or at least check, the rampant obesity is the population Joyce just said no. If people wanted to get fit – or less fat for a start – they could eat less and exercise. Taxing the product would nor work.
Well, tell that to Malcolm Turnbull who has spent months insisting that all taxes are a disincentive to those who pay them, or better still to the tobacco industry, where taxing smokes has demonstrably reduced the habit – and not only that, it has produced a cultural change: with government intervention, a clear signal that smoking was unhealthy and anti-social, is has become less acceptable all round.
But logic and evidence has nothing to do with it: leave the sugar farmers alone. They are just the sort who would defect to Hanson at the slightest hint of weakness. And so it is with the cotton growers of the north: extraordinarily, Joyce pre-empted a long-standing agreement to add 450 gigalitres of water down the Murray to the parched south in order to protect his constituents in Queensland and New South Wales.
Naturally there was an explosion from Nick Xenophon in support of his fellow Croweaters: settle this now – stick to the contract or my party and I will play no speaks about anything else, and most especially the about the so=called vital legislation in the senate. Joyce fumed that the government was being held to ransom, which did not help. So it was left, yet again, to Turnbull to throw the rug over another distraction.
And the same, in spades, applies to the backpackers tax. The government, which included the Nats, started by imposing a tax of 32 per cent on non-resident seasonal workers. The rural revolt that followed forced a reduction to 19 per cent. But this was an agreement with the farmers Federation – not with the rank and file, some of whom thought it was still too much. So Jacqui Lambie suggested 10.5 per cent, and Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers backed her.
Joyce went a still wilder shade of beetroot: this would mean the foreign devils would be taxed less than the hard working (in the unlikely event they were willing to work at all — that was why we needed backpackers, remember?) Actually it wouldn’t. Since Australians receive a $18,000 tax free threshold while backpackers pay tax on the first dollar they earn, it would mean Australians had to earn some $40,000 before they hit the 10.5 rate – a lot of fruit picking. Joyce, an accountant, presumably knows this. Once again, it is not about the facts.
But where the Nats really showed their muscle was the debate over he Adler shot gun. Not one of them voted in Senate to retain the current ban. Two backbenchers actually crossed the floor to have it removed and the third abstained. Okay, fair enough – they are, after all, backbenchers. But as well, all three National Party Ministers abstained, and that is, in parliamentary terms, treason.
The principle of ministerial solidarity means just what it says: ministers must support the government or resign. They cannot so imply skive off whenever they feel like it. The excuse was that since Labor and Liberal were voting together for the ban, it didn’t matter; it was what was called a Mickey Mouse vote. But that is not the point: by their action, the Nats have effectively broken the coalition agreement.
And there may be worse to come: incredibly the ultra-right George Christensen is also a statutory officer: the important and influential national Party whip in the House of Representatives. We all know what he thinks about solidarity with Malcolm Turnbull; in the present climate he may well be emboldened to follow the Walt Disney image and play the part of Goofy. He is already freelancing with Bill Shorten to support a Royal Commission into the banks.
The Nats may not yet be out of control, but they represent a far more frightening prospect to Turnbull and the Libs than the crossbenchers ever will. With friends like these …
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.