Why farmers who are at the forefront of the impact from climate change, continue to support the National Party, a party of climate sceptics?
After a week of unfathomable machinations in Canberra, a decade of climate wars and the “death” of five Prime Ministers we are no nearer to a policy on climate or energy than we were 10 years ago.
As a 77 year old farmer, who has lived amongst Country and then National Party and Liberal supporters all my life, I will try and shed some light on this complex and intriguing issue.
The first thing to understand is that farmers are practical people and they tend to deal with what is in front of them. They focus on things they have control over and can change. Like most in the electorate they are fed up with politics and politicians.
Today politics has changed immeasurably. And so it is with the National Party. Once politics was described as the art of the possible. Today it is all about numbers. If you have “the numbers” you hang onto power if you haven’t you are history! A loss is not only a loss of power and perks but also a job. Unlike the recently deposed PM most haven’t the ability or skill for another job elsewhere in the economy that pays as handsomely as being an MP!
Once political parties prided themselves with strong membership, actively engaged in policy development and fund raising. Malcolm Fraser for example in his hey-day as member for Wannon had 10,000 paid up active members of the Liberal party. By contrast I doubt if the Victorian Branch today has 10,000 financial members.
So this change in itself has profound impact on politics and policy. Party members are seen as a nuisance, costly to service, and ignorant of policy complexity! With little fund raising going on by the membership and elections becoming ever more costly to run, other sources of funding have to be found. Obvious targets are finance, property development and mining industries!
However there are consequences; – “he who pays the piper calls the tune”! Thus the local member has a keen eye on those who fund their re-election campaign rather than the concerns of the depleted branch membership or the voters in the electorate! Besides the paid lobbyist is always close at hand around Canberra. Trained as they are at stroking egos, providing solutions, (their solutions) on gullible MPs, concessions are relentlessly extracted for their masters.
Of course finance, property development and mining are all sectors that operate under some sort of Government license. This inevitably results in the opportunity to dispense privileges, for which in due course a return is expected!
Come election time voters in every electorate have the opportunity to elect their representative for the next three years. Logically if the local member is a member of a party running policies in favour of vested interests and against the interests of the majority in the electorate they should be voted out of office. This should happen in a well-informed, well-educated democracy. But it doesn’t probably because many Australians are tribal about politics.
Fifty years ago Country Party supporters were known as agrarian socialists. In other words, Government protection of agricultural markets; – protection inside the farm gate, free market outside!
Farmer’s sought government protection from the market whilst farmer’s organisations argued before the Arbitration Court against wage increases and for low wage costs.
Few farmers today for example, still long for the certainty of the Australian Wheat Board and the Wool Reserve Price Scheme. Arguments for statutory marketing have now been lost and are no longer rallying calls for the National Party.
So what is the rallying call of the National Party today?
The doctrine of Agrarian Socialism has been replaced with Agrarian Environmentalism. That is to say any one or any government or non- government organisation that wants to interfere with anything inside the farm gate in respect to animal ethics, water or land management are the new enemy. “Farmers have been tending the land for generations and know what’s best for their land and their animals.”!
The arch enemy then has become the Greens and city lefties. Whilst many of the Green’s policies would seem to have a natural fit with farmers, reality is the exact opposite. The Greens and the city lefties are the new enemy; anything they proclaim will be opposed, regardless of the merits of the argument. It’s what Tony Abbott calls “brand differentiation.”
But there are other issues feeding into the complexity of our current situation. The first is the move to the social right by both the National and the Liberal Party.
In the Federal Parliamentary Party of Robert Menzies there were two Roman Catholics. I don’t know about the Country Party but John McEwan the dynamic leader of the Country Party was of strong Ulster parentage.
Around 1990 a significant move to the right commenced. With it began the ascendancy of the socially conservative right of the Liberal Party dominant as it is in NSW. The bastions of liberalism, Victoria and South Australia and elsewhere were vanquished. I suspect that BA Santamaria, who died in February 1998 was a player behind the scenes. Getting near the end of his life he knew his beloved DLP was a spent force and a new political power base, socially conservative, and responsive to the Church was needed. In 1990 the Liberal Party appointed their first catholic as Federal Director, Andrew Robb. As we all know Federal and State Directors have considerable capacity to influence candidates for pre-selection. Little time went by before Abbott (1994 by- election) and Abetz (1994 casual senate vacancy) joined parliament.
In any event today the Coalition is really controlled by social conservatives of the right. A far cry from the Coalition of Menzies and Fadden, Holt and McEwan. And a long way from an electorate that has become increasingly socially progressive.
A socially conservative government dominated by Catholics and “born again” Christians has little trouble rejecting the science of climate change and embracing their faith in God’s capacity to resolve Earths problems – sometime in the future.
However perhaps the most compelling reason for farmers to continue to support the National Party is fear. People in rural Australia feel they have lost political power and as population in the countryside declines, they feel increasingly vulnerable. There are few alternatives as there is a dearth of good independent candidates, the likes of Cathy McGowan in the Federal Electorate of Indi.
And as a farmer who lives in New England said to me at the time of the recent New England by-election. “Sadly Barnaby was the only real option”!
However taking all this into account doesn’t satisfactorily explain the central question “why farmers increasingly challenged in their daily operations by climate change and droughts, continue to support the National Party, a party dominated by climate sceptics”?
This really goes to the heart of the matter. Do farmers and their elected representatives believe the science of climate change or not?
This will be the subject that I will attempt in my next essay.
Peter Small Gritjurk.