What’s happening to the Nationals?
The Nationals should be riding high at the moment. They did well in the election in May last year and since then they have seen the Adani mine approved, a successful implementation of the Queensland flood response, a well implemented drought relief program and now rain.
All of this was blown out of the water by the ‘sports rorts’ affair which led to the resignation of Senator Bridget McKenzie. The subsequent reshuffle exposed the factional tensions that were below the surface in the Nats. They are divided between a Northern conservative faction that consists of Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan, George Christensen, Ken O’Dowd and Llew O’Brien. They see coal and mining jobs as totemic issues for their constituents and will fight to defend them. They think that a failure to do so will see them threatened by One Nation and Clive Palmer.
The other main faction is the Southern moderates composed of the leader Michael McCormack, Darren Chester, Anne Webster, Mark Coulton, and Andrew Gee. Some of these members are threatened by independents or fringe parties like the Farmers. Shooters and Fishers who want action on water and climate change.
The allegiances of the other members are unknown, as is the way they voted in the Leadership ballot between Michael McCormack and Barnaby Joyce that was held last week. The tensions spilled over when Matt Canavan resigned from the ministry and Michael McCormack refused to reappoint him to the new ministry while at the same time he hinted that Bridget McKenzie would be reappointed in the future.
In one deft stroke McCormack forged a rebel group under Mr Joyce that has threatened to represent its constituents even if this means opposing Government legislation.
On Sunday Lew O’Brien announced that he was quitting the Nationals although he would continue to sit in the joint party room. On Monday in a move that may or may not have been orchestrated by Barnaby Joyce, Labor nominated O’Brien for the Deputy Speaker’s job over the wishes of Michael McCormack and the Coalition’s choice. The final count was 75-67 for O’Brien which indicates that the the Joyce faction voted for O’Brien and against the Coalition candidate Damien Drum.
After the vote Ken O’Dowd, who happens to be the Nationals’ Deputy Whip, outlined the case against Michael McCormack:
“I wouldn’t be frightened to cross the floor, put it that way,” Mr O’Dowd said.
“It’d have to be a serious issue and it could be for coal-fired power stations, I’m very pro-coal. If the party went against that I’d certainly cross the floor on those sorts of issues. It’s the reason why a lot of us got into parliament at the last election, because of our fight for coal. I’d be a fool to my constituents if I went against their wishes.”
The outcome of this farce has been to leave the leadership of the Coalition humiliated. The Liberals are furious with Michael McCormack for not being able to sort out his party and inflicting the mess on them. However it is clear that the Joyce faction wants him and Matt Canavan back on the front bench. Ken O’Dowd has made that clear but it is not clear that this will be enough for Barnaby who wants to be Deputy Prime Minister again.
Unless Michael McCormack can sort out his troops he won’t be leader for long.