By Denis Bright
Legitimate focus on recent leadership instability within the federal National Party should invite more consideration of underlying causes of these presenting problems.
Competition between the former Country Party and the mainstream conservative coalition is nothing new in Australian politics. It was evident a century ago. It resurfaces periodically when the balance within the conservative parties is tilted towards Country Party and now the National Party in contemporary politics. Strong numbers in the National Party and in the conservative ranks of the wider LNP enable policy issues to be promoted which are difficult to sell to near-metropolitan constituents who should have the numbers in Australian politics.
Gone are the old rallying cries to defeat Labor Governments (2007-13) or promoting concerns about Labor’s taxation agendas. Strategists in both arms of the coalition must search for new unifying centre-right agendas as progressive national policies are essentially on hold.
The failure of Barnaby Joyce’s challenge for National Party leadership was certainly no threat to the LNP’s continued dominance of the Australian regions where LNP support is strongest.
The rural and regional populism fostered by the National Party over the past century may be coming to the end of its use-by date. It still lingers comfortably in the ranks of all the variants the LNP’s regional leadership including mainstream federal LNP members as well as in both camps within the National Party.
At stake in these political games is the leadership style of just less than half the LNP representatives in our national parliament. Brett Worthington (ABC News, 11 February 2020) summed up the tensions within the federal National Party:
Internal tensions within the federal Nationals are continuing to bubble over, amid accusations that those who failed to topple the party’s leadership are seeking revenge.
A group of Nationals broke away from their party and joined with Labor and the crossbench to install Queenslander Llew O’Brien in a lucrative position mere hours after he sensationally quit the Nats party room.
Today Mr O’Brien’s fellow Queenslander Michelle Landry, a fierce supporter of leader Michael McCormack, expressed her disappointment at the navel-gazing continuing to dominate the Nationals.
“I think it might have been a bit of revenge happening there because Barnaby (Joyce) didn’t get the leadership,” she told reporters.
“I am disappointed with what has happened. I think it’s been a torrid couple of weeks. Now they’ve had their victory, let’s get on with it.”
Last week Mr O’Brien moved a spill motion in the Nationals party room in a bid to restore former leader Barnaby Joyce to the job he lost two years earlier to scandals.
Mr McCormack defeated that challenge and retained his job as Deputy Prime Minister, with Cabinet minister David Littleproud being appointed his deputy leader.
The House of Representatives on Monday had to elect a new Deputy Speaker, after the incumbent Kevin Hogan stepped down to assume a position in the outer ministry.
But when it came up for a vote in the Lower House, Labor nominated Mr O’Brien and attracted enough votes from the Nationals and crossbench to defeat Mr Drum.
“Obviously it is disappointing for the Government,” Nationals senator Matt Canavan said on Tuesday.
“It’s not the way things were planned. But it’s also hardly a great threat to the great institution of parliamentary democracy. I’m sure things will keep ticking along here in Canberra.”
Senator Canavan quit his Cabinet position last week to support Mr Joyce’s failed leadership tilt.
Mr O’Brien’s decision to quit the Nationals party room won’t affect the Coalition’s two-seat margin in the House of Representatives because he will remain a Government MP.
Ironically, only Llew O’Brien (Member for Wide Bay) was rewarded for his support for Barnaby Joyce through his elevation to the post of deputy house speaker by defeating Damian Drum (Member for Nicholls) by 75 votes to 67. Llew O’Brien is now out of the hot seat of the National Party caucus but continues to be a minor player in the wider LNP caucus of 77 members.
The whole incident pointed out the extent of LNP influence across regional Australia with a bloc of well over thirty seats in LNP hands beyond existing near-metropolitan areas.
Some of Scott Morrison’s regional cousins continue to be remarkably outspoken as the century of the National Party is about to be celebrated in Melbourne:
The Federal Member for Wide Bay said a proposal to hold a party room meeting in Melbourne to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Nationals — allowing MPs to claim travel expenses — was the latest in a series of party decisions that made him feel deeply uncomfortable.
“I think it speaks to a wider cultural issue when people think that it’s OK to access public funds that really shouldn’t be accessed under those circumstances,” he said.
“To think of people who are on $200,000 a year dipping into those public funds that hardworking Australians can’t afford to be giving away is something that doesn’t sit well with me.
This populist regional sentiment is not confined to the voice of a few National Party dissidents. The Leader of the Parliamentary National Party and Member for Riverina, Michael McCormack has always talked up the federal LNP’s commitments to his own electorate as shown by his promotion of 2019-20 budget commitments for Riverina which was distributed on his electorate web site just prior to the 2019 elections.
Voters in Riverina supported Michael McCormack with a surprisingly high primary vote of almost 60 per cent. Preferences from the UAP candidate were of no significance in the actual count but ran to almost 70 per cent in favour of Michael McCormack.
This art of pork-barrelling in support of regional constituents is a well-developed art across the LNP’s regional heartland in both National Party and the wider mainstream LNP who represent seats outside near-metropolitan areas. Perhaps it is more strident from some of the National Party dissidents but is exists in all quarters of conservative representation from the regions.
Member George Christensen in Dawson is identified with support for the new Collinsville thermal power station, his scepticism of the action on climate change or the impact of catchment run-off from rural industries on pollution of the Coral Sea or the influence of the Chinese communist party in Australian society.
On the positive side, George Christensen has joined with left-leaning independent Andrew Wilkie to check on the plight of Julian Assange in Britain with support from twelve other MPs across Australia (ABC News 18 February 2020). With so many trade unionists across Dawson, it is appropriate for George Christensen to maintain a degree of bipartisanship to remain acceptable to unionised Labor on coal ports and transport networks of Dawson. The coalfields are mainly in the adjacent electorate of Capricornia.
In the coalfield town of Collinsville within the Capricornia electorate, Labor struggled against a populist LNP campaign with just 36.8 per cent of the primary vote ion 2019 which built up to 51.86 per cent after preferences.
When comparisons are made between employment patterns in the Central Queensland electorate of Capricornia with the State of Queensland, employment sectors such as retail trade and combined health care with social assistance surpass employment in mining and rural industries (Estimates from the Queensland Statisticians Regional Profile for Capricornia at the 2016 Census before the current electoral boundaries were finalised):
It would be an over-simplification to classify Capricornia as a federal seat that is totally dependent on coal mining and traditional rural industries such as beef grazing. Perhaps it is quite convenient at present for the National Party to over-state the role of coal mining for the supply of thermal power stations here and abroad but this production is not the major part of Central Queensland coal mining.
It is good wedge politics to promote this issue which is not being well supported in middle income metropolitan electorates which are comfortably held by the federal LNP.
Achieving the right balance between regional populism and the pragmatic politics of change within the federal LNP requires real leadership skill that can keep regional Australia in LNP hands for another generation.
The LNP regional seats are highly significant because there are over 30 seats which are held by the LNP outside near-metropolitan areas. Of these LNP regional seats, only Bass in Tasmania (50.41 per cent after preferences) is a highly marginal seat. Leichhardt in North Queensland (54.17 per cent) and Hasluck in Western Australia (55.39 per cent) are always difficult for Labor to win. Hasluck is indeed held by Ken Wyatt as Minister for Indigenous Australians who has strong rapport on all sides of parliament.
The wider bloc of largely conservative LNP representatives from regional Australia keeps our country firmly in the far-right spectrum of global geopolitics. Regional LNP members will always cheer on the need for coal exports, new military bases in Northern Australia, closer strategic ties with the USA and containment of Chinese global influence in Asia and the Pacific.
Loyalty to the Trump Administration is so entrenched in the federal LNP that it extends to our ban on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G roll-out and over-rides our traditional ties to British conservative governments. George Christensen is a strong supporter of the ban on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G roll-out.
Talking down closer economic ties with China is a severe negative for living standards and new investment, particularly in Northern Australia. Asian investment in ports, transport infrastructure, tourism and economic diversification away from the environmentally sensitive Coral Sea foreshores of Queensland should be a strong plea from regional LNP members.
The sports rorts affair contains elements of old-style US political revivalism as regional members rushed to be photographed with the former Sports Minister on election eve 2019. It was repeated successfully in regional electorates across Australia to the delight of media outlets who were offered daring exercises in parochialism and nostalgia which defied ethical accountability.
ABC News 13 February 2020: In the ultra-marginal Queensland seat of Capricornia, held by Nationals MP Michelle Landry, $146,200 was granted to Yeppoon Swans AFL Club.
Senator McKenzie was at the club’s home ground Swan Park to announce the funding on May 1, just 17 days before the election.
Club president Peter Watkins said the funding was for lights, which allows 100 kids to play on Friday nights without having to bring in temporary lighting.
“We’re forever grateful of what we’ve got,” he said.
The club was speaking to Ms Landry — who hails from Yeppoon — in the period it lodged the application.
A spokesperson for Ms Landry said: “Michelle encourages community and sporting organizations to apply to a range of programs which offer Government assistance.”
The LNP’s swing in the Central Queensland federal seat of Capricornia was certainly one of the brightest spots for the Morrison Government during the 2019 election campaign. Michelle Landry’s primary vote of 40.65 per cent was boosted to 62.35 per cent by predictable preference flows from key minor parties to generate an overall swing to the LNP of 11.72 per cent.
Beyond the current tribal parochialism of the leadership tussle in the National Party and the effects of the sports rorts affair, a more proactive and conservative leadership style on national issues has emerged from Liberal member Andrew Hastie as Member for Canning in WA:
Federal MP and chairman of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Andrew Hastie, fears that TikTok could be sharing that private information with authorities in Beijing.
“China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 means the Chinese Government can compel businesses to share information with them,” he told 7.30.
“So, I doubt if our information is secure when it’s owned by Chinese companies.”
He believes TikTok poses a potential national security threat to Australia, even though at this stage the app is mostly used by teenagers.
“TikTok is largely used by teenagers but they’re our future leaders,” Mr Hastie said.
“They’re our future political, economic, cultural and military leaders and we need to protect their information long term.
Such strident conservatism shows that regional Liberal Party members can make policy waves to redefine Australia’s identity politics as promoted by Andrew Hastie in his News Talk comments on 6PR radio for Capricornia.
The challenge for progressives in winnable regional electorates like Canning is to come up with pragmatic alternatives by zooming in on the blind spots in federal LNP prescriptions for Australia as a far-right country which is being taken for granted by successive US administrations through trade and investment wars as well as strategic involvements which hurt our own security and national sovereignty.
By 2050, regional LNP members with the communication skills of members like Andrew Hastie in Canning will probably have a higher profile across the LNP regional heartlands. Now is the time to thwart the longer-term transition from homespun populism to the ideological far-right politics of the inland plains and the deep north across regional Australia. Political risks must be taken to foster progressive change before articulate conservatism from the regions swamps the entire body politic by its weight of numbers.
Citizens’ journalist Denis Bright checking out the good, the bad and the ugly in corporate society and back-pedalling against unfair wages and working conditions under the false flags of free enterprise and trickle-down wealth agendas.
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