LAST year I contested the Federal election as a senate candidate for Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) in NSW. Many of my friends and colleagues were more than a little startled because they could not reconcile what they knew of me with all that Bob Katter seems to invoke. Above all the theatrics KAP articulated a strong commitment to progress rural issues, which I felt was worth sponsoring.
My political folly also drew some dire warnings about the damage standing for KAP would have on my career. I was amused by this as I didn’t consider I was regarded by the majors as a contender for a political career anyway. Beyond my poor political credentials, I was quite sure my cows and crops wouldn’t be adversely affected by divine prejudice over Australian politics, so I charged on nonetheless.
(Perhaps in hindsight I was wrong and the northern drought is all my fault. Apologies everyone! Although, I would have thought a benevolent creator would have seen fit to be more precise in his retribution so perhaps the innocents who didn’t vote for me should blame him instead of me after all. What a relief!)
In the end KAP failed in the election as spectacularly as I did. My commitment to rural issues was not reflected in Bob’s rhetoric around industrial relations and union sympathy and we have parted company as I don’t see KAP as an ardent rural party anymore.
The reality is that I had lost confidence in the Parliament’s ability to hear and understand the view and plight of ordinary rural constituents through the National Party. In my constituency the Nationals have no real competition and there were few credible options to lodge a protest vote for rural issues, so I decided to do a little more.
I listen to a lot of rural people in NSW and Qld talk about the courage, commitment and constraints of the Nationals as their champion in the Parliament. In my opinion though, the party based political system is diluting our public voice in Parliament and in the absence of effective farm advocacy we, rural people, are losing our political relevance.
By far the greatest constraint of the Nationals is their unconditional commitment to the Coalition.
My decision to stand for KAP was borne out of a still growing frustration. It is clear that we are increasingly being forced to elect Party representatives that are pre-selected based on their commitment to the Party above their commitment to the needs of their constituents. I do not believe the National Party deserves the accolades bestowed on it by people who now need more than the Party seems prepared to deliver. Our rural vote is taken for granted, not earned.
Frankly, I think the National Party puts its position within the Coalition well ahead of serving the needs of its constituents. It is a betrayal and a con that National Party declares itself an independent Party when it maintains the Coalition even in opposition.
Where else in the world do you see coalitions in opposition?
In order for the National Party to maintain Shadow Ministerial positions in opposition they maintain the Coalition in opposition. In a desperate and misguided bid to be political relevant and more importantly to try and stave off an overt Liberal Party assault on “their” rural seats, the Nationals maintain the Coalition.
The reality is that the Nationals are not politically enabled by the Coalition in any way. The Nationals Ministers are rendered toothless as far as I can see. “Frontbenchers have a responsibility to be part of the team. Backbenchers can freelance”- Joe Hockey on Barnaby Joyce’s criticism of the sale of Cubby Station.
In Queensland the state parties had the decency to do away with the pretence and they formed the Liberal National Party (LNP). This was pretty interesting in the context that the National Party in Queensland was probably the strongest state branch of the Party nationally. As a result of this merger, it seems the federal Nationals from Queensland are now subject to pre-selection by an increasingly Liberal cohort.
Nationally the Parliament is held to ransom by cross benchers in Senate, but the balance of power in the Senate is in fact held by the National Party as much as it is by any other Party. The Nationals cry poor and suggest that as junior members of the Coalition they have no strength outside the Coalition. Somehow we are to believe the best outcome for rural Australia is for them to continue to work behind the scenes to try an influence the debate quietly. Plainly this flies in the face of the evidence to the contrary in considering the overt political influence now of Clive Palmer and the Greens before him.
We would certainly see a very different Government culture if the Prime Minister and Treasurer did not have unconditional support from the front bench Nationals.
The Liberal Party has some excellent rural advocates in key Parliamentarians like Bill Heffernan and Sean Edwards to mention just two. Indeed in my time lobbying in Canberra these men opened the most doors for me and advocated strongly and sensibly on rural issues. There is no doubt though that their plight as sensible rural advocates would be made easier if there were more sensible loud voices in the building outside of the Liberal Party Room.
In the normal course of action a Coalition forms after an election when and if no single Party can form a simple majority. If the National Party were a truly independent Party, primarily concerned with the needs of rural and regional Australia, it would not be in Coalition now. The Nationals would be more influential as an advocate for rural and regional Australia using its numbers in the Senate to maximise its political leverage.
Of course this would mean that the Parliamentary Leader and his Deputy would not hold Ministerial positions. However, if the crucial Cabinet Ministry for Agriculture simply doesn’t hold enough sway to influence the decisions of the Cabinet on critical agricultural policy issues anyway, what is the real value of compliance and capitulation to maintain a lopsided Coalition.
The reality is that the National Party has been compromised in its ability to ruthlessly represent rural Australia by its own reliance on the Coalition.
The common enemy of the Nationals and the Liberal Party is the disproportionately powerful union movement, more so than the Labor Party per se. In fact if you look at the history and evolution of the National Party, the Liberal Party and the Labor Party, there is more ideological convergence between the Nationals and Labor, based on their propensity for intervention and protectionism.
Indeed as the Labor Party continues to drift right and the union power base is unwound, it may well be a more politically logical partner for the Nationals than the Liberal Party. As abhorrent as that may sound to many, consider that the ALP provided arguably the best Ag Minister Australia has seen in John Kerin. Sadly though the ALP has also delivered the worst in my opinion in Joseph Ludwig.
It is likely that in modern politics the Nationals would find more meaningful and effective political support outside of the Coalition for measures that could provide real relief for the rural sector.
For instance the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) provides an excellent working precedent for a Government funding system for special enterprise that is not welfare based and could easily be replicated for agriculture. The current Government is committed to getting rid of the CEFC simply because the Liberal hierarchy said they would, in spite of the mounting evidence of its value and success. In exchange for aligning with Labor and the Greens in the Senate to retain a profitable CEFC, the Nationals could easily bargain for support for an agricultural equivalent.
Of course the Liberal Party hierarchy could exercise their numbers in the Lower House to defeat it. However, simply using their numbers to crush a sensible and much needed reform would draw more public scrutiny to their notorious mean spiritedness as they needlessly extend the pain and suffering of farmers who incidentally again rate in the top ten most trusted professions. My suspicion is that such a Bill would pass quietly.
There is enough political leverage for the Nationals outside of a Coalition to make a real difference for rural and regional Australia. Unshackled, they could more effectively inform public opinion on increasingly complex issues facing the rural sector. Overwhelmingly legislation is developed and passed with bipartisan support from both sides of Parliament and there is a strong collegiate culture in the building.
There is no upside in punishing farmers. If the Nationals quit the Coalition to realign with the rural sector and drop policies that are hurting farmers, it would ensure their political relevance.
The Nationals need to be prepared to step out of the Liberal shadow and reclaim the high ground as the voice of the bush. If they don’t, more frustrated people like me will come forward until there is a reformation of a truly country aligned party. This is not a threat, merely an observation of the groundswell of dissatisfaction in the performance of conservative governments at state and federal levels.
Einstein is attributed with defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. I might be crazy, but I am not insane.