INCOMING federal president Larry Anthony has pledged to unify the National Party’s central administration ahead of the next federal poll in potentially 12 months’ time.
But the weight of his unification challenge was highlighted by the bitter internal wrangling that underpinned his ascent to replace outgoing federal president Christine Ferguson, during the weekend’s federal conference in Canberra.
As reported by Fairfax Media on Tuesday, Mr Anthony was set to be elected unopposed at the federal council after Senior Vice President Dexter Davies was a late withdrawal.
Mr Davies has held the deputy’s post for the past three years and was re-elected in the position again at the weekend.
He had originally nominated for the president’s role but a recent review by the WA government ruled he had a conflict of interest due to his employment in the office of WA Nationals and Regional Development Minister Terry Redman.
Mr Davies’ late withdrawal meant Mr Anthony - the third generation of his family to represent the Nationals in federal parliament, behind his father Doug and grand-father Larry Senior – was the only nomination.
But leading into the conference, Mr Anthony was forced to gain nomination for the federal council meeting, where the president is elected, via the South Australian delegation.
It’s understood senior forces within the parliamentary arm of the National party hold concerns about the former Howard government minister’s lobbying links to the controversial Shenhua coal mine in the NSW New England electorate held by Nationals deputy-leader Barnaby Joyce and potential political damage.
In a pre-emptive strike ahead of the following day’s executive elections, it was unveiled via Twitter on Saturday that NSW Nationals president Bede Burke had signed a letter withdrawing his nomination.
While Mr Burke was reluctant to comment, it’s understood the move was aimed at re-opening the election process or forcing its delay, to allow other candidates to potentially nominate and provide a possible vote on an alternative to Mr Anthony.
During the conference, Mr Anthony expressed surprise at the late machinations, telling Fairfax Media he was unaware of Mr Burke’s letter and had not been personally notified of any move against him.
He also expressed concerns that the last minute manoeuvre was being engineered in a manner that contradicted the party’s traditional methods of fronting rivals, rather than resorting to back room moves.
“This feels more like a Labor party conference; not the National party,” one senior party source said on Saturday.
Several urgent meetings were held by various State divisions of the party leading into Sunday’s elections, as media speculation escalated that Mr Anthony’s leadership bid had been thwarted.
But National Party federal director Scott Mitchell - also Returning Officer for the elections - sought legal advice which ruled the nomination was valid, according to the party’s constitution.
On Monday, a relieved Mr Anthony said he felt very honoured to now hold the president’s role, after being elected unopposed.
“The National Party has been a big part of my life – it’s been a big party of the Anthony party life,” he said of his father and grandfather who also held the NSW electorate of Richmond.
“I’ve come to a point in life where I want to give back.
“In this voluntary capacity I look forward to supporting the parliamentary party in an administrative role and to ensure that all our men and women in the lower house and the upper house have the best possible opportunity to get re-elected at an important election next year.”
All conflicts 'removed': Anthony
Asked whether he had dealt with his lobbying activities and links to the Shenhua mine through his role as a director of SAS Consulting Group, Mr Anthony said, he had “removed all conflicts”.
He said his company’s contract with Shenhua had also expired a few months ago.
“As far as my role’s concerned now, I’m moving from my professional career to a voluntary role, and this is supporting the National Party and really supporting all the different hopes and aspirations for creating jobs in regional Australia,” he said.
Mr Anthony said the federal president’s job was “very much an administrative role” not a political role for the National party.
He said his plan leading into next year’s election was to unify the party.
“The Nationals are quite different across the Commonwealth,” he said.
“There’s the LNP which is one party in Queensland.
“Coalition agreements are very successful in NSW, Victoria and across in WA.
“The first thing is to bring them all together to ensure we’re properly prepared to ensure we’re also providing good policy ideas, to ensure that we keep to our core values and to support our parliamentary team and in essence that’s what I’ll be doing over the next 12 months.”
Outgoing federal president Christine Ferguson at the conference on the weekend.
Federal Nationals leader Warren Truss congratulated Ms Ferguson for her efforts as the party president over the past three years, saying she had been a “real champion of regional Australia and a real champion of the Nationals”.
“Good governments must stay the course and take the people with them or much needed reform simply won’t happen,” he said ironically, just two days out from the Liberal party’s leadership change that’s seen Malcolm Turnbull become PM.
“We always need to earn the trust and respect of the voters – it can never be taken for granted.
“Once won it can still be lost so we must continuously be working with the electors, with the people, to ensure that we deliver good government and honour the commitment we make to the people.
“I think that’s a lesson the Nationals have learned over the years, in the regions.”
Ms Ferguson said at the first meeting she attended of her local National party branch in Gundagai after moving to her farm there about 40 years ago she was appointed secretary and had recently returned to that role.
“It’s been a pleasure working with you all over the past years and executive of the federal council,” she said.
Last week Mr Truss backed Mr Anthony saying he understood his name had been removed from the lobbying register.
“His relationship with that company was severed some time ago,” he said of the Shenhua connection.
“Larry Anthony's credentials with the party are absolutely well known and long documented and going back generations and I'm sure he'll be a very fine president of the party.”
Former National party leader and deputy prime minister John Anderson also endorsed Mr Anthony’s ascent to the national presidency, saying he came from a family that's “contributed enormously” to the National party.
“I think he has the skills needed as we go into an election year,” he said.