NATIONAL Party MPs have returned fire at a series of controversial claims broadcast in the recent ABC documentary detailing the party’s history, A Country Road.
Former National Party Queensland Senator Ron Boswell said the three-part documentary mostly delivered a balanced account of the party’s history, a period he observed first-hand during his career between 1983 to 2014.
Getting three hours on national television was a major coup for the Nationals, he said.
“I think people who would have never voted for us were watching it,” he told Fairfax Media.
“The first episode ran at 800,000 (rating) the next one ran at 900,000 and the next one had one million, which is a bloody good viewing rate.
“When you have one million people looking at the National Party’s history it shows there’s obviously a lot of interest in the party which has been an important part of the Australian political landscape since 1920.”
Mr Boswell said the large audience would have been impressed by accounts of senior party members, Doug Anthony, Peter Nixon, Ian Sinclair, John Anderson and Barnaby Joyce, who fought hard to win major battles that achieved strong outcomes for the bush, such as the sale of Telstra.
“They would have seen a dedication to primary industry and regional Australia and that the National Party was really in there working very hard for those people,” he said.
The documentary portrayed former ministers Anthony, Sinclair and Nixon as an uncompromising “troika” who fought with fierce independence while standing up to their larger Coalition partner, the Liberals, during the 1970s and 1980s.
But it also raised probing questions about the modern National Party’s capacity to fend off their Liberal colleagues and deliver outcomes for regional Australia.
In his interview for the series, former Nationals MP John Sharp said the troika had a “huge” reputation as a driving influence during the Malcolm Fraser years, hunting as a pack and arguing together effectively in cabinet for policy changes that benefitted Party members.
Mr Sharp’s input was followed by former Riverina MP Kay Hull expressing disappointment that the party’s current approach to politics lacked the characteristics and impact of those years.
“They weren’t doing anything differently; they were just better sales people,” she said.
“They literally went out there and made it about them and that’s what we have not had in so many years and that’s unfortunate.”
A Country Road then cut to a scene of federal Nationals leader Warren Truss mis-hitting a tennis ball.
That image was followed by a reference to Mr Truss’s difficulty achieving “cut through” at election time, while introducing himself to someone during the party’s traditional Wombat Trail election campaign.
Senior National Party sources have privately expressed disappointment at the negative imagery used in the sequence.
However, Mr Truss told Fairfax Media that when the tennis scene was filmed, it was the first time he’d played the game since his youth.
Mr Boswell also defended Ms Hull’s comments saying she was “a consummate National Party person” who only wants the party to survive “and that’s what she was trying to say”.
“Between the lines Kay was saying we’ve got to maintain the National Party,” he said.
Mr Boswell said he believed the documentary largely painted Mr Truss as an achiever, citing his efforts during the Coalition’s recent rejection of the takeover of GrainCorp by United States multinational food giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
“He went in hard for that,” he said.
“I think Warren does achieve.
“He may not achieve things in the same way as the others did, but he does achieve.”
Party insiders also objected to the documentary’s focus on the bias of former independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter, all of whom quit the National Party.
In the documentary, Mr Katter said he stayed loyal to the Nationals after gun laws were changed, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was treated poorly, tobacco farmers were “wiped out”, the “entire” fishing industry was closed, the sugar industry was deregulated and tariff protections were removed that “exposed us to Europe”.
But he said the final straw for him was dairy deregulation and “I couldn’t stay loyal”.
However, Mr Boswell said Mr Katter’s comments about dairy deregulation and his reasons for quitting the party were untrue.
“The whole bloody lot was bullshit insofar as him saying why he left the National Party,” he said.
Not happy, Clive
Palmer United Party (PUP) leader and Queensland MP Clive Palmer’s appearance in the recently broadcast series also angered the Nationals.
In his interview, Mr Palmer said Mr Joyce had fulfilled a lifelong ambition to become a member of the House of Representatives at last year’s election.
“But as I look at him across the chamber, I say what good has it done to him?” Mr Palmer said.
“It’s doubled his weight and he’s always red all the time and he’s always worried about things because he’s having to sell his soul and do things he doesn’t believe in.”
But Mr Joyce responded to the jibe by telling Fairfax Media he’d seen more of Mr Palmer during the ABC documentary than he did during parliamentary question time in Canberra.
“Clive’s first responsibility as an MP should be to turn up to work but he’s never there in question time which is very disappointing,” he said.
“It’s a job, not a pedicure.”
Rewriting history: Joyce
Mr Joyce also questioned Mr Katter’s reasons for quitting the National Party.
“The real courage is to stay in the ring and fight,” he said.
“Anybody can step outside and talk about what they’d do if they were in the ring, knowing full well they had the opportunity to get into the ring but they decided to get out,” he said.
“Bob Katter made a conscious decision to step away from a position of input because it was an easier life to live.”
Because the documentary's first episode aired ahead of the Victorian State election, comments Mr Joyce made about the federal National Party’s support for SPC Ardmona in A Country Roadattracted controversy, including negative reaction from within his own party.
But the Nationals deputy leader said during his interview with documentary presenter Heather Ewart that he repeated “over and over again”, that the National Party had in fact worked to secure a support package for SPC Ardmona at State level.
“I said that at a federal level we can’t start picking up everybody else’s washing but at the State level the Nats got a package and came through for them,” he said.
“At a federal level people know I strongly supported SPC but I can’t be held responsible at a federal level for something that is basically outside my portfolio and outside my party, otherwise I’m responsible for everything and every facet of government - and that would be an absurdity.
“You’ve got to be honest - but at a State level the National Party did get a package, therefore the National Party as a party did provide.”
Mr Truss told Fairfax Media when the ABC does a documentary, “I don’t have any editorial control”.
But he said he learned “a bit of interesting history” and the series also “naturally included every critic they could drag out of the woodwork; all the traditional critics”.
“Some people prefer to yell and shout and scream but in reality achieve very little, sometimes usually nothing, but to laud their own personal contributions beyond credibility,” he said.
“They also like to rewrite history and there was a fair bit of that going on in the ABC documentary too.”
Read more on the Nationals' reaction to the documentary online tomorrow.