Barnaby has come and gone, apart from his bizarre odd and perhaps further public commentary on the paternity of his lover’s unborn child. Many keystrokes, pro and con, have been spent on his amorous adventures and I do not propose to wade any deeper into these morally murky waters. Nor will I seek to comment on Barnaby’s contribution to Australian politics, arguably thin. Nor is it worth the words to recount in full his brief status as a tongue-in-cheek contender for the title of Kiwi of the Year.
Rather, I wish to lament the departed Nationals leaders’ real infidelity: before he walked out on his wife and family, Joyce walked out on his duly elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. And in doing so, he walked out on the Australian people.
This appalling lapse by one of the few Australians who, at the time, could have halted the back-stabbing rise of Malcolm Turnbull’s drive to confirm his own greatness, helped usher in what many will regard as amongst the worst and lowest of political actions, not just by the reckoning of malcontented conservatives but those of all Australians who hold good government dear. What we have now is a dilettante Chauncey Gardiner, a Labor-light PM who, let’s face it, wouldn’t be there but for Joyce and the Nats.
Barnaby’s price? Oh, the usual bunch of vanity projects for the bush, and the standard horse trading over ministerial crumbs (entitlements to ministerial staff, perhaps?). What the Americans call “log rolling” was, in effect, what determined the choice of our current and for-the-moment Prime Minister. Betray Abbott, get thirty very small pieces of silver. This is worse than infidelity inspired by a mid-life crisis or whatever. It was a sell-out. Did Turnbull leave the payment on the bedside table as he straightened his tie and headed out to mug and preen for the cameras?
Joyce could have stopped the putsch in its tracks had he evidenced the decency and, lacking most of all, the political nous to foil the usurper’s coup. Recall 1967, post the disappearance of Harold Holt, when the then-Country Party’s then-leader, John “Black Jack” McEwen, basically vetoed Billy McMahon as Liberal leader and replacement PM. We got John Gorton as a result, while the much and often wrongly maligned McMahon would get his chance later. My point is that McEwen had power and used it for what he and his party took to be worthwhile national ends. Whatever McEwen’s judgment – and few analysts, I suspect, would place Turnbull above Gorton as preferred prime minister – he realised the strength of the cards he held and didn’t hesitate to play the ace. Barnaby’s good friend and political benefactor, Tony Abbott, could not count on such support, not when it really mattered.
What is the National Party in the twenty-first century? Traditionally, its main purpose was to “get stuff” for the bush. It was a farmers’ and graziers’ party, providing political clout for its initial stakeholders back in the 1920s (when “stakeholders” wasn’t even a word). Then it was “vested interests”, and those interests were those of the custodians of the man on the land and the country towns which serviced him and his needs.
Academic and Labor stalwart Leslie “Fin” Crisp called the Nats the party of “country capital”, more than a little ironic in view of the relative poverty of many farmers and certainly of their service towns. The party was a counterweight to the perceived political hegemony of the growing cities. One hundred years after its founding, and with capital cities accounting for two-thirds of the population, receiving most of the overseas migrants and garnering much of the infrastructure and capital-investment spend, one might argue the need for the Nats is greater than ever.
The Nats provided in the parliament not just a country voice but also a brake on the Liberals when required, plus a consistently “conservative” voice — until recently at any rate. Avowed conservatism may not have been their purpose, but it has long been in their DNA. The Nats could be also relied on to stir the possum a little in the parliament, to provide some frisson so as to keep the (yes, often hated) Libs in check on a range of issues, and not just in relation to looking after the country.
But something else happened as time went on. As the Country Party gave way to the National Country Party, then to the National Party, then the Nationals, much of the party’s former and country-focused purpose slid into the background. The Nats became just another party, the game becoming more important than the goal. Factor in as well that the Senate, where the Nats have often done well, gradually shedding its constitutional raison d’etre as the “states’ house”. The need for tight party discipline and political “management” has all but seen off the former colour, verve, ideological variances and independence of mainstream-party senators, replacing all that with lockstep, follow-the-leader time-servers for whom the whiff of ministerial perks override the ornery Nat behaviour of old. Power is there to be wielded in the cause of good government. McEwen knew this. Joyce merely rolled over and said — pardon the grotesque imagery in light of the former deputy PM’s lusty appetites — a simpered and submissive “Tickle me, master”.
The disenchanted conservatives among us can no longer automatically look to the Nats to help out politically. No, that mantle has now fallen to Cory Bernardi and his Conservatives, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and maybe (on a good day) Pauline Hanson. The operating procedure for these folks must be to wield effective, hard power, as did Black Jack McEwen, and for conservative ends.
It is to them we must look if the Coalition is to stand up for its erstwhile conservative principles — at least once in a while at any rate.