Those incorrigible Nats! And that Barnaby Joyce, such a maverick!

We heard enough of the word ‘maverick’ to know what it means these days, i.e. someone from the right side of politics who is embarrassed to be associated with it, but with nowhere else to go. Barnaby Joyce might portray himself as a tearaway but he is very much in the tradition of the Nationals in opposition. It never makes too much sense for the Nationals to compromise their standing in the rural regions when they are unbound by the practicalities of government, especially when they are fighting for their survival.

Surely it made sense for both parties in the coalition that, since they did not have to pay for it, the Nationals may as well have voted against the government’s dipping into the rural telecommunication fund to pay for broadband while the Liberals supported it. The Nationals could go their way and defend their vote in the bush, the Liberals could go their way and not let the government accuse them of wrecking the broadband plans. The media commenting that Howard would have never let the Nationals wander off because he would have given them money is moot, since in opposition Turnbull doesn’t have any money to give them anyway. (Howard was hardly a model for controlling the Nationals while in opposition!)

So why the fuss? Shanahan in The Australian thinks the Nationals have posed a major challenge to Turnbull’s leadership authority. What is striking in the press coverage is how it has shifted focus onto what the Nationals did and away from the real challenge to Turnbull’s authority, what the Liberal front bench did.

Maybe Turnbull should think of appointing someone with a stronger bladder as his Leader in the Senate, because the current one, Nick Minchin, seems to have a problem with his plumbing. Missing the vote because he had to go to the toilet and have a cup of coffee (not very helpful), he then turned up after the vote, according to Bob Brown, without realising there was a second one and fled again. In the end the Liberals split between some voting for the government, some against, with most following their Senate leader and staying away.

The story shifted onto the Nationals because the way it was being told, the Liberals’ three-way split was apparently just a mix up of confused text messages. But Laurie Oakes gave a clearer picture as to why such a last-minute organisational shemozzle occurred – Turnbull faced a rebellion from his own party. The last minute text messages only came after Heffernan told Turnbull that his Senators were furious about supporting the government. So an issue that Andrew Robb was insisting was a critical issue in the House only hours before, suddenly became a ‘Mickey Mouse’ one, leaving only ones like the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate, Helen Coonan, doing Malcolm’s duty and voting with the government.

That is why the focus has shifted on to the Nationals. Just as a merger with Nationals became a surrogate under Nelson for the more tortured debate over what the Liberals stood for, so now the Nationals have become the focal point for a Liberal party detached from its leader but unable to replace him. Nelson’s position suffered from being a hostage to the right, but Turnbull’s is even worse, his leadership was opposed by them (including Minchin). So Joyce is made into the Great Rebel when all he is doing is what the Nationals should be doing when making the transition from government to opposition (which is why someone who was an outsider in his party under Howard’s coalition is now very much in the party’s fold).

Focusing on the Nationals’ rebellion is also useful for those in the media who thought Malcolm was the last hope of the Liberal party. The idea that Turnbull’s hold on the party is even weaker than Nelson’s must be uncomfortable for those who mistook the temporary defeat of the old leadership after Turnbull’s win for unity. Let’s also give Malcolm the benefit of the doubt and take it as the reason he did something so politically daft as to offer Joyce the front bench position over coffee in Sydney’s lively Oxford St. No wonder he turned him down, who would want to get on that boat?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 8 December 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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