Crispin Hull / Not so cute koala politics

The National Party tail has been wagging the Liberal Party dog for too long. Events of the past couple of weeks show how the Liberals should deal with them (NSW) and how not to (the Federal level).

When NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to move all his members, including ministers, to the crossbench unless the NSW Government backed down on koala protection, Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian immediately called his bluff: do that and all National Ministers would be sacked and the Liberals would govern alone. There would be no change to koala protection.

This is what the Liberals should be doing federally with energy policy; climate-change policy; water; species protection; land clearing and the Great Barrier Reef, and should have done with same-sex marriage. They should tell the Nationals to stop wagging the dog.

Besides, on virtually every issue over which the Nationals get obstinate, the Liberals could safely call their bluff and get Labor or Green support.

But no, this week’s decisions on energy policy show that the Federal Liberals’ decades-long supine appeasement of the Nationals has in fact transmogrified Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party. The party of free enterprise; small government; and individual freedom has now turned into little more than a parody of the National Party itself: anti-intellectual, science-denying hicks, revelling in big government subsidies to support unsustainable, unprofitable and technologically backward industries.

The Morrison Government’s demand this week that private enterprise commit to build a gas-fired power station by April, or the Government would built it itself flies in the face of traditional Liberal Party philosophy that abhors public ownership of industry; picking winners (or in this case picking losers); and heavy-handed intervention in industry generally.

It was made worse by its decision this week to divert renewable-energy funding away from wind and solar and to boost funding for carbon capture. The only thing captured here is the integrity of the Liberal Party by the combined forces of the National Party and big industry. The political doublespeak could have come straight from George Orwell or a plot from Yes Minister.

So, who is the more politically astute here, Berejiklian or Morrison? Who is serving the long-term interests of Australians?

My guess is that no-one would miss another gas-fired power station but the death of up to 10,000 koalas in last summer’s bushfires saddened the nation, and sent a warning to us that the climate has already changed, and global heating will only get worse without concerted international efforts.

The Morrison Government appears to be too stupid, too ignorant or too wilfully beholden to benefactors to notice that there will be grave penalties if Australia does not pull its weight on carbon emissions. A Democrat Biden Administration in Washington and the EU will impose trade penalties on nations that cheat on carbon emissions.

Labor’s wimpish acceptance of most of the Government’s pro-fossil fuel policies is almost as shameful.

In all, the koalas and the government-ordered gas-fired power station might mark a turning point in Australian politics.

For a long time, the Nationals have managed to get most of their way most of the time. The Nationals are socially conservative; support government hand-outs to rural and regional areas; and detest any regulation that stops people exploiting the land. But only some Liberals share some of those beliefs.

For a long time, the Nationals have thrived by performing an astonishing political juggling act. They get less than five percent of the national vote outside Queensland (and say ten percent overall if you divide the LNP Queensland vote). Yet with that, over the years they have (among other things) told the Liberal Party who not to select as leader (1968); told the Liberals not to have a conscience vote on same-sex marriage; vetoed or watered down countless environmental measures; and kept vast subsidies and hand-outs to farmers, loggers and miners – all against the public interest.

With this small share of the vote, the Nationals’ leaders have continuously enjoyed the perks of ministerial power at federal and state level.

That should come at the cost of accepting Cabinet solidarity and government unity, but that rarely stops the party allowing a few rabbits out of the burrow to voice public dissent to try to prove to the people of the bush that the Nationals are really getting results for them.

The unifying force behind this juggling act of power, of course, has been ruthless self-interest. As Berejiklian found to her great benefit, if you ask a National to choose between principle and a ministerial office, self-interest will steer them in the direction of the ministerial office every time.

Meanwhile, the wider community has changed. Australians have become more socially liberal (witness the marriage plebiscite); want more spent on urban infrastructure; and have become more environmentally concerned.

An increasing portion of Australians are concerned about climate change, energy policy, biodiversity, land clearing and water – issues the Nationals reject as matters of concern. The NSW Liberals appear to align themselves with the national sentiment.

Labor, in the meantime, is performing its own juggling act on two fronts: at once trying to be as green as the Greens while also trying to be a supporter of dirty industries and the unions and workers within them.

Once the Covid crisis is over, will a great Australian political realignment be far away? One side would contain the rural, science- and expert-despising, climate-change denying proponents of big government subsidies for dying industries. They will come from the Nationals, the branch-stacked Christian right of the Liberal Party, the Joel Fitzgibbon-style industrial wing of the Labor Party, One Nation, the Shooters and the Katters.

The other side will contain moderate and free-enterprise Liberals, the socially progressive elements of Labor and the Greens. It might only take a few more incidents of bluff-calling or unconscionable climate-science denying policies for voters to seek political alignments with less internal contradiction.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on19 September 2020.

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