The Nationals should leave the Coalition

ian-tullochIan Tulloch

This opinion piece originally appeared on ABC Unleashed on 18 December, 2008

The Nationals and the Liberal party should terminate the federal coalition agreement immediately.  Such a move would benefit both parties and ensure maximum results for each party at the 2010 election.  Recent tensions and bitter conflict between key individuals across the coalition, different voting patterns on important legislation and increased media speculation of disunity have damaged the position of leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull.  Now is the time to end the conflict and dissolve the coalition while the conservatives remain in opposition.

Across the country we have seen very different responses to the crisis in the relationship between the National and Liberal parties.  In Western Australia, the Liberal government relies on Brendan Grylls and the Nationals to govern, but Grylls has refused to give unequivocal support to Liberal premier Colin Barnett, a move which preserves a semi-independence for the Nationals.  It is also carefully designed to maximise the Nationals support at the next election.  In Victoria the Nationals under Peter Ryan won an extra two seats at the last state election. Then there was no coalition.  However this year Ryan has led his party into another coalition with the Liberals.  The immediate affect was to reduce the impact of the Nationals because they have become dominated by the metropolitan focus of the Liberals who are by far the dominant coalition partner.  We can understand the formation of a joint conservative party in Queensland because the Nationals loose nothing.  They are the dominant presence in the new conservative party.    

The past two weeks of sitting this year in federal parliament have seen the public fracturing of cordial relations between the coalition parties.  First we had the resignation of National party Senator Fiona Nash, from her position as parliamentary secretary for water resources and conservation, because she voted against coalition policy on tax breaks for tree plantations (as did her National Senate colleagues).  Then we had the shambles in the Senate last Thursday week where the Nationals, incensed that Labor has included the Howard $2 billion rural telecommunications fund into their own infrastructure bank, voted against the legislation, while the Liberals ran around in disarray unsure of what they should do (in the end two Liberals voted with the Nationals, five voted with the government and the rest, including Nick Minchin, scrambled for the safety of their offices outside the chamber).

Recriminations were soon to follow.  Former Liberal party president Shane Stone, in a letter to Malcolm Turnbull which quickly became public, urged Turnbull to kick the Nationals out of the coalition.  Tony Abbott, in an opinion piece in the Australian newspaper, said Barnaby Joyce should pull his head in, be a team player and abide by coalition policy.  Turnbull demurred.  First he sought to silence Barnaby Joyce by offering him a place in the shadow ministry.  Joyce coyly declined.  Others suggested that, in the absence of any decisive leadership by Warren Truss, Barnaby should take over the leadership of the Nationals.  Again Joyce, reveling in the attention, declined to take the bait.  Such a move would, of course, mean a move to the lower house.  It would certainly mean that he could not breach coalition policy.  However it is not certain that Joyce's parliamentary colleagues are yet willing to replace Truss who has been in the job for only twelve months.  What is clear is that Barnaby Joyce will be far more effective for the Nationals, in an electoral sense, if he continues his maverick role in Senate.

This week we have the prospect of another rift developing over the coalitions response to the government's carbon emissions reduction scheme.  Turnbull and Andrew Robb, shadow minister for climate change, have basically said the opposition will support Labor's scheme, while Barnaby Joyce and Ron Boswell appear set to oppose it.

With the coalition in disarray at the end of a year in opposition, now is a good time to assess the best way forward.  The best way for the Nationals to prevent the continuing decline in their parliamentary numbers is for them to forge their own way outside the constraints of coalition.  This allows the Liberals to avoid the embarrassment of the appearance of disunity and enables Malcolm Turnbull to focus on more important issues than trying to bring Barnaby Joyce to heel.