Opinion/Comment, Politics

Nats Koala dummy spit “wrong issue, wrong tactic at the wrong time”

It can be pretty hard to make yourself heard, and get your story out, in these extraordinary times.

By Laura Tingle

There’s the pandemic, of course, and its path of destruction. There are the associated wars over borders and responsibilities and inconsistencies. These all create quite a lot of noise.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Nationals leader John Barilaro.(Supplied: AAP)

But even with all of that, who would have seen coming a story about koalas erupting into a crisis for the NSW Government?

According to the (still) Deputy Premier of NSW, John Barilaro, you would have seen it coming if you were on the land in the premier state — because it was an existential threat to your capacity to manage your land.

Some argue NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian should have seen it coming because the junior Coalition partner in her Government, the Nationals, had been up in arms about it for months.

But to the rest of the country, the spectre of a politician threatening to withdraw support from a government dealing with the worst economic and health crisis in a century, apparently over the right of farmers to clear habitat for koalas — who have, by the by, not had a very good year — was gobsmacking.

As it happened: The NSW koala fightThe NSW Government avoided collapse after the Nationals leader reneged a threat to split the party over koala protection policy. See the story as it unfolded.

At issue were changes in state environmental planning laws, designed to protect endangered koalas, that came into force in March.

Among other things, the laws increase the number of tree species which trigger a planning policy requiring the seeking of exemptions to show it is not koala habitat — and that development will not adversely affect koala habitat — before it will be approved.

To be clear, the laws are really only seen to be a problem if you are planning significant clearing which, for example, would see rural land transformed into new subdivisions on the outskirts of cities and towns — which of course is exactly where a lot of the loss of habitat is occurring.

Statements from the NSW Farmers, just as a point of comparison, clearly indicate they think there are problems with the laws but that there are ways through it.

And let’s not forget, these are not proposed laws. They are laws that went through Cabinet and the Parliament, of which the Nationals are members.

Behind the humiliating backdown

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

NSW Deputy Premier backs down on crossbench threat

Adding to the appearance of a massive, self-indulgent dummy-spit was the claim by Barilaro that he, and the other Nationals ministers in the Government, would be insisting on holding on to their ministerial positions, even as they moved to the parliamentary cross bench.

The humiliating backdown by Barilaro on Friday morning put the issue back in the box. But the thinking behind it has betrayed yet another sign of the Nationals’ ongoing struggle for relevance, not just in NSW but federally — and their various cunning plans for dealing with that.

It was noteworthy that, despite Barilaro’s inclination to the erratic of late — including his multitudinous positions on whether he would run for Federal Parliament in the seat of Eden-Monaro earlier this year — the federal Nats seemed understanding of their NSW colleagues’ predicament on Thursday.

And of course, publicly, Barnaby Joyce was out there not just supporting them, but willing them on.

With continuing resentment that parliamentary cross-benchers are seen to extract deals from governments, with little kudos going to what the Nats achieve inside the Coalition, there has been increasing interest paid to the model pursued by the Nationals in Western Australia a few years ago, during the time Colin Barnett was Premier and Brendon Grylls was Nationals leader.

A man and a woman sitting at a table, laughing
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Premier Gladys Berejiklian in happier times.(AAP: Paul Braven)

After the 2008 state election, the WA Nationals agreed to support the Liberal Party as a minority government — not in coalition but to guarantee supply and with Grylls and two others being ministers in the Cabinet (but Grylls not being deputy premier).

There was a complicated arrangement about cabinet collective decisions and the Nationals reserved the right to vote against the Government on individual regional issues.

It is noteworthy that the state chairman of the Nationals, Andrew Fraser, argued for just such a change in the NSW Coalition arrangements on Thursday night, as his MPs were having another crisis meeting to discuss what they should do about the ultimatum from Berejiklian that they would either have to resign their ministerial jobs or leave the Government.

And Fraser is now also in a difficult position, having written to party members on Thursday that “it is now a real make-or-break situation for our party”.

“This is about standing up for regional communities, addressing the real issues facing us, and making sure that decisions taken by city-based politicians do not unfairly impact regional people,” he said.

The complex web of personality politics in the Federal Coalition probably spares Prime Minister Scott Morrison from similar breakouts in federal Nationals ranks.

But it remains a problematic coalition nonetheless.

The battle over koala habitat has also put the focus back onto the Federal Government’s move to effectively hand over environmental planning laws to the states, and really couldn’t have come at a worse time, from the Government’s perspective.

Having rammed the proposed changes to environment laws through the House of Representatives, the Senate cross bench — well, Centre Alliance’s Stirling Griff and independents Rex Patrick and Jacqui Lambie, anyway — have said they won’t vote for the changes when they hit the Senate next month, meaning the Government doesn’t have the numbers.

Tantrums all over the place

Just as COVID-19 has drowned out so many other issues, John Barilaro’s tantrum has rather overshadowed many of the other tantrums going on around the place in the last week or so.

The question of what you find out about all these things is at stake at the moment, on a number of fronts.

In an open letter last month, Google Australia responded to the Government’s plan to make Google and Facebook pay for news content by saying it would result in a “dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube” experience for Australian users.Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher says Facebook has made “heavy-handed” threats.

In fact, what Google told the Federal Government behind closed doors was that if it went ahead with its plan, Google would withdraw both Google search and YouTube from Australia.

As dummy spits go, you’d have to say it is on a Barilaro scale. And it’s not the only threat to access to news abroad at present.

The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, this week made an extraordinary intervention in a drama unfolding about the future of competition in news rooms across the country, arguing the case for the newswire service AAP to receive government funding in the interest of ensuring independent news services.

While the newswire AAP was saved by a last-minute buyout by philanthropists, it is now under threat from plans by News Corp to start its own wire service.

The argument for government funding of AAP, Sims told ABC radio, was “compelling”.

“Our concern is going to be that it’s not undercut, there’s not predatory pricing, there’s not other mechanisms where News Corp might seek to disadvantage AAP and, in a sense, force it out of business so that the only newswire service left is News Corp.”

The push is on for the Government to give AAP a boost from its $50 million Public Interest News Gathering (Ping) fund.

A spokesperson for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said on Friday the Government “recognises the important role AAP plays in supporting public interest journalism in Australia:” and is continuing to talk to AAP.

If the Nationals really are worried about regional areas, and about looking relevant, they should perhaps consider the impact of monopoly news on regional newspapers and radio broadcasters across the country.

It’s all about being heard.

Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.

First published at The ABC Saturday 12 September 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-12/nationals-dummy-spit-koalas-ongoing-struggle-relevance/12653466

“Wrong issue, wrong time, wrong tactics.”

The last 24 hours in NSW politics have been extraordinary.

By ABC Electoral analyst Antony Green

a man walking down the street and smiling
John Barilaro said it wasn’t his intention to “bring down the Coalition”.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Not just because an issue that few had ever heard of muscled its way onto centre stage and threatened to bring down the Berejiklian Government.

But extraordinary because of the stable history of Coalition politics in NSW.

Other states have seen such explosions.

The Queensland Coalition Government exploded in acrimony in 1983.

The Liberal Party governed Victoria for nearly three decades until the 1980s without a Coalition partner, and Coalition relations have always been fraught in Western Australia.

Disputes have also infected the federal Coalition in our lifetime.

It was the National Party’s split of the federal Coalition, driven by the hubris of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, that played a huge part in preventing John Howard winning the 1987 Federal election.

A man and a woman sitting at a table, laughing
Mr Barilaro and Ms Berejiklian share a joke before a cabinet meeting last year.(AAP: Paul Braven)

In contrast, the NSW Coalition has been in continuous existence since 1927, both in government and opposition.

This long-term relationship hasn’t always been harmonious, but the occasional tiffs have usually been about rights to run in seats at elections.

It has rarely been policy, or numbers in Parliament, that have split the NSW Coalition.

In more than four decades of following NSW state politics, I have never until Thursday seen an issue blow up that would split the two Coalition parties in Parliament.

And on what issue? Laws related to land clearance and protecting koala habitats. An issue most voters have neither heard of nor care about.

And when? At a time when all arms of government are fully occupied with the health and economic fallout from a pandemic.

And how? By taking the nuclear option of threatening to make government unworkable if the National Party didn’t gets its way.

It is a case of wrong issue, wrong time, wrong tactics.

A woman holding a mobile phone up to her ear waves through a car window.
Ms Berejiklian works the phones after leaving her office on Friday morning.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Australia’s wealth truly was built on the sheep’s back, the Country Party was able to exert power over the Liberal Party.

Country Party leader and then-deputy prime minister John McEwen threatened to walk away from the Coalition over trade and exchange rate policy.

He usually won the argument, and famously even vetoed William McMahon replacing Harold Holt as Prime Minister.

When the National Party tried the same tactics of standing up to the Liberals in the 1980s, the results were very different.

By then, Labor was more electable, and splits in the Coalition allowed Labor to campaign on, to quote Bob Hawke, “If you can’t govern yourself you can’t govern the country”.As it happened: The NSW koala fightThe NSW Government avoided collapse after the Nationals leader reneged a threat to split the party over koala protection policy. See the story as it unfolded.Read more

Labor won the 1987 federal election, and state elections in Victoria in 1988 and Western Australia in 1989, in part because of the absence of a Coalition between the Liberal and National parties in opposition.

In the three decades since, the National Party has rarely separated itself from common policy position with the Liberal Party.

While Coalitions fell apart elsewhere in Australia in the 1980s, a strong Coalition government was elected to office in NSW under Nick Greiner.

His government inflicted major pain on the bush, with sweeping closures of country rail services, courts and smaller hospitals.

The government survived because of strong support from Greiner’s Deputy, Country Party leader Wal Murray.

But that period was the start of a long era of struggle for the NSW National Party.

The Nationals remain strong along the NSW North Coast where continued population growth ensures the expansion of government services.

West of the mountains it is a different issue.

Western districts National MPs are constantly fighting to protect services.

Improved roads means locals travel further to shop, boosting major regional centres but killing smaller towns.

The growth of corporate agriculture has cut the number of families on the land, and mechanisation cuts the rural workforce.

Population is at best static and increasingly concentrated in larger centres.

A woman and a man prepare to hug.
Ms Berejiklian and Mr Barilaro were all smiles at the Nationals campaign lauch before last year’s state election.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

Many rural voters ask themselves, who can better serve my local interests, a Nationals MP who will form government, or someone else who will concentrate only on local issues?

In the last two decades, the NSW National Party has regularly lost seats to Independents.

In the last few years a new threat has emerged in the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.

The party won three western NSW seats at the 2019 state election.

On Thursday the National Party beast tried to fight against these electoral terrier’s nipping at its heals, trying to prove it isn’t there just as numbers to back the Liberal Party.

But it’s all ended badly.

As I said, wrong issue, wrong timing, wrong tactics.

First published at The ABC Friday 11 September 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-11/antony-green-analysis-on-nsw-coalition-split-sparked-by-barilaro/12654210


  1. The decision by NSW Nationals to break with the Liberal Party over koala protection raises disturbing questions.

    An overwhelming majority of voters on the mid north coast value koalas highly and are now confused and disappointed to see their local National Party MPs take part in an attempt to make the Liberals back down on koala protection.

    Leslie Williams, Melinda Pavey and Stephen Bromhead must now level with their electorates and explain where they stand on the protection of this iconic and valuable native species.

    The recent findings of a NSW inquiry that koalas in the wild will become extinct by 2050 if we continue the way we are, and that existing regulations governing land development need strengthening, are a wake-up call to our politicians if ever there was one.

    The Liberals are right to stand by the Koala in NSW, and make the legislation work as intended. We support the premier and her planning and environment ministers in trying to do the right thing by New South Wales, by regional people and the koalas that live here.

    The mid north coast is a koala hot spot and we value our koalas for our ‘clean-green’ image, the tourism branding they bring, and just knowing they live around us, that we share our surroundings with them

    Having these National Party MPs putting development ahead of koala protection is not impressive. Everyone should make their feelings known to Leslie Williams, Melinda Pavey and Stephen Bromhead to put koalas before greed, profit and business-as-usual land development.

    We elected them and they are accountable to us the voters. We need to know where they stand on this issue. We call on them to stand up for koalas.

  2. Real shame the Editor has not taken bothered to make any inquiries into just what the Nationals are seek to have changed in the SEPP. Instead the Editor has just given their opinion. No wonder journalism in dying. One would have thought that very basic of the whole issue would have been investigated. But no, instead the Editor states it is only for Farmers to be allowed to clear their property for development. This is not the case. The changes the Nationals are seeking are only minor but they have a major impact on improving the protection of Koalas. Something the Editor fails to want to say.

    • So this is the most serious and apparently ‘pressing’ issue the Nats could come up with in regards to what they think is the number one issue for regional NSW then is it Alan? Really!

      Seriously, how about they provoke a fight in government over a lack of regional mental health services, ongoing inter-generational poverty in the regions or bushfire survivors still living in tents!

      You know just a few of the really pressing issues that actually matter rather than what appears to be lick spittle grovelling on behalf of a few well-healed developers? Oh, that’s right those developers are big donors to the Nats aren’t they! Silly me.

      Having said that I would be in favour of money being paid to farmers and other landonwers for setting aside land for Koala corridors etc – now that does make a certain degree of sense and would probably be encouraged to work too.

      I suspect the true reasons behind Barilaro’s dummy spit lies herein actually; https://www.smh.com.au/politics/nsw/to-understand-barilaro-s-koala-implosion-you-need-to-understand-where-power-truly-lies-in-regional-nsw-20200910-p55uhw.html

      • I believe that you have hit the nail on the head, Rikki. Rob Oakeshott is one of that extremely rare and endangered species, The Honest Former Politician, and his assessment of the “Koala Issue” is almost certainly accurate.

        Barilaro’s behaviour has little or nothing to do with koala protection and disadvantage to farmers. It has much more to do with protecting the interests of those big developers and Nationals supporters who own huge tracts of land on the fringes of cities like Sydney, and whose development plans will be curtailed if there is the possibility that koala habitat may be found within their properties. Further to that, of course, is the precarious political position of the Nationals, whose power is being steadily eroded by rival parties which seem to care more for those voters who once formed the Nationals’ heartland.

        I cannot agree with Oakeshott’s criticism of Adrian Piccoli, himself An Honest Former Politician. Piccoli’s comments, made on the ABC’s “The Drum”, begged the question of “who pays for the preservation of koalas?”. To highlight the potential 20% loss figure as a point of criticism of Piccoli’s argument, is disingenuous. The figure was clearly given as an exemplar, chosen in the heat of the moment by a man who was arguing a case about which he feels strongly.

        Piccoli’s view supports yours. Most, if not all farmers, support, encourage, and in many cases carry out, koala protection on their properties. After all, they are on the land for the love of it, and what it contains. If this debate were only about habitat protection, the solution, as you have suggested, is a no-brainer. To answer Piccoli’s question would be a simple task. Areas of correctly identified koala habitat could be leased from landholders by the government, until such time as those areas, as a result of natural circumstances, no loner supported koalas. In this way, everybody would be footing the bill for koala protection, and Adrian Piccoli’s just concerns would be addressed.

        The motivation behind Barilaro’s outrageous behaviour, in effectively shooting himself, and his party, in the foot, is far more likely to be political self-preservation. Perhaps he hopes that his attack on the very legislation which, months ago, he helped to pass, will restore him and his party in the eyes of the farming community, whilst appeasing those city-based developers and party donors who see their profit-making opportunities being restricted.

    • Alan, you have the right, and the duty, to call out poor journalism as you see it, but, in this instance, I think that you’ve presented an erroneous criticism of CCO’s editor. You have, in fact, “shot the messenger”.

      The items reproduced here are the works of two journalists who are not allied to CCO:
      “Laura Tingle is [ABC] 7.30’s chief political correspondent.”
      “By ABC Electoral analyst Antony Green”.

      The editor may or may not agree, partly or in total, with the views expressed in the items, but they are presented in CCO for our information, NOT AS THE EDITOR’S VIEWS.

      I’m confident that, if items containing contrary views to those expressed by the ABC’s journalists were able to be found and reproduced, they would be.

      In my experience, the editor of CCO is nothing, if not scrupulously fair.

  3. Concerned Landowner

    Much I agree with but can’t help but think the timing and reasons for this is partly to do with the rapidly growing blueberry farming industry in the remaining regions where Nats hold power on the mid-North Coast. IE. Coffs Harbour / Clarence Valley constituencies. Or am I just being cynical.

    The Nationals’ proposed changes to the new State Environmental Planning Policy Koala Habitat Protection include:
    Ensuring the definition of ‘core’ koala habitats includes thresholds for koala presence, verified records and highly suitable koala habitat.
    Include only high use and significant use koala tree species consistent with the Koala Habitat Information Base Technical Guide.
    Increase the number of core koala trees species from 10 to 39.
    A clear and reasonable definition of highly suitable koala habitat. The old SEPP required a 30 per cent threshold of tree species, the new SEPP proposes 15 per cent and the Nationals propose a 30 per cent threshold based on the increase of tree species.
    The decoupling of Private Native Forestry from the SEPP.
    Rural regulated land and agricultural production should come under the land management framework, operating outside of the SEPP.
    Local councils must be required to undertake on-ground surveys in areas of proposed core koala habitat on private land.
    The costs of survey work must be borne by local councils, including costs associated with an independent survey commissioned by a landholder.
    Councils must be required to amend areas of core koala habitat based on landholder surveys provided these are consistent with methods in the Guidelines.
    The survey methods must be the same for landholders and Councils and be clearly set out in the Guidelines.

    Personally, I sympathize with landowners who’s land has never had a history of Koala habitat (and never will) but yet local councils doggedly insist on bureaucratic red and green tape at the cost to a landowner who want to develop land highly suitable for rezoning where agriculture is no longer viable. When the present Minister for Planning Rob Stokes took up his portfolio, he promised to cut the nightmarish red tape – but that’s turned out to be more bullshit.

    Koalas are very fussy eaters and have strong preferences for different types of gum leaves. In Australia there are over 600 types of eucalypts, but Koalas will not eat a large proportion of these. Within a particular area, as few as one, and generally no more than two or three species of eucalypt will be regularly browsed. (we call these “primary browse trees”) while a variety of other species, including some non-eucalypts, appear to be browsed occasionally or used for just sitting or sleeping in.

    • Concerned Landowner,your comment indicates some knowledge of the subject, and raises some valid questions. I will happily demonstrate my ignorance by asking some:
      * Was the current legislation informed by people who really know enough about koalas to provide specialist input, or was there a government-selected group chosen to provide the government which the data it preferred?
      * Did the recommendations of this group stretch the definition of potential habitat so far as to make it ridiculous?
      * Were there trees included on the preferred list which a koala might visit on a 0.001% chance, and if death were the only alternative?
      * Is forestry affected by the legislation to the same extent as other landholders? Can logging happen in koala habitat areas?
      *Why is Fraser bleating now, about a law which his party helped to pass a matter of months ago? What steps did the Nationals take at that time to ensure that the legislation had minimal, and unavoidable, impacts upon landowners?

  4. Don’t mess Aunty Gladys she cracked the whip, Barilaro is licking his wounds .The Nats will retreat and regroup with new strategies on a local level .Their target will be the local councils administering koala surveys .The council surveys and officers will become a bureaucratic nightmare and a job creation scheme and extra funding for councils .I believe an independent professional assessment body, maybe Port Mac koala zoo, needs to be established by the govt ,councils are too on the nose and often tend to have a jack boot approach unfortunately .This plays right into the hands of the Nats agenda , bloody greenies.The devastating fires in California ,Oregon and Washington now ,every Governor of each state acknowledged today climate change/crisis in the equation ,not the Nats still, !!
    Perhaps as suggested , a financial incentive needs to be encouraged for farmers setting land aside, properly administered if thats possible . Its amazing how money talks , the blueberry Oz Group received $360,000 of taxpayers money this week to help with marketing and tracing .It will help the fledgling industry , not sure if its sustainable, time will tell .Personally I think long term koalas might be a bigger , better investment money spinner long term for regional tourism, judging by the interest with Go Fund koala .We could possibly learn from the Panda bear project ,if you make something valuable it will be looked after sad but true , dare I mention China ?

  5. “ABS data indicate that in 2017–18 there were 936 farms in the Mid North Coast region with an estimated value of agricultural operations of $40,000 or more. The region contains 4 per cent of all farm businesses in New South Wales.“ So the threat is the changing demographic. Why oh why are we represented by the National Party up here??

    • The wheels of change move extremely slowly and old habits die hard. (That’s the hackneyed phrases out of the way).
      Another factor might be the apathy of many of our region’s voters. I suspect that my wife and I are part of an increasing number of incomers, who escaped the madness of Sydney and other insane cities and towns, to enjoy a “politics-free” lifestyle in Coffs. Some of us have just gone past the stage of caring about politics because we believe that we have no real say in what happens anyway.
      Whilst Gurmesh Singh appears to take seriously his job of representing his electorate, I suspect that this is more to do with the nature of the man, rather then a reflection of the regard which the Nationals have for the people of Coffs.
      As far as voting is concerned, I’m keeping my options open, but if Gurmesh were an independent candidate, I’d vote for him in an instant, and encourage others to do the same. After a brief flash of exposure, Labor’s candidate seems to have retreated, so there’s little hope of finding a viable alternative to the Nats in that direction.
      I have frequently published my view that it’s party politics that are hampering our nation and our state. We need representation by people whose only loyalty is to their electors, and that can only happen when candidates are independent.
      Perhaps Rob Oakeshott can be persuaded to run as a state candidate next time. Then we’d have a real choice to make.

  6. We in the Cowper electorate have done time and did survive nearly twenty years of Luke Hartsuyker,shadow minister for employment, LOL. His modus operandi was a quote from Hemingway “Never confuse movement with action”.

    He pulled the pin at a good time with a generous remuneration from the taxpayers, I think over $150,000 p/a for life .His claim to fame was the Coffs bypass, still waiting for his hard hat appearance, cutting the ribbon.

    On another note listening to the Country Hour on ABC radio today I noticed the National Party stooges coming out of the wood work with misinformation. The complaints started with fire breaks being reduced from 20 metres to 6 metres. Please show me the legislation. Then it was we can’t get approval for sheds in koala areas. The piece de resistance was the Nat stooge who said his property was dominated by the blackbutt species Eucalyptus pilularis and koalas dont eat that species.Totally wrong,it is on the list of preferred species for koalas.

    Do these guys actually check facts or is it just pub talk ?

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