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.
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.
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
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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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