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Speculation of paybacks and game-playing within the Coalition leaves Malcolm Turnbull with an uneasy pathway into the new year. By Karen Middleton.

Nationals’ power plays

Partway through 2017, a group of regional Liberal MPs went to see Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. They complained that their colleagues from the Nationals were securing too much financial and political help from the government and that country Liberals were in danger of losing electoral ground to them as a result.

Some of them went on to produce green-and-gold Liberal promotional material that looked suspiciously like the Nationals’ logo, enraging some of their Nationals colleagues.

The most senior member of the delegation, Victorian Dan Tehan, secured a promotion in Turnbull’s end-of-year ministerial reshuffle, elevated to cabinet as minister for social services.

The ministerial rearrangements also saw the Nationals capture attention of a different kind, this time for fighting among themselves over the spoils of office.

For all the success Malcolm Turnbull could claim as the year came to a close, after two byelection victories and a win on same-sex marriage, the ongoing unrest on several fronts is threatening to dull some of his shine heading into the new political year.

For starters, the elevation to cabinet of two regional Queensland backbenchers, one National and one Liberal, over the heads of their colleagues has highlighted the tensions within the old country party and between it and its Liberal sibling.

The promotions of Liberal MP for Groom John McVeigh and National MP for Maranoa David Littleproud have become a lightning rod in the state where those tensions are worst: Queensland.

There, the state election loss has caused Liberal National Party enmities to spill into the open, revealing a very unhappy marriage.

A group of federal Queensland Nationals are now planning to rebrand themselves as more distinctly National and run a separate campaign at the 2019 federal election.

Their leader, Barnaby Joyce, supports his team forging a distinct identity but his own emphasis on the north is causing tensions in Canberra, too. Joyce attracted headlines with his captain’s picks for the frontbench, dumping Victorian Darren Chester altogether and claiming the transport and infrastructure portfolio for himself.

Chester became the architect of his own demise by backing fellow Victorian Bridget McKenzie to become deputy Nationals leader, replacing former senator Fiona Nash and defeating Joyce’s preferred candidate, Queensland conservative senator Matt Canavan.

“Geography,” was how Turnbull explained it. With the Nationals entitled to just five cabinet positions, based on their proportional numbers within the Coalition, Joyce had a perfectly good reason to argue they couldn’t have two from Victoria. Once McKenzie was elevated to the deputy’s position, she was guaranteed a spot, giving Joyce justification to demote Chester.

Some who opposed Canavan as deputy had expressed private concern that a Joyce–Canavan leadership team would be less consultative and more authoritarian and could shut out the views of more moderate colleagues, including Chester.

But Chester’s ambitions had also been noted. Some observed that he had stepped up his television appearances while Joyce was off asking the voters of New England to re-elect him after falling foul of section 44 of the constitution.

Turnbull said he regretted losing Chester from the frontbench, calling him “an outstanding minister” and ruing that “matters of geography” had won out.

“Plainly the Nationals have a very large component of their party room [that] comes from Queensland and Barnaby was keen to see that reflected in their representatives in the cabinet,” Turnbull said as he unveiled the line-up.

Joyce echoed that view. “If we had it on merit, I’d put most of my party room in the cabinet,” he said. “But I can’t. It’s ruthlessly governed by the numbers and therefore even though you have a whole range of people who have proximate talents, you can’t put them all in cabinet.”

But his deputy rejected geography as an explanation.

“I think the whole argument about it being about geography is just ridiculous,” McKenzie told Sky News.

“I mean, the Northern Territory has one National Party senator and he gets to go into cabinet. I mean, if it was about numbers, Nigel [Scullion] wouldn’t be there, right? That’s on merit.”

Joyce denies payback as a factor in Chester’s demotion. “There is no payback in trying to get geographic representation right,” he said in his own Sky News interview. He called Chester “an excellent person who has done a very good job”.

On ABC TV he said: “I would not be surprised in the least if he came back to cabinet in the future.”

But Joyce’s Queensland selections gave rise to similar payback speculation.

Instead of elevating MP Keith Pitt, who had been an assistant minister, he dumped him altogether and catapulted the MP for the safe outback seat of Maranoa, David Littleproud, straight into cabinet as agriculture and water minister after only 18 months in parliament. The promotion prompted Labor frontbencher Ed Husic to dub him, unkindly, “David Littleknown”.

Littleproud’s electorate won a funding injection in the midyear economic and fiscal outlook statement, handed down the day before the reshuffle, with money allocated to upgrading both the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas museum at Longreach.

With invited media in tow, Joyce and McKenzie went to Longreach the same day to celebrate the funding, an event that also handily provided TV networks and newspapers with pictures of the leadership team with Littleproud, whose promotion would be announced the next day.

For his part, Littleproud argues he is well qualified to become agriculture minister. As a former agribusinessman, the 41-year-old says he has sat at more farmers’ tables than most people in parliament.

Meanwhile, a furious Keith Pitt – with whom Joyce has had personal differences – has made it known to colleagues that he is considering quitting the Coalition and sitting as an independent, a move that would threaten to deliver Malcolm Turnbull the minority-government status he has only just escaped.

Pitt issued a statement saying it was a privilege to serve the people of Hinkler in any capacity. But after news of his private threats broke, he added the mercurial comment that he would do whatever was best for his constituents, neither ruling defection in nor out.

A parade of Nationals colleagues publicly appealed to him to stay in the party, including the former deputy leader, Fiona Nash.

Nash is playing her own game of not ruling out speculation, declining to quash rumours she may yet return to parliament. She has a few options but all depend on circumstances beyond her control and some would only arise in the event of bad personal news for some of her colleagues.

Fellow New South Wales National John “Wacka” Williams has already announced he plans to retire at the next election, subsequently revealing he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

It is possible Williams could choose to go early and that Nash could fill the vacancy, after Turnbull told her colleagues he would like to see her back.

The political future of NSW Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos is also unclear, after he asked to be excluded from the ministry while he battles cancer.

Confident of a full recovery, Sinodinos nevertheless faces a tough fight and will be away from parliament for months yet. His health will dictate whether he stays on or decides to go.

With Nash’s vacated seat having gone to a Liberal, based on the structure of the joint Coalition senate ticket in NSW, there may be an argument for a National to replace a Liberal should a vacancy arise.

Nash is firing a shot across the bow of her successor, McKenzie, suggesting that resuming her deputy’s role was “certainly an option” if she returned, albeit “way down the track”.

Labor faces its own discomforts on the subject of casual senate vacancies, with a potential battle looming over the replacement for outgoing NSW senator Sam Dastyari, who quit over his links to a Chinese businessman and political donor.

The elevation of former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, the unsuccessful challenger in the recent  Bennelong byelection, who secured a 5 per cent swing to Labor, would anger those in the party who have been waiting patiently for their turn.

And Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s insistence that Dastyari had to leave parliament has set the powerful NSW branch of the ALP against him, guaranteeing some possibly dangerous discomfort for him.

But Shorten’s Labor remains ahead of Turnbull’s Coalition in the all-important opinion polls and while ever that is the case, he is safe.

Heading into 2018, Malcolm Turnbull still faces considerable challenges of his own.

The High Court is yet to rule on the case of Nationals MP David Gillespie, whose constitutional eligibility has been challenged under a different part of section 44, the part that rules out anyone holding an “office of profit under the Crown”.

The rival Labor candidate in the NSW seat of Lyne, Peter Alley, alleges that Gillespie’s ownership of a shopping centre in which one of the tenants is an Australia Post franchise should disqualify him.

The court must first determine whether it has the power to make an eligibility ruling without a referral from parliament. It will hand down its judgement – and any further judgement, if there is one – in the new year.

The twin issues of energy prices and climate change are likely to deliver more challenges, not least through an already-scorching summer.

The government’s climate policy review was slipped out on the same day as the ministerial reshuffle and contained controversial provisions for businesses to increase greenhouse gas emissions as their production increases and foreshadowed allowing the use of international polluting permits to help Australia meet its global emission reduction commitments.

And then there are those ongoing troubles in the Coalition and in Queensland in particular.

Currently looking like he will lose the next election, Turnbull will seal his government’s fate if it loses any more ground there.

It will be interesting to ask him this time next year if he’s still having the time of his life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Grind Nationals". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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