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With the election poised to be a referendum on climate policy, the junior Coalition partner finds itself out of touch with voters, even in its traditional strongholds. By Mike Seccombe.

Are the Nationals still the party of the bush?

On Monday this week, a landmark United Nations report drawing on 15,000 academic studies warned one million of eight million known plant and animal species on Earth were at risk of extinction. On Wednesday new research by the Lowy Institute showed 64 per cent of Australians rank climate change as the biggest threat to the nation.

And on the day in between, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave an interview in which he emphasised his firm opposition to greater environmental protection.

Specifically, he sounded off to Nine Media’s David Crowe about federal Labor’s promise to encourage tighter land clearing laws across the nation, in line with those brought in last year by the Queensland Labor government. Morrison further complained about Labor’s plans to, as he put it, “hypercharge an Environment Protection Authority which will basically interfere and seek to slow down and prevent projects all around the country”.

Morrison continued: “We believe there should be responsible, practical, environmental regulations that protect and safeguard our environment, and of course they should be in place, but we’re very cautious when it comes to unaccountable bureaucracies that can, at the end of the day, destroy the opportunities for businesses to create jobs.”

Implicit in his attack on Labor’s proposal for land clearing reforms was an endorsement of the “responsible, practical” regulatory regimes of the former Queensland Liberal National Party government, which saw land clearing rates in the state pass those of Brazil, where deforestation is wreaking destruction on the Amazon. In the four years to 2015-16, some 1.2 million hectares of native vegetation was knocked over in Queensland, with consequent loss of biodiversity and soil and chemical run-off into the Great Barrier Reef.

The big question is why Morrison would even raise these issues in the context of an election in which climate and environment have emerged as major issues. Surely, he must know such pronouncements will not go down well with voters, particularly young voters, who are likely to be decisive in this election.

A clue lies in the circumstances of Morrison’s interview with Crowe.

The pair were en route to a campaign stop in the rural New South Wales electorate of Farrer, a visit that made news when a young woman unsuccessfully tried to break an egg on Morrison’s head at a meeting with members of the Country Women’s Association in Albury.

However, the real political significance of the stop was not the attempted egging. It was the fact Morrison was there at all. On paper, Farrer is the fourth-safest seat for the government in the whole country, with sitting member Sussan Ley enjoying a margin of 20.5 per cent. Political leaders do not routinely spend precious time in safe seats during election campaigns.

The visit prompted a member of the travelling media to ask the prime minister: “Is the government in trouble here?”

“No,” replied Morrison.

But the government is in serious trouble, not only in Farrer, but also in much of rural and regional Australia. And the fact that it is furiously sandbagging historically safe seats such as Farrer attests to the magnitude of the problem.

So does Morrison’s high-risk decision to talk tough about land clearing and environmental “green tape”.

So do the results of the NSW election, held seven weeks ago. Though Gladys Berejiklian’s government was returned, the poll was a disaster for the junior Coalition partner, the Nationals.

In Lismore on the NSW north coast, Labor and the Greens took almost 50 per cent of the primary vote between them, while the Nats got less than 40 per cent. After preferences, the seat was lost to Labor – a blow to the Nationals, which had held Lismore since 1988.

In Murray, which runs along the river from west of Albury to the South Australian border, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidate Helen Dalton won with 53.5 per cent of the vote after preferences, with a swing against the sitting National of more than 26 per cent.

To the north in Barwon, the biggest seat in NSW, the swing away from the Nationals was 19.5 per cent. The SFF candidate, Roy Butler, won 56.6 per cent of the vote after preferences.

In Orange, the electors repeated the dose from the 2016 byelection, which the Shooters won by just 0.1 per cent. This time, the SFF’s Philip Donato took 65.2 per cent.

Worst of all was Wagga Wagga. Last year, the former Liberal member, Daryl Maguire, was forced to resign after a corruption inquiry revealed secret recordings of him discussing potential commissions from property deals with a wealthy Chinese developer. It was left to the Nationals to carry the torch for the Coalition. The party got just 26 per cent of the primary vote. An independent, Joe McGirr, secured 44.6 per cent, and romped home with 65.5 per cent after preferences.

And that is why Morrison was in Farrer.

The seat overlays two state seats, one of which is Murray – where the state swing was 26 per cent – and the other, Albury, which was easily held by the conservatives at the March state election, but against no serious competition. Apart from the micro-party Sustainable Australia, the challengers were from the left side of politics – Labor, the Greens and Keep Sydney Open.

In the federal contest, Ley faces a much tougher opponent in independent Kevin Mack, the popular mayor of Albury. Mack comes with a detailed suite of centre-right policy positions and is supported by a well-organised campaign machine, Voices for Farrer, modelled on the success of Cathy McGowan in nearby Indi.

One thing Ley has going for her is long incumbency, having held the seat since 2001. She also has significant ministerial experience and high name recognition.

There are no such positives in the seat of Mallee though, which lies just across the Murray River in Victoria. There, Nationals junior minister Andrew Broad resigned following a tryst with a “sugar baby” in Hong Kong. Broad’s salacious WhatsApp messages made news around the country, including one which read: “I’m an Aussie lad, I know how to ride a horse, fly a plane and fuck my woman. My intentions are completely dishonourable.”

The Nationals selected a female candidate to replace Broad – Dr Anne Webster, who is well credentialed, but a political novice. At a state level, the electors of Mallee have recently shown a willingness to vote for independents and Webster is running against a dozen other candidates, including a few high-profile independents and one from the SFF.

How the preferences might flow is anybody’s guess. Even the ABC’s electoral analyst, Antony Green, will say only that the Nationals “have a fight on their hands in Mallee”, as in Farrer.

The question is, why are voters in the bush turning so savagely on Coalition MPs, and Nationals in particular?

No doubt water is the big issue, says Roy Butler, the SFF candidate who knocked off the Nationals in Barwon at the state election. But it isn’t just a matter of farmers blaming government for the drought. “On the eastern side [of the electorate] it was protecting groundwater and elsewhere the mismanagement of water in the Murray–Darling Basin,” Butler says. “That [mismanagement] was obvious to all, in what happened out at Menindee and in the lower Darling.”

But disaffection with the Nationals began long before the dry, Butler says: it’s really about the long-term decline of rural Australia. “Consistently the message I got across the Barwon electorate was that the National Party has not been listening to them for years. Their focus has been on doing what the Liberals wanted them to do and not on the bush.

“We’re losing jobs, services, public amenities and infrastructure out of our communities. People watch that and wonder why government isn’t intervening to stimulate population growth and the economies of these regional areas.

“Between 2007 and 2017, we saw 5900 people leave this electorate. They’re not coming back unless we can make it a good place to live again.

“In the 20 years between 1996 and 2016, life expectancy in the far west of NSW went backwards by 1.5 years, whereas if you lived in the city your life expectancy went up 6.9 years.”

Tony Windsor, former long-time independent member of the NSW and then federal parliament, offers a similar explanation for the rebellious mood in the bush. “There’s a range of reasons, not least the lack of any real policy: drought policy, water policy, health, communications policy. They butchered the NBN, and regional people would have been the big winners if they’d done it right.

“The Murray–Darling plan and the water buybacks, people think it’s just a racket and a rort that’s been going on. People are petrified about the risk of contamination of the groundwater by coal seam gas mining. They think it’s not worth the risk. The Nats say it is,” says Windsor.

“People feel as if they are being ruled rather than represented.”

Behind that sentiment, he says, lies a shift in the priorities of the Nationals. They used to represent the interests of family farmers, small businesses, but now, like the Liberals, the Nationals favour the big end of town.

“They’re backing the money,” says Windsor. “The mining companies, [CSG miner] Santos, the big irrigators. We now have essentially water barons, who control the resource, and they can create shorts in the market and trade at extraordinarily high prices. And the Nats are backing these people.”

It’s an issue that also flared ahead of the NSW election during an interview on The Project, when host Waleed Aly asked the Nationals’ leader, Michael McCormack, to name “a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they come into conflict”.

McCormack’s reply began: “Um… well… not straight off the top of my head.”

Another factor noted by both Butler and Windsor is the refusal of the Nationals to acknowledge the reality of climate change.

Former federal leader Barnaby Joyce was one of the loudest of the current government’s substantial cohort of global-warming deniers. His successor, McCormack, is wont to tie himself in verbal knots when the question comes up.

Asked about it last year by Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy, McCormack resorted to talking about weather: “Seasons come and seasons go. I do believe the weather goes in cycles.”

Pressed further about whether human activity was causing change, he dodged, saying he was not a scientist, and while science had to be respected, it was important to preserve the economy and people’s jobs.

His refusal to engage is understandable given his party’s closeness to the fossil fuel lobby and, in this election, its hopes of harvesting preferences from the mining billionaire Clive Palmer and the denialists of One Nation.

It is questionable how much those preferences will help.

As the outback seats consolidate – the number of farmers in Australia has fallen by two-thirds in the past 40 years, and the age of the average farmer has steadily risen, to 56 years old in 2017, compared with the national average worker of 39 – the Nationals face a different problem east of the Great Dividing Range.

The urgency of that problem was evident on Thursday, when the prime minister chose to campaign in the NSW mid-north coast seat of Cowper, where the Nationals are in danger of losing to a high-profile independent, Rob Oakeshott.

“There is a long-term problem for the Nationals,” says Antony Green, “which is that those seats are no longer rural. Richmond and Cowper are essentially urban seats these days. They are like outer-suburban seats.

“The social milieu, the political history of those electorates is being wiped out by the arrival of people who have no long-term connection with the party.”

So the Nationals find themselves trying to straddle a variety of demographics. The once-safe Nationals seat of Richmond on the NSW north coast, for example, now has large numbers of environmentalists and alternative lifestylers. It will be fought out between Labor and the Greens. Other traditional Nationals electorates are filling up with sea-change retirees from the cities. The Gold Coast is infested with wealthy folks inclined to the Liberals.

And the battlers of north Queensland are torn between the Coalition, Labor and the populist appeals of One Nation and Palmer’s United Australia Party. The politics there are complicated by economic disadvantage and what Antony Green describes as “the politics of place”.

“I don’t know how those north Queensland seats will go,” he says.“I’ve written that the government will lose this election in Victoria, but the size of the majority will be determined by Queensland.”

Conservative politics in that state is a “weird beast”, he says, as a result of its long embrace of right-wing populism and the 2008 decision by the Liberal and National parties to merge and form the LNP.

“Queensland is consistently the worst state for Labor federally. Although they will elect a state Labor government, [federally it] is different entirely,” Green says.

But Queensland also has been a problem for the conservatives at the federal level, right back to 1987 and the “Joh for Canberra” campaign, in which premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen – who made his living before politics by bulldozing native vegetation and hated “Greenies” with a passion – made a tilt at national power. As a result, John Howard lost the election.

Antony Green sees similarities between those events then and more recent political history. The coup against Malcolm Turnbull was, he says, “bred in Queensland”. “The push for Peter Dutton to lead was … not about winning the next federal election. It was about ensuring the LNP, that holds 21 Queensland seats, continued to have good representation north of the Tweed.”

It was about the old National Party, fighting a rearguard action against being subsumed within a more progressive Coalition. And though Dutton lost, those reactionary values won. Turnbull went. And the Coalition is now facing the election with no serious climate or environment policy, and a leader who still champions the right to clear-fell the land.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Are the Nationals still the party of the bush?". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.