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On everything from policies regarding water capture to koalas, the NSW Nationals – led by the controversial John Barilaro – are fast losing popularity with their rusted-on constituents and the support of their own party members. By Mike Seccombe.

NSW Nationals over a Barilaro

The NSW Nationals party leader and deputy premier, John Barilaro, speaks to the media in Sydney this month.
Credit: AAP Image / Dean Lewins

The extraordinary alliance that formed on Tuesday night in the upper house of the New South Wales parliament had an element of policy principle behind it, but also a fair bit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Those who lined up to support a motion brought by independent MLC Justin Field spanned the spectrum, from the Greens, Animal Justice and Labor parties to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (SFF) and even One Nation members.

Together, by a margin of 22 votes to 16, they succeeded in disallowing a regulation that was hastily introduced in February this year by the minister for Water, Melinda Pavey.

Pavey’s action, taken against departmental advice, came in anticipation of forecasted drought-breaking rain across the north-west of the state. The regulation exempted so-called “floodplain harvesting” – when landholders capture water on their property that would have otherwise flowed into the Murray–Darling river system – from requirements for water access licences or approvals.

One after another on Tuesday night, the various speakers laid into Pavey and her party, the Nationals, over their mismanagement of water resources.

The lashing, and the subsequent vote, made clear that the Nationals now are assailed from all sides.

And the party is not responding well.

In just three weeks we have seen the NSW Nationals threaten – first individually, then collectively – to quit the Coalition with the Liberals and shift to the crossbenches. Then there was an ignominious retreat from that threat. And now the party leader and deputy premier, John Barilaro, has taken mental health leave.

Senior figures are deserting the party. Liberal colleagues are furious. The NSW Coalition is under enormous strain and there are Liberal mutterings about running candidates against the Nats at the next election. And all because of an ill-judged act of political brinksmanship by the party over the protection of koala habitat, of all things.

In reality, though, the crisis in the Nationals has been brewing for a long time. And it is likely to continue, whatever happens in relation to koala habitat or Barilaro’s leadership. Neither are the troubles confined to the NSW division of the party.

The ground is moving under the minor Coalition partner.

Take the seat of Ballina, on the NSW north coast, where there has been a big influx of sea changers and tree changers in recent years, particularly to the coastal town of Byron Bay and its surrounds.

In 2011, the Nationals won with 57 per cent of the primary vote in Ballina, and 75 after preferences. At the 2015 election, the party’s primary vote plunged 20 points, to under 37. The Greens’ Tamara Smith won the seat with 27 per cent of the primary vote, 53 after preferences. In last year’s election, Smith further entrenched herself, and now holds a five-point margin.

Just to the west of Ballina is the seat of Lismore, which also is undergoing a major demographic shift. There, too, the Nationals’ vote crashed almost 20 percentage points between 2011 and 2015. The party barely held on at that year’s election. Then, in last year’s poll, support fell further. The Greens and Labor each picked up about a quarter of the vote, and the preference flow put Labor over the line.

It’s a similar story across this region. In Coffs Harbour, the Nationals’ primary vote dropped from 66 to 43 between 2011 and 2019. In the northern rivers seat of Clarence, it went from 63 to 46.5. The party held on at the last election, but only just. The trend is ominous.

Demographic change is not the whole story, of course. Candidate quality also is important. Further south along the coast is Port Macquarie, where local member Leslie Williams increased her vote share by about 11 points between 2011 and 2019.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, Williams quit the party last week and joined the Liberals.

She went out with guns blazing. In a statement on Sunday, Williams blasted her former party, and Barilaro in particular, for trying to “hold the Premier and the government to ransom during this Covid-19 pandemic”. She called the behaviour “unnecessary, unhelpful and frankly politically reckless and unreasonable”.

 

As the Nats haemorrhage seats to the left in the north-east of NSW, the party is losing them to the alternative conservative party, the SFF, in the state’s west.

The first to go was Orange, which fell in a byelection on November 2016. That debacle was largely due to the failure of the NSW Liberal Party’s leadership to appreciate the attachment of regional voters to greyhound racing. The then Nationals leader, Troy Grant, went along with a ban on the practice.

Eventually, the Nats managed to get the ban reversed, but it was already too late. Orange went to the SFF’s Philip Donato by the slimmest of margins. Grant resigned as NSW Nationals leader a few days later and was replaced by Barilaro.

To lose one byelection may be regarded as a misfortune, but what has since transpired looks more like electoral carelessness. In 2019, Donato won Orange again, this time with 65 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote.

Further west, the biggest seat in NSW, Barwon, had been held consecutively by the Nationals for almost 70 years. That was until last year’s election when SFF candidate Roy Butler, in his first attempt, took it easily. The second-biggest electorate, Murray, also fell to the SFF.

Collectively these three seats – Orange, Barwon and Murray – cover considerably more than half the land area of NSW, stretching from the Queensland border to the Victorian border.

Such resounding defeats can’t be explained merely by an influx of new people with no history of voting National, as is the case on the state’s north coast. These are seats where people have voted for the party all their lives, where the Nats have often claimed majorities of 70 or 80 per cent. But now the voters have deserted them.

And it’s happening in the upper house, too. In 2019, the Nationals’ representation fell from seven in the Legislative Council to six. The SFF, meanwhile, held two; One Nation picked up two.

 

In a few short years, the old “party of the bush” has lost ground to Labor, the Greens, the SFF, the Liberals and, arguably, One Nation.

And the man who has led it through most of this disaster is the abrasive, polarising populist John Barilaro.

In private, Barilaro’s predecessor, Troy Grant, blames Barilaro for white-anting Grant’s leadership. The NSW Nats’ former deputy leader, Niall Blair, also fell out with Barilaro and left the party and politics.

Then there is Leslie Williams, who quit so spectacularly last weekend. Given her long dedication to the Nationals cause, and her rare success, says one source, Williams should have been treated “like royalty”.

Instead, she was “victimised, bastardised, isolated” by Barilaro. “Her leaving is the greatest indicator of how terminal the culture of the Nationals is in NSW,” the source says.

And the resignations keep piling up. Jess Price-Purnell, a former member of the executive of the Young Nationals and chair of the party’s NSW women’s council, left the party on September 18.

She aired her frustrations in The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, lamenting the ideological narrowing of the party, its “terrible behaviour” over the koala issue, power-hungry politicians “recklessly” conducting public battles and “elected representatives carrying on and creating drama”.

While Price-Purnell didn’t mention any names in her piece, there was no doubt whom she meant.

 

John Barilaro has a long history of courting controversy.

In December 2017, he grabbed headlines by calling for Malcolm Turnbull to resign as a “Christmas gift” to Australians. During last year’s Black Summer bushfires, he railed against those who suggested climate change had something to do with the fires, including his Coalition colleague and Environment minister Matt Kean.

The most egregious example of Barilaro’s divisiveness, though, came in May this year when the Labor member for the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, announced he was quitting politics. Both Barilaro and the Liberals’ Andrew Constance announced their intention to run in the ensuing byelection.

The fight was ugly and, in the end, both pulled out. Barilaro was then quoted using obscenities to describe Constance. Worse, a series of text messages from Barilaro to the Nationals’ federal leader, Michael McCormack, was leaked.

“Your lack of public enthusiasm or support for my candidacy went a long way to my final decision,” the NSW Nats leader reportedly texted McCormack.

“To feel threatened by me clearly shows you have failed your team and failed as a leader. You will never be acknowledged by me as our leader. You aren’t. You never will be.”

The accuracy of the reporting was never denied by McCormack or Barilaro.

At the time, Leslie Williams called for Barilaro to quit the party’s leadership.

Yet he remained and went on to the greater disaster of “Koalagate” – as the Nats’ most recent imbroglio has unimaginatively been called by some.

The scandal began with a simple fact: koalas are in danger of extinction in NSW. So, changes were made to the State Environmental Planning Policy to offer greater protection to their habitat. It increased the number of tree species that can be used to identify koala habitat from 10 to 123 and imposed not-terribly-onerous restrictions on land clearing and development. The changes came in on March 1, without objection from Barilaro.

But then in May, the SFF gave notice of their intention to bring forward a bill to wind back those changes. No such bill has been forthcoming, but the move kindled a fire under the Nationals.

And from there, things quickly escalated. While the Liberals offered the option of negotiation, the Nationals instead threatened to bust the NSW Coalition.

It was the sort of stunt people might expect from Barilaro. The fact that almost all his colleagues – save Williams – went along with it is evidence of just how rattled they are by the SFF’s advancement from the west.

As one former senior Nationals MP told The Saturday Paper: “They’re so fixated on trying to outshoot the Shooters that they just lurch further and further to the right. And when that’s not even working for you in the west, then it’s never going to work for you on the coast.”

That analysis does a disservice to the SFF, though, which is these days rather more progressive and less ideological on issues of concern to rural and regional voters’ issues than the Nationals.

Helen Dalton, a farmer, teacher and self-professed environmentalist, is now the SFF member for Murray. In 2015, she ran for the seat as an independent and won almost 19 per cent of the vote – even with no organisation behind her at that election, and after just five weeks of campaigning.

A few years later, she was approached by the Nationals after the incumbent member for Murray, Adrian Piccoli, resigned. “But I couldn’t bring myself,” Dalton says.

In 2019, she ran hard for the SFF on two key issues: water management and health.

Farmers in Murray are furious over the way the Nationals – state and federal – have corrupted the allocation of water resources. Dalton says the party is in the pocket of big irrigators in the northern Murray–Darling Basin, whose overextraction has parched the south.

As to health, Dalton says: “The suicide rate that we have in the Murrumbidgee region is the highest in New South Wales.”

More broadly, Dalton says, the Nationals have taken their traditional base for granted.

“My electorate was in the hands of the National Party for 35 years,” she says. “They delivered bugger all.”

Dalton says that at both the state and federal level, the Nationals are now agents of multinational agribusiness and fossil fuel companies. She points to an interview the federal Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, did with The Project last year.

Co-host Waleed Aly asked McCormack: “Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they’ve come into conflict?”

The Nats leader could not.

On land use issues, the SFF has found common cause with the progressive side of politics. A few weeks ago, Dalton hosted Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann in her electorate. The pair even gave an interview to the local paper, where they talked about water policy.

Then on Tuesday, Faehrmann and Dalton’s upper house SFF colleagues teamed up with Justin Field, the Greens, Labor and One Nation to embarrass the government on the floodplain harvesting issue.

It was not the first time this has happened. Back in August, the same unlikely allies voted a Dalton bill, which would create an online public register listing all corporations, politicians and individuals who own NSW water entitlements, through the upper house. It was only defeated 45-41 in the lower house on Thursday this week.

Similarly, back in June, Field introduced a bill into the upper house that would have imposed a statewide moratorium on the mining of coal seam gas. It passed with the support of Labor, the Greens and the SFF.

The government defeated it in the lower house but the mere fact the SFF supported it was significant.

“Mark my words,” Barilaro said at the time, “the people of regional NSW will never forget the day the Shooters traded their jobs in a deal with the Greens.”

He was referring to the purported benefits of the proposal, made by gas giant Santos, to develop a massive new gas field, involving some 650 wells, near the regional town of Narrabri.

But Narrabri is no longer Nationals country. It is in the seat of Barwon, held by the SFF. And the new member, Roy Butler, appeared not at all concerned that the voters may remember how he voted.

The “vast majority” of his constituents, Butler said, were fearful of coal seam gas development and its potential to pollute the groundwater on which they depend.

The climate is changing in the bush, and fast. And koalas, it seems, are not the only endangered species.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "Nats over a Barilaro".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.