Blackmail is an ugly word for the Nats’ current strategy. But it fits
One of the hallmarks of the Howard Government has been its willingness to buy off sectional interests in order to make its reform agenda more palatable.
From dairy farmers to ‘grandfathered’ disability pension recipients, a host of minority groups have seen the costs of reform lifted from their shoulders and foisted onto taxpayers and consumers.
This is not necessarily bad policy. The whole argument for reform is that the pain of the few is outweighed by the gain of the many; hence some transitionl contribution from the many makes sense. But when the sectional interest being bought off sits on the Government benches, the spectre of Malcolm Fraser haunts the corridors of power – or impotence.
Barnaby Joyce makes no pretence of being concerned with the broader national interest. ‘I think the job in politics is to acknowledge sectional interests and to try to accommodate them as much as you possibly can’, he stated in defence of his shameless pork-barrelling. The Prime Minister’s model for addressing the problem – appeasement – accepts Joyce’s cynical world view. This strategy is a viable if spineless one in a single-front war.
But if disgruntled Liberals open a second front on Howard, deciding that they also constitute the ‘balance of power’, appeasement will cease to be viable. Howard’s continued indulgence of the Nationals, as the agenda moves onto totemic Liberal issues, can only encourage that to happen.
‘The key is that the PM has an irrationally paranoid fear of people crossing the floor, even in the lower house’, lamented one Howard supporter and long-serving Liberal MP. ‘He has been scarred by his past experience, in the Fraser years. So he wants to seem in total control.
‘The emerging pattern is that perfectly good legislation and policy, with strong support in the party room, or even after having gone through the party room, gets compromised and wrecked. It’s not just the Nationals; that’s what happened to our border protection legislation too.’
The result, according to this MP, is a growing disenchantment amongst the most valuable members of the Government. ‘Those who do the process properly – talking to colleagues, lobbying for support in the party room, arguing the case and, if they fail, giving up quietly and moving onto another issue; people making a positive contribution to the Government – those people are ignored. People are starting to get pissed off; they’re starting to joke that the only way to get things done is to blackmail the PM’.
The irony, in other words, is that Howard’s relentless quest for the appearance of control is giving him less real control than ever, with angry colleagues wondering what principles will next be sacrificed for the sake of a quiet life.
Now the anger has a focus. By capitulating to Barnaby Joyce’s antics, Howard has brought hostile anti-National sentiment close to boiling point at all levels of the Liberal Party.
‘The problem with the Nationals is that we keep building them up’, one Minister told me. ‘We should point out the truth. They are a party with no future. They stand for nothing but self-interest. That is not an attractive proposition in 2005. Their only agenda is to prop up uneconomic industries. We shouldn’t be afraid of them; they should be afraid of us.’
This cynical analysis of the Nationals is, sadly, the only one that fits the facts. It is understandable that the Nationals would go into bat for rural telecommunications. But why on earth do they play games on voluntary student unionism or industrial relations, issues on which all thinking conservatives and liberals should be able to agree? The only possible answer is that they want to secure media attention and bribes; extorting further taxpayer money for doing the job they are already paid to do: to cast their votes in good faith.
Critics of the Nationals are not limited to metropolitan MPs. Rural and regional Liberals are equally angered by them, and by Howard’s tolerance ( even encouragement) of their grand-standing.
One rural Liberal MP expressed it thus: ‘Liberals have more than double the rural seats that the Nationals have. We work hard behind the scenes to resolve policy issues in the interests of rural and regional Australians, as opposed to just looking for giant hand-outs. We’re involved in actually solving problems. But we’re not allowed to take credit. The PM gives the Nationals leave to rebel, so they can look like they are David taking on Goliath, because he’d rather have them as a rump than as another party’.
The Prime Minister would doubtless argue that his hands are tied, as the Nats’ support is needed in the Senate. But is he right?
As a Liberal Senator put it to me, ‘we’ve got a lot of wood on the Nats’. One anecdote illustrates the point.
The Nationals hold twelve lower house seats. Yet when one metropolitan MP visited the then-Minister for Family and Community Services, she showed him two piles of documents on her desk, one several times larger than the other. ‘Those are the community grants to Liberal seats’, she told him, gesturing to the smaller pile, ‘and those are the community grants to National seats’, gesturing at the larger.
Pulling out a single page from the smaller pile, she said, ‘here are the grants for your seat’.
Suppose that the question that confronted the Nationals was not whether they would secure further bribes for their votes, but whether they would keep the existing ones. It seems unlikely that a group which has so successfully blackmailed massive hand-outs from the taxpayer would surrender them simply because they are denied more. After all, as Joyce admitted, their game is simply to squeeze the taxpayer for all they can. It’s as if they are standing on principle.
All that is required to restore genuine, as opposed to apparent, control of the parliament, is for the Prime Minister to have the courage to call the Nationals’ bluff. Instead of greasing the noisiest wheel, Howard should stand firm behind the collective will of the party room, daring renegade National Senators to jump ship, and threatening them with termination of the pork-barrelling that is their party’s only remaining raison d’être.
Of course, there is a risk that a more aggressive stance will see an occasional floor-crossing incident. But the alternative policy of endless concessions makes it inevitable Howard should consider whom he wants sitting on his side.