Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Nats deserting a sinking ship

It would be safe to say that until last week not many people had ever heard of Julian McGauran, and that even those who had were not exactly agog.

This applies particularly to the Victorian senators constituents whose relationship with their representative, where it has existed at all, has been one of mutual contempt. McGauran, the scion of a once-grand rural family, owes his preselection purely to patronage and judicious contributions to the National Party slush fund, and even so his position has become precarious over the years.

Last week he jumped before he was pushed, but instead of moving to the ranks of the independents, as many other disgruntled Nats have done, McGauran achieved his 15 minutes of infamy by announcing he would join the Liberals; he could, he felt, represent rural interests best from within the ranks of the senior Coalition partner. Rural electors muttered that he could hardly represent them any worse and that would have been the end of it except for what John Howard smugly called the laws of arithmetic.

McGaurans defection meant that the Libs had one more member of Parliament and the Nats one less, which tipped the balance of the Coalition agreement on representation in the ministry. The Nats went one down. Given that most of them were dead weight anyway this was hardly a problem for the quality of the government, but it was a humiliation nonetheless.

The chosen victim was a Queenslander, De-Anne Kelly, which was an added complication; Howard had already told another Queenslander, the Minister for Fisheries, Conservation and Forestry, Ian Macdonald (famous only for denying that he had tried to bribe independent Tony Windsor to vacate his seat), that his presence on the front bench was no longer required. Now the Sunshine State joined the Nationals in feeling hard done by and tensions mounted further.

As usual, the Nats made noises about walking out of the Coalition; as always, the Libs ignored them, knowing the Nats had nowhere else to go. Well, they have actually, but no one was tactless enough to mention it: their ultimate destination is down the drain.

It is not just a matter of demographics; there are still plenty of rural seats left in Australia, and the regionals are actually increasing. The problem is that they are increasingly held by the Liberals, Independents, or even (especially in the state parliaments) by Labor.

The only barrier between the Nats and a mercifully quick (and long overdue) demise is the Coalition agreement which prevents Liberals from standing against Nats who are sitting members, which means that the Libs have to wait until the old guard die or retire before picking up their seats. The system of joint tickets, now very much on the decline, helps the Nats in the Senate, though there, their numbers are now down to four, below official party status; Howard has allowed them to keep it by artificially including the Northern Territory Country-Liberal Nigel Scullion in their ranks.

But even within the political zimmer frame these arrangements provide, the Nats vote continues to fall. The decline is obvious not only in their numbers, but in their quality. Compared to the heavyweights of the past Earle Page, Arthur Fadden, John McEwen, even Doug Anthony the recent leadership, with the possible exception of Tim Fischer, has been derisory.

Mark Vaile might have been a competent junior minister but the idea of him heading a party in government is simply absurd. Peter McGauran is only slightly more capable than his invisible brother Julian, yet for want of better talent he has a senior cabinet position. Even John Cobb, who would be regarded as close to unemployable in the real world, gets into the outer ministry. Imagine what that says about those left permanently on the backbench, like Ian Mad Dog Causley...

However, its dwindling band of adherents cling to the National Party as they would to an irreparably dilapidated part of our national heritage. One of their arguments is that if when the Nats are finally absorbed into the Liberal sponge before evaporating altogether, they will leave a political vacuum in the bush, and this may be filled by the real crazies from the bible-wielding, gun-toting, conspiracy-mad right.

Well, it may, but theyll have to fight off both the Libs and Labor, who will have well-resourced battle plans ready when the moment for invasion comes. And even if the nutters gain a brief foothold, they will inevitably split and self-destruct quickly; organisations run by paranoiacs invariably do (remember Pauline Hanson).

The only reasons to persevere with the Nationals are a tradition which no longer applies, and sheer sentiment and, as Julian McGauran has reminded us, these are seldom enough to compete with really dedicated self interest.

Another week of the Cole Commission, and it is now surely clear to all but the determinedly purblind, that not only was the Australian Wheat Board up to its ears, as it were, in bribery, corruption, sanction-busting and deceit, but that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade must have been aware of it, and at a very senior level. The only remaining question is whether that awareness was passed onto the relevant ministers Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile and ultimately to Howard himself.

Howard, of course, still insists it wasnt, but his denials are not quite as cocksure as they were at the start of the debacle. Last week he commented only that, so far, nothing had emerged which contradicted the governments version of events hardly a ringing protestation of innocence. Can it be that, once again, the lying rodent is preparing to cover his own arse?

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