CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Who will lead the Nationals after the next election?
, June 9, 2012
Leadership speculation on the conservative side of politics has mainly focused on Tony Abbott and whether he can or should remain as federal Liberal leader to the next election.
However, a secondary contest is also bubbling away inside the ranks of the junior Coalition partner, the Nationals.
The contest is more about positioning than any actual challenge, but should there be a change of government it is likely there will also be a changing of the guards in the Nationals sometime during the next term.
Current leader, veteran Warren Truss, is keen to stay on, but acknowledges he will be not be leader for an extended period.
Truss has held the post since the resignation of Mark Vaile whose retirement from federal politics in 2008 opened the way for the arrival of independent rural MP Rob Oakeshott.
Truss, aged 63, is decent but dour, capable but uncharismatic and cautious. He is fiercely loyal to the Coalition and to the party.
He is respected among his colleagues, but has never been the kind of politician who has sought to take centre stage.
During the Howard era, Truss held a variety of ministries, and was recognised as a steady hand, taking over the trade portfolio after the Iraq “wheat-for-weapons” scandal.
The most talked-about challenger to Truss is Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce, but his elevation to the leadership of the party is far from assured.
Joyce quickly became a nationally recognised figure soon after his arrival in Parliament in 2005.
Personality-wise Senator Joyce is almost the exact opposite of Truss. He is energetic but unpredictable, brilliant but undisciplined, and an MP who has been prepared to cross the floor on key issues.
As a result of his unique ability to communicate and his down-to-earth economics, Joyce has been able to almost single-handedly re-capture the Nationals heartland. And he also gets on exceedingly well with Tony Abbott, much to the annoyance of senior figures on both sides of the Coalition.
Joyce certainly has ambitions to be leader, but is in the wrong house, and there is significant resistance within the party to his style of politics and his economics.
Joyce has declared his intentions of running for the Queensland seat of Maranoa in a pre-selection contest later this year, and the seat’s boundaries include Joyce’s hometown of St George.
However, Maranoa incumbent, Bruce Scott, who turns 69 this year, is re-contesting despite having been in the Parliament 22 years. It is not certain Joyce will succeed in his bid to switch houses.
Furthermore, Truss has declared his support for Scott (the pair entered politics in the same year), and has effectively warned Joyce off.
Truss declared recently there were “others” in the party who would also make suitable leader.
“Obviously, Barnaby has leadership skills. I’m more than happy for him to be part of the lower house and to be a candidate for the leadership,” he said.
“He won’t be the only one though. There are others in the party-room too who have genuine leadership ability.”
The “others” who would see themselves as possible contenders for the Nationals leadership role would include NSW MPs John Cobb and Luke Hartsuyker.
However, NSW Senator Fiona Nash also sees herself as a future leader and is considering a shot at the lower-house seat of Hume that is to be vacated by Liberal Alby Schultz at the next election.
If Nash does run for the seat, it would generate a fierce three-cornered contest, and her move to the lower house would open up even further divisions or at least test existing loyalties.
It is worth recalling the prophetic words in Warren Truss’s maiden speech in May 1990, decrying the free-trade policies of the then Hawke Labor Government.
“We have anything but a level playing-field. Australian farmers are tilling a totally different kind of paddock than exists in the rest of the world,” Mr Truss told Parliament.
“Australia’s policy of unilaterally eliminating trade barriers and opening up its markets indiscriminately is foolish. Other countries dump their unwanted and subsidised products in this country and give us nothing in return.
“There are few Australian primary industries which are not currently under threat from cheap imports. An Australian industry should not be abandoned just because it cannot compete with imports from a country that has labour costs of a dollar a day.
“An Australian industry is not inefficient just because it cannot compete with imports from a country with subsidised production costs or domestic price support programs.”
The problem was that the Nationals to which Truss belonged, once they got into power from 1996 to 2007, did not change government policy much at all.
The same free-trade policies continued to devastate rural industries, giving rise to independents such as Bob Katter and Nationals renegades such as Barnaby Joyce.
Joyce’s ability to thumb his nose at economics that favoured other countries over Australia and to stand up to the Liberals earned him huge respect and support in regional Australia and ironically helped restore the electoral hopes of the Nationals.
Joyce has also stood up to be counted on the carbon tax and on the bias of Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme against stay-at-home mothers.
Whether Joyce would make a good leader or a good Deputy Prime Minister is still to be proven.
But he certainly should no longer be dismissed by his own parliamentary colleagues as a troublemaker and a maverick.