And the
joker is… Julian McGauran? He’s certainly ended up as the wildcard in the John
Howard’s reshuffle. The deck
mightn’t be completely stacked against the Prime Minister, but McGauran has
made it so much more difficult for the PM to ace his opponents.

understands the Prime Minister has been ringing round this morning as he deals
out cards to his new ministerial team. But
thanks to McGauran, two wildcards have shown up – leadership and the very issue
of the Coalition itself.

is right to say that he was elected on a joint ticket. He is the beneficiary of
a deal that made him a protected species in Victoria. The Nationals’ only other
federal representatives are the Member for Mallee in the state’s north-west, John Forrest, and McGauran’s brother, Peter.

has always been a Nationals seat – but will it stay that way?

describes the decline of the Nats in vivid detail in the Sydney Morning Herald today:
“Nine Nationals seats have gone to the Liberals since 1972. Some, like
McPherson, Moore, Canning and Fairfax, have become urbanised while Indi, Groom,
Murray, Hume and Farrer have become new Liberal fiefdoms.”

Forrest retires, it’s not at all unlikely that Mallee, like the seats to its
east, Murray and Indi, will go to the Libs. Continue to the
next seat and you’re in Gippsland, where the bush meets the coast. Changing
demographics there means that Peter McGauran’s successor could well be a
Liberal, too.

Grattan touches on the issues involved here in her analysis
in The Age:

McGauran’s argument that federally the two
Victorian parties have “merged to all intents and purposes” re-opens
debate about the pros and cons of a formal merger.

As the Nationals continue their inexorable
decline, this will become an increasingly relevant issue.

But it probably won’t be seriously addressed
until the Nationals finally lose critical mass, because of vested interests and
the fear that a new “country party” would spring up as spoilers if
the Nationals were to sink their identity.

last item is vital. It’s about the only justification for the existence of the
Nats – and the federal coalition.

coalition is already strained. Rural Liberal MPs complain vociferously in the
party room about the concessions handed out to their country cousins.
Concessions – and jobs.

The change
in the balance of numbers weakens the
Nationals’ claim to five positions in the ministry, including three in cabinet.

All on the eve of a
reshuffle. A reshuffle that is supposed to revamp the Government on the eve of
its tenth anniversary in office by drawing on new talent rather than installing
a new leader.

Yet the leadership has
become a crucial issue, thanks to McGauran. As Grattan reports:

Victorian Liberal powerbrokers, frustrated at the Nationals at a
state level especially, have scored a coup. But it could be at a significant
cost federally.

Howard is left with the immediate mopping up, while the affair has
reinforced the federal Nationals’ distrust of Costello and their fears about
how they would fare under him.

National sources last night pointed out darkly that McGauran had
phoned Costello, apparently around lunchtime on Sunday — and Vaile several
hours later. “(McGauran’s) dealt the National party into the whole
Costello leadership”, one source claimed, predicting the Nats would become

The fact that a Mr
Kennett has been making mischief on the matter suggests that there are some internal Victorian Liberal politics involved here,
even though the Treasurer has denied the allegations.

As he would. The last
thing he wants is stroppy Nats. Costello must be very aware that if you can’t govern yourself, you
can’t govern the country.