What the hell can the Nationals expect? They’re a declining party, De-Anne Kelly was a mediocre minister – and a bolshy backbencher, too. They can’t guarantee the numbers in the Senate. Their position is poor.

Malcolm Turnbull is absolutely right. “There is a quite understandable upset on the behalf of the Nationals after Senator McGauran’s departure from the National Party,” he told the ABC this morning. “I can understand why they are annoyed with him but ultimately it’s in the best interests of both the government and Australia for the coalition to be very cohesive.”

There’s almost a fortnight for the Nationals anger at the reshuffle to subside before Parliament resumes. They can decide what maximises their vote – doing deals or doing the dirty.

The longer term implications, however, are slightly more awkward. Who’d die in a ditch for Julian McGauran?

Michelle Grattan covers the narkier politics of the whole affair in The Age today:

The McGauran affair has thrown into relief the contrasting attitudes of John Howard and Peter Costello to the Nationals.

It is fair to conclude that Howard thinks Julian McGauran has done a dishonourable thing, while Costello believes he’s made a rational judgement about the best way to represent country Victoria.

The PM is an instinctive coalitionist. Costello knows he has to be a coalitionist but he’ll always relish having an extra Liberal. And this week’s kafuffle has brought not just another Liberal in the form of McGauran, but also stripped away one National ministerial spot and elevated one additional Victorian Liberal to the ministry.

If you were the winner-takes-all senior Liberal from Victoria, you might think the McGauran defection was no problem. The big downside for Costello is the Nationals’ anger, and the fact they have been reminded that the longer Howard stays, the better they like it. Costello will be caught between being glad about the gains and needing to pay heed to Nationals’ sensibilities.

Grattan has a lot more detail. It exposes the fractious nature of the Nats – but it also shows the depth of suspicion between Peter Costello and the party he hopes will govern with him at some stage in the not too distant future.

Peter Fray

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