Cossie’s been reading Crikey! As we observed on Tuesday “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.”

Well, yesterday he praised the country cousins, saying the Government wouldn’t exist without them.

But Cossie – and his boss – are also very aware of something we first pointed out back in 2003. What’s been the greatest unsung triumph of the Howard Government? Unity.

Remember the paralysis that gripped both the Liberal Party and its Coalition with the Nationals at various times during John Howard’s first term as Liberal leader in the 1980s? Remember the way in which backbenchers crossed the floor from time to time during the Fraser years to vote against government legislation?

Since Julian McGauran jumped ship on Monday, the only place where we’ve seen the unity issue given the emphasis it deserves is over at Henry Thornton’s blog.

A hallmark of the Howard Government has been the superb degree of discipline maintained throughout, and these latest shenanigans could really challenge the status quo with respect to that discipline.

The new Ministry – minus a Nat – is being sworn in today. Happy families?

The anthem this Australia Day seemed to be “Our land abounds in Nationals, all wanting to defect.” Queensland MP Peter Lindsay claimed they just can’t stand all the noise from the Barnyard.

If Barnyard smells – Barnyard constantly kicking up a stink – are enough to drive Nationals parliamentarians off the land, that backs up McGauran’s comments from Monday that there was no longer anything to distinguish the Nationals from the Liberals.

The Government can’t rely on Barnyard’s vote in the Senate. Country Liberal MPs – and other Nationals – are already furious that he’s the one who appears to win “concessions” for the bush because he holds the balance of power in the upper house. Their efforts on behalf of their constituents go unacknowledged.

But we also need to look at Lindsay’s suggestion that Barnyard will follow Bob Katter and become an independent. That confirms Michelle Grattan’s warningon Tuesday.

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.

But is that new party as good as here? The news from Queensland isn’t positive.

Nationals Senate Leader Ron Boswell is bravely flying the Coalition flag in the Courier Mailwhile stating “I was born a National and I’ll die a National” but over at the Australian, not just onebut two stories suggest that that flag – or Boswell’s hopes in the upcoming Senate preselections – could vanish beneath the waves.

Finally, down south, Paul Austin points out in today’s Agehow the McGauran row is helping Steve Bracks in the lead up to the state election. All this on top of the cracks in the Coalition in Victoria probed by Norman Abjorensenin The Australian yesterday.

This picture of Julian McGauran nodding off at the October Liberal state council meeting at Ballarat will do nothing to improve the mood.