“Who would have thought,” Glenn Milne writes today. “Julian McGauran the catalyst for a serious national political debate?”

It’s a nice line – but even funnier are the
Nationals conspiracy theories aired in The Age:

Queensland Nationals president Bruce Scott has
challenged the Victorian Liberals to show they did not lure defector Julian McGauran by
agreeing to give the Nationals second place on next year’s joint Senate ticket.

Mr
Scott, a federal MP, said if they refused “it will demonstrate that Julian
McGauran was all part of a longer term plan by the Liberal power brokers in
Victoria to put down the National Party”.

The Bolshie bushies are meeting again tonight in Canberra on the
eve of Parliament’s return – and they don’t seem all that happy with the plan for
action (or something, anyway) that leader Mark Vaile so
forcefully articulated after the party’s last love in.

Milne asks:

If the Nats are “rooned”, as
Hanrahan was fond of saying, who will rise to take their place? Part of the
answer to that question may have been provided during the weekend in Canberra.

The national capital played host on Saturday
to a low-key meeting of 12 men and women, united by only one characteristic:
all are independent members of parliaments across Australia. The theme of the mini-summit was
encapsulated by one of its founders, the member for New England, Tony Windsor: “It shows that while you
are independent, you are not alone.”

Windsor is right, loneliness is no longer
the plight of political independents. There are now about 30 such MPs, federal
and state, upper and lower-house, spread across Australia. Makes you think, doesn’t it? And
last weekend’s event in Canberra was about increasing that number.

The MPs met to launch a website, ICAN, which
teaches independent candidates how to enter the political fray, and how to win.
It followed the first ICAN conference, staged last year by Windsor along with fellow federal
independents Peter Andren and Bob Katter.

Andren describes the organisation thus:
“ICAN is not a political party or formal alliance. It is a support network
to encourage and support true independents. From budgets to media relations to
things as basic as a how-to-vote card, ICAN is an independents’ tool box.”
But in the climate created by McGauran’s move, the summit’s implications are
broader: could ICAN also be the tool box to dismantle the National Party?

More to
the point, are the Nationals dismantling themselves. Windsor and Katter are both former
Nationals turned independent, Barnaby Joyce is a National who may as well be
an independent, and Bruce Scott – a former minister – is only
encouraging independence.

Indeed,
The Adelaide Advertiser today has some pointers as to where the Nationals may
be heading. Their Canberra correspondent Phil Coorey reports:

Rebel Senator Barnaby Joyce will be unleashed on South Australia as part of the Nationals’ push to
wrest two safe seats from the Liberal Party at the March 18 state election.

The Queensland Senator will make at least one
campaign visit, at the invitation of sole SA Nationals MP Karlene Maywald,
telling The Advertiser: “I’m going down to give Karlene a hand. It’s going
to be a good trip.”

Before the federal Nationals vowed recently
to halt their decline following the defection of Senator Julian McGauran, Ms
Maywald decided to use the state election to boost her party’s minor profile in
SA.

The Nationals are targeting the key Liberal
seats of Finniss, vacated by the retirement of Dean Brown, and Flinders, held by Liberal
Liz Penfold.

The Nationals are not in coalition with the
Liberals in SA, meaning there are no rules preventing one party from stepping
on the other’s patch.

Yeah,
well, the Country Party famously formed government with Labor in Victoria back in the 1940 – but here we
have a different matter.

Maywald
is a sole MP using her position in a finely balanced parliament to both sit at
the cabinet table and screw concessions for her constituency at the same time.
Back to Milne:

As for the argument that independents have no
say at the cabinet table, Andren points to the Telstra privatisation debate:
“They say, well we’ve had [National party leader Mark] Vaile and co around
the cabinet table and what good has it done us in terms of stopping the Telstra
privatisation?”

As for being punished if you’ve elected an
independent in terms of services provision, what government would risk
alienating a seat permanently by doing that? “We don’t miss out,”
Andren says.

Joyce, no doubt, is well aware of that Maywald is having her cake and eating
it, too. And there are people in the
Senate who can tell him just what an independent with a casting vote can
deliver to their home state. Brian Harradine’s seat is still warm.

Peter Fray

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