When is a coalition not a coalition? When it’s a collision.

But a collision of what? Of principles, ideology and policy, or simply of egos? This is the question the Libs and the Nats are going to have to resolve, and pretty quickly, if they are going to present anything resembling a double act for the next election.

The Nationals conference at the weekend shouted it for all to hear: they’ve had enough and they’re just not going to take it any more. “It,” presumably, is being compelled in the name of coalition unity to compromise or even abandon positions which they believe are basic to their rural constituents.

The peg on which this cloak of defiance has been hung is, of course, emissions trading policy. Malcolm Turnbull stated the Liberal position (or at least what he hopes will be accepted as the Liberal position) on Saturday: assuming some version of the scheme is passed this year — which means the Libs would have to vote for it in the Senate — then he, in government, would reserve the right to amend it.

This was not enough for the Nationals and their de facto leader Barnaby Joyce: the Nats will oppose it at every stage and if it does get through, they will seek not to amend it but to dismantle it. He may, of course, find this process a bit difficult; remember Kim Beazley’s promise to roll back the GST, a promise which eroded with the effluxion of time. But it was certainly what the National rank and file wanted to hear.

Climate change policy is probably harder to sell in the bush to begin with; for starters, there are more sceptics. After all, the farmers have seen the weather patterns come and go, and they know that a drought always ends eventually, and until it does there’s government aid. Let the city folk fret about rising sea levels, it’s not a problem in the outback. So why should the threat of an extra tax hang over them?

Under the Kyoto protocol, which Australia belatedly signed, agriculture will be included in calculation of carbon emissions – and therefore in any trading scheme — from 2012. But setting a level will not be easy. There is no doubt that the burps and farts of ruminants are one of the biggest sources of emissions, but who wants to measure them? Equally planting crops has to be some sort of offset, but for some edible crops the benefit is only short term. Undoubtedly agriculture in Australia is a nett emitter, and farmers, like other heavy polluters, will expect free, or at least subsidised, permits.

The Nats, preferring to cut through, want to exempt agriculture altogether; but that would not be acceptable internationally and would invite retaliation from our trading partners. So the easiest solution of all is simply to junk the scheme altogether and reach of the genie in the bottle labelled nuclear power. This, essentially, was the conclusion the Nats reached over the weekend.

Significantly Joyce, who has been driving the debate, became the spokesman; the real leader, the near-invisible Warren (Rupture) Truss was reduced a very pedestrian speech bagging the government which received minimal coverage. Which brings us back to the question: how much of the looming split is really about policy and how much about sheer psychological domination?

In Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce we have two alpha males in full political rut. And while opposites in so many ways, they have a key quality in common: they are both outsiders, relative new comers to the parliament, with an urgent need to prove themselves to their followers.

Turnbull, the silvertail city slicker, the street smart banker and lawyer, is the walking nightmare of every mortgage-ridden cocky and of the rural shopkeepers who depend on his trade. The fact that Turnbull is actually a country landholder himself (well, he has a very beautiful and mortgage-free retreat in the Hunter Valley) only adds to the horror.

Joyce on the other hand is the ultimate country cousin, the eccentric hayseed who presents as an easy mark but whose down-to-earth good sense eventually triumphs, Henry Lawson’s archetypal bastard from the bush. When he arrived in Canberra many people felt that he would soon follow the example of his fellow Queensland maverick, Bob Katter and move to the cross-benches as a country independent; but instead he ascended to the leadership of his party in the senate, while still refusing to sit in Turnbull’s shadow cabinet. Thus he enjoys most of the benefits of party membership with none of the constraints. Power without responsibility, perhaps, but power nonetheless.

And Turnbull does not know how to handle him. Many centuries ago Aesop wrote the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse, each of whom envied the other his home. The townie thought his cousin led a simple life, with food in abundance and few dangers, while the yokel imagined the city to be a bed of luxury where no effort was needed to succeed. So they swapped roles for a week. Neither could manage the change, and each returned to his natural habitat admitting privately that it was the other who did it tough.

This story has many morals, but one is obviously that there really is a difference between Sydney and the bush, and that the best politicians from each environment learn to recognise it and accommodate. Turnbull and Joyce haven’t, and therein lies at least part of their problem. And until they do, the uber-rodent Kevin Rudd will continue to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Peter Fray

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