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Federal

Jan 12, 2016

Rundle: Barnaby and the Nats stuck between a mine and a hard place

As Barnaby Joyce follows his ambitions, the Nationals are going to have to start paying attention to rural voters, not mining interests -- or go the way of the dodo themselves.

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It’s always a joy to see a man doing something he loves and is good at, and so it is watching Tony Windsor on Twitter chronicle the rise and rise of Barnaby Joyce — especially in the past few days, as the pug-nosed knight of St George gathers the endorsements of the oil and CSG men who were once National Party leaders themselves:

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That’s pretty important, since these days the National Party more or less is the resources sector, with two former leaders, John Anderson and Mark Vaile, both involved in companies running coal-seam gas and open-cut mines (Santos and Whitehaven respectively — both of which are loathed by much of the community in which they’re found). Former Nats are studded through the mining corps and industry peak bodies.

Given Australia’s meticulously designed political system — matched public funding of parties removes the need to seek an active social base, while giving the appearance of democracy — the Nats haven’t needed to take the rising conflict between mining and farming into account. Public funding provides the base money, corporate donations from Big Mining, the extra funds — and a chance to make real money after politics. That was all ticking along very nicely for many a year.

Since 2005, that’s become more difficult, for the simple reason that mining has gotten utterly out of control and raised a rural movement against itself. This coincided with the victory of independents — Windsor, Oakeshott and Andren, and then McGowan in Indi — as once-compliant rural electorates began to turf the Nats and Libs out.

Barnaby saw the protests, the blockades and the marches, and decided — like any true leader — that he better get out in front of it, wherever it was going. In the years after 2005, as the “maverick” senator for Queensland, he could do exactly that, condemning heavy-handed CSG exploration and exploitation and coming out hard against the insane Shenhua mine proposed for the Liverpool Plains. He even adopted a greenish note on endangered species in the path of the mines. It was especially easy in opposition. He impressed many at the time with the strength of his campaign against the assault on farming, and his apparent willingness to work with the Greens, who were assisting the farmers in their campaigns.

But then “disaster” struck: the Coalition took power. Joyce became Water Minister, exactly the position from which to put a stop to the mad, self-defeating process of coal and CSG expansion in eastern Australia. He flubbed it magnificently, declaring that there was nothing he could do about the Shenhua Watermark mine, which would plunge a 300-metre open cut into the centre of “black soil” country and the Murray-Darling basin. In the southern part of New England, Joyce’s name is on a par with the scree and sludge they’ll be pumping out of that mine, if it ever happens.

That puts the Nats in a very interesting position. If Joyce takes the leadership and the Coalition wins a second term, he simply won’t be able to run from the demands to do something about the havoc that CSG and mining are creating in rural communities. That’s not merely from those who opposed open-slather exploration from the start, but from those who were initially welcoming of CSG money, and now have buyers’ remorse. Were the Nats to short-change their electorate again, I do not see how a dissident rural movement of real force could not emerge and quickly prove a real threat to them.

But that might even happen before the election — if they elevate Joyce to the leadership, they may have to select a new one after September (or March), because Joyce may well not be in Parliament. The greatest threat would come from a run by Tony Windsor for the seat he held for 12 years — a run he is still considering –but not just from that. There is such anger and resistance to CSG and mining in the region, such a feeling of betrayal that, after a few weeks spent in the region at the end of last year, I’m convinced any decent and compelling independent, with roots in the community and an agenda for balanced rural development could take the seat with a decent campaign.

Not just that seat. The Nationals, in tying themselves to an industry that digs holes, may have dug one for themselves. Joyce could be knocked off in New England, and Nick Xenophon’s NXT is running a candidate in Calare. In sparsely populated remote seats, the Nats are safe for now. But in more populous NSW seats, where different ways of life contend, they have long since ceased to represent the broad population, their varying values and aspirations.

The rationale for the wholesale commitment to CSG and coal mining has been that it pumps money into rural regions. But that was predicated on a never-ending boom. When the boom bust, there was talk of it being cyclical. Now, it seems all the more likely that China and India will be producing most of their own supply domestically. That, together with other factors, suggests the never-ending boom has not been all that it seems. Furthermore, a lot of the resource-first policy was simply a National Party elite being bamboozled by the very big money flying around.

They weren’t the only ones. Now that it’s not sticking around, and the magic pudding hasn’t eventuated, the Nats will have to start representing the people who voted for them — especially as their interests start to diverge from the base of their Liberal Coalition partners. Otherwise, concerns about endangered species might be closer to home.

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