Senators Bridget McKenzie and John Williams

With unerring timing, the conservative wing of the Coalition has delivered another blow to Malcolm Turnbull, but this time the cause isn’t mere mischief-making, but open panic within the ranks of the National Party at the rise of One Nation.

Last night two National senators, Bridget McKenzie and John Williams, defied the government to vote in support of a motion by far-right NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm to disallow regulations prohibiting the importation of the lever-action Adler shotgun, the subject of a major blow-up between Turnbull and Tony Abbott when Parliament last met. Worse, three government ministers, deputy Nationals leader Fiona Nash, beleaguered Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and vocal abortion opponent Matt Canavan, refused to vote for the government position and simply didn’t show up; not a single Nationals senator voted with the government. One Nation also supported the motion.

[Abbott and Turnbull take turns throwing the other under the bus]

The Nationals’ rebellion on a subject of acute sensitivity within the Coalition overshadowed the government’s success (bizarrely trumpeted as a “massive win”) in managing the passage of a bill cracking down on trade union governance, although the fate of its Australian Building and Construction Commission bill remains unclear. To further inflame matters, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce endorsed his colleagues’ actions in rebelling this morning.

It comes just over a week after the Nationals’ vote collapsed in the NSW state seat of Orange, where a 30+% swing against the Nationals ekected a Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate. NSW Deputy Premier and Nationals leader Troy Grant resigned in the wake of the result. Coincidentally, federal Attorney-General George Brandis — in yet another addition to his glittering career of screw-ups — was revealed to have attacked his own Liberal National Party colleagues in Queensland and predicted One Nation “will win quite a few seats in the state election”.

[George Brandis and the struggle for competence]

The days of Tim Fischer bravely backing John Howard on gun control are long gone. The Nationals are terrified of One Nation and shifting to the far right in a panic.

In doing so, they are not merely humiliating Malcolm Turnbull but have detached themselves from one of the strongest bipartisan issues in Australian politics. Since the Port Arthur massacre, strict gun control has been a subject of national consensus, contested only by a few on the lunatic fringe of politics. Just 6% of voters think current laws are “too strong“, while 44% believe they should be strengthened further; another 45% believe they’re appropriately strict now. The Nationals are thus allying themselves with the 6%, not the 89%, and on an issue where weakening regulation has a real impact on lives lost to misuse of firearms — especially in rural communities.

The Nationals have already dragged the Liberals toward them: Barnaby Joyce’s hostility to Chinese investment has now been formalised into government policy, and a massive farmer handouts scheme, disguised as “concessional loans”, has been established by Joyce. Queensland LNP MP George Christensen, who sees himself as the de facto leader of the far-right rump on the backbench, wants more protectionism and a ban on all 457 visa workers. But on the evidence so far, the Nationals will have to shift a long way further over to the right to forestall the One Nation surge — or find a way to argue for the effectiveness of Liberal policies.