While the Prime Minister this week was lurching to the right to accommodate populist sentiment on immigration in the electorate and in his own party, the Nationals were similarly dipping into an old playbook to address their political concerns.

Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash have been spruiking decentralisation of public service departments as both a regional growth stimulant and a fix for the housing affordability problems (despite, um, Canberra not actually having a housing affordability problem). Inconveniently, this was also the week that the shameless pork barreling of Joyce’s own electorate turned into high farce, with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority revealed to have issued hilarious “talking points” to its staff about the forced relocation to Armidale, followed by chief executive Kareena Arthy warning staff such leaks were “unlawful”, followed by Arthy herself bailing out of the agency in order to avoid relocating to one of the few towns in NSW even colder than Canberra.

There’d be no benefit-cost analysis done on such public service moves, Joyce warned, because if a benefit-cost analysis had been done at Federation, there’d be no Canberra in the first place — which is a fair effort to cover the real reason, that the BCA for the Armidale move found it was a dud and Joyce won’t be making that mistake again. All departments and agencies will now have to explain why they shouldn’t be relocated to the bush, doubtless sending corporate areas in dozens of departments whirring into action to prepare a response. It’s all very Whitlamesque — Gough was the last prime minister to pay more than lip service to decentralisation, and all he managed was to move a few hundred tax office workers to Albury. 

And the Nats have had a budget win, with money, quite a lot of money, to be provided in next month’s budget for another old boondoggle, the Brisbane-Melbourne inland rail project, a long-cherished dream of Nationals MPs and trainspotters up and down the eastern seaboard. According to Infrastructure Australia, the Commonwealth’s own assessment of the project is that it won’t yield a benefit:cost ratio of more than 1.1 (ratios of 3 and 5 are common for projects put forward for consideration by IA). And that 1.1 falls below 1 — i.e. into negative territory — if coal exports or oil prices fall. Meanwhile, other projects, many with price tags much smaller than the mooted $1 billion that would be wasted on an inland rail route to nowhere, go begging, and the NBN (which might actually make decentralisation much easier for governments and the private sector alike) continues to devolve into a national embarrassment. The Nats, of course, are dead keen to be seen to be pumping money into the bush to ward off the threat of One Nation — and the only money the Nats are ever interested in pumping is taxpayers’. 

It’s reminiscent of the last days of the Howard government — the Nationals being allowed to waste vast amounts of money on pork barreling, the Prime Minister trying to dig his way out of a political hole using “Australian values” (carefully timed for Newspoll), and of course leadership tensions. Tony Abbott is furious dire polling from his own electorate last June found its way to Phil Coorey at the Financial Review, but what’s remarkable about that story is how deeply toxic Abbott was with Liberal Party supporters in his own seat. Even accepting a large margin of error for a small sample size (of 400), and regardless of whether Turnbull’s intervention “saved” him, Abbott’s personal numbers were awful even under the best reading, and he was actually dragging the Liberal Party vote down substantially rather than — as you’d expect from a long-term local member — pulling it up a couple of points.

Abbott and his ideas are popular with the party base, we’re persistently told. But wherever that base is, it’s not in his own electorate. Or, perhaps, that base is so narrow and calcified that it is overwhelmed by more moderate Liberal Party supporters who prefer Turnbull. Or, at least, they used to. After another lurch to the right this week by the Prime Minister, who knows.

Peter Fray

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