Barnaby Joyce Michael McCormack
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

As the fourth prime ministerial leadership coup of the decade fades from the memory six months on, there’s something almost comforting about the return of leadership speculation to the headlines this morning.

The focus of attention this time is Michael McCormack, Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, whose abysmal name recognition and weak media performances (notably his excruciating interview with Waleed Aly on the Ten’s The Project, which has ricocheted around social media for the past week) reportedly have his colleagues considering exchanging one set of problems for another by returning to Barnaby Joyce.

According to today’s reports in the News Corp tabloids, the pitch of concern is such that it is hoped McCormack will make way before the federal election rather than after, notwithstanding the implications of a Joyce comeback for the government’s widely noted “women problem”.

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First up though, the party has another hurdle to clear in the shape of next fortnight’s New South Wales state election, which it has cause to view with considerable trepidation.

Outside of Queensland, where distinctions between Liberal and National have been papered over by their formal merger, New South Wales is the state where the Nationals have the biggest parliamentary presence, currently consisting of 16 seats out of 93 in the lower house and seven out of 42 in the upper.

As the Berejiklian government battles to maintain its parliamentary majority, Nationals-held seats are presenting it with a disproportionate degree of concern.

Just as the federal Liberals are confronting a wave of well-heeled independent and minor party insurgents in some of their safest seats, so are the New South Wales Nationals facing a war on two fronts — not only in coastal marginals in the state’s north, which are under threat from the traditional enemy, but also in the heartland seats of the state’s interior, where they face an emboldened Shooters Fishers and Farmers.

Shooters Fishers and Farmers has long had a presence in the state’s upper house, but they went one better in November 2016, when Philip Donato gained the seat for the party at a byelection held after Nationals member Andrew Gee’s moved to Canberra. This humiliation led immediately to Troy Grant’s resignation as the party’s leader, and later to the government’s partial abandonment of its program of council amalgamations, the cause of much of the local discontent.

However, recent reports of internal polling suggest this has failed to staunch the flow, with Shooters looking competitive or better in a further two lower house seats — Barwon and Murray — and hoping for an unprecedented third seat in the upper house after it drew the invaluable first position on the sprawling ballot paper.

Party polling is also said to have identified four seats on the state’s north coast which may be lost to Labor — not only Tweed, Upper Hunter and Lismore, which are all on tight margins, but also Coffs Harbour, where a 14.3% buffer may not be enough following the retirement of long-serving member Andrew Fraser.

By contrast, the Liberals are actually feeling confident enough to be putting resources into Labor-held seats it hopes might balance anticipated losses elsewhere.

Notably, the latter include two regional seats on apparently healthy margins — Goulburn, on 6.6%, which is being vacated with the retirement of Pru Goward, and Bega, on 8.2%, where Labor is making a concerted effort to unseat government heavyweight Andrew Constance.

This seems to suggest that what threatens the Coalition is not so much the specific weakness of the Nationals as the government’s pursuit of bread and circuses in the capital (read nearly $2 billion of spending on sports stadiums, the most talked about issue of the campaign so far) at a time of simmering regional discontent — the same dynamic that unexpectedly cost Jeff Kennett government in Victoria in 1999.

However, that’s unlikely to be much comfort to Michael McCormack and his federal colleagues, who may find uncomfortable parallels between losses in state seats on the north coast and its own prospects in the corresponding federal seats of Page and Cowper.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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