The receding waters of Lake Pamamaroo which makes up part of the Menindee Lakes system (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

When in trouble, this government looks to what its Coalition predecessors did when confronted with similar problems. On that basis, expect billions in taxpayer dollars to be fired at National Party electorates in coming weeks. Especially after Saturday’s NSW election.

While victory, and hopefully majority government, for Gladys Berejiklian is a win for NSW and a bullet dodged in the form of the wretched NSW Labor Party, the results from rural and regional NSW should induce a feeling of nausea. Not merely is the far-right Shooters Party, which wants to loosen gun laws, expand coal-fired power and hand the Murray-Darling back to irrigators, likely to pick up two more lower house seats, but in the NSW Legislative Council, around 11% of voters statewide saw fit to vote either for the Shooters and One Nation. 

That is, little more than a week after the events in Christchurch, one in ten NSW voters voted in the upper house for parties that either want softer gun laws or preach hatred against Muslims and want to implement apartheid in relation to Indigenous Australians.

The Shooters’ vote is a cry of rage from the far west of NSW, with its two new lower house seats in Barwon and Murray (a large chunk of the west, and south-west, of the state, respectively) and its upper house vote strong in the inland: Bathurst, around 14%, Cootamundra and Dubbo over 15%; Northern Tablelands over 13%; Tamworth over 15%, Orange — retained as a Legislative Assembly seat — 32%, Wagga, 11%. One Nation’s upper house performance was more regional than rural — 13.5% in the Southern Highlands outside Sydney, 10% in Lake Macquarie and Goulburn, 11% in Cessnock, over 12% in Camden outside Sydney and nearly 10% in Campbelltown, in addition to the ~10% One Nation polled as well as the Shooters in more rural electorates. In several electorates, 20-30% of voters are prepared to support extremists in the Legislative Council.

All this is on top of Queensland, where Hanson and her hatemongers are routinely polling ~15% statewide and twice that in regional electorates — so much so that LNP MPs are terrified of upsetting Hanson by not preferencing her.

The Nationals haven’t quite reached the same point of panic as in the late 1990s after the Queensland state election, when One Nation won 11 seats off the Nationals, but they’re close, and they’ll respond the same way. The Howard government, which had slashed regional programs to the bone when it first came to office, responded by pouring more money into regional areas (culminating the blatant rorting uncovered by the ANAO in 2007). John Anderson, then Nationals leader, gave a speech saying he was less concerned about One Nation than about Australia dividing into two nations — an apt description of NSW at the moment. Anderson led a Howard government commitment to focus on regional communities struggling with long-term population decline and the removal of services from small communities.

So expect the pork barrels to be aimed squarely at regional NSW and Queensland between now and the election as Scott Morrison looks to repeat the trick — though they only have two months, not two years, and in Michael McCormack the Nationals don’t exactly have another John Anderson. Barnaby Joyce is convinced he could do a better job, but he might want to ask some rural women about how they view the unresolved allegations of sexual harassment against him.

The issue that really hurt the Nats in western NSW was water. The Shooters have dramatically increased their vote promising to bin the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and give irrigators as much water as they want.  The issue is so toxic the Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair abruptly announced he was leaving politics yesterday, despite being re-elected to the upper house.

The problem for the Nationals is where to go on water. They’ve tried to have it both ways on the MDBP federally and in NSW — claiming to supporting the Plan, but implementing it entirely in the interests of irrigators — in Joyce’s case, explicitly so. This hypocrisy eventually became apparent even to urban voters when industrial-scale, government-tolerated water theft was revealed. But it’s not good enough for rural voters who appear to hate the very idea the river system should be managed sustainably and back a party that dismisses environmental flows as “sending water to South Australia”. As much as on coal, as much as on climate change, and as much as on preferencing Australia’s premier party of hate speech in Queensland, the Nationals can’t move on water without sending a clear signal to urban voters that the Coalition is totally out of touch with mainstream views in the electorate.

That leaves the pork barrel. Stand by for Regional Rorts II.

Will the Coalition attempt to buy votes in NSW and Queensland ahead of the federal election? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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