National party nationals Michael McCormack climate change bushfires
(Image: AAP/Rob Maccoll)

Well the Nationals really lost it, didn’t they?

While Scott Morrison stuck to his National Rifle Association talking points on the weekend and said it wasn’t the time to link climate change to the bushfire catastrophe unfolding in NSW, the Nationals’ current leader, Michael McCormack, had gone berserk (or was that “beresk”) at “raving inner city lunatics” who believed in climate change.

Yesterday, anyone who mentioned climate change was “a bloody disgrace”, according to NSW deputy premier and Nats leader John Barilaro in an attack on “bloody greenies or lefties”. Leader-in-waiting Barnaby Joyce joined in to claim the bushfire threat has “been created by the Greens” and the only mention of climate change was “for your own political purpose”.

The hysterical reactions suggest something deeper at work than mere partisan sniping. The Nationals have always been the more extreme party of climate denialism; Barnaby Joyce has entertained conspiracy theories about it; former senior National Ron Boswell used to argue global cooling, not warming, was occurring. Coal fetishist and former Joyce staffer Matt Canavan has blamed climate protesters for high energy prices. In September, another putative leader, David Littleproud, rejected a link between climate change and drought.

But the Nationals’ aggressive denialism and conspiracy theories are increasingly at odds with their own constituency. Many of them represent voters who face the most serious impacts of rising temperatures in Australia. But they refuse to engage with farming groups concerned about climate change impacts, despite evidence showing strong support within farming communities for climate action.

In 2016, the National Farmers Federation ceased quibbling about the evidence of climate change, accepted the need for agriculture to reduce emissions and better adapt to a changing climate, and welcomed the Farmers for Climate Action as an associate member. In 2017, even the Young Nationals called for an emissions trading scheme.

Why have Nationals MPs refused to shift with their own base to accept climate change exists and the need to address it? The answer lies in the reason the Nationals exist at all. They are unique in Australian politics in rejecting the idea of any kind of national interest as their raison d’être, instead existing purely to manipulate the democratic system to deliver rewards to a sectional interest, agricultural communities and, to a lesser extent, regional communities more broadly.

National policy challenges — let alone international ones — are outside the Nationals’ remit; if it can’t be monetised into funding that can be handed to farmers then it doesn’t exist.

Drought funding illustrates the problem perfectly: the National Farmers Federation has been calling for a properly coordinated national drought policy that would replace ad hoc handouts that actually undermine the incentives for farmers to prepare for drought and become more resilient.

But the focus of Nationals MPs has been entirely on making sure they can take credit for providing yet further rounds of handouts to battling farmers, usually via concessional loans, which simply encourage farmers to undertake uncommercial investments.

A coherent national drought policy would shift away from rounds of handouts toward recognising that drought will worsen due to climate change and that farmers must invest — as so many already do — in preparedness and resilience, while allowing unviable properties to shut down or be acquired by those who can make them viable.

This would accelerate the already significant reduction in the agricultural workforce that has occurred in recent years and place further demographic pressure on already marginal small regional communities, further shrinking the Nationals’ electoral base. Better to prop up unviable farms and unviable rural towns with taxpayer largesse than permit a coherent and rational policy.

Climate change also requires a coherent national policy around both emissions abatement — which agriculture must play a role in, as the NFF recognises — and adaptation. It is not a problem amenable to ceaseless rounds of handouts and “thoughts and prayers” after every disaster. Regional communities — like those in northern Australia — eventually become uninsurable.

Industries become investment pariahs. Farmers have to become smarter and more innovative or fail. A growing proportion of the Nationals’ electoral base understands that. But the National Party itself cannot understand it. It can only see threats to its business model of acting as a siphon for taxpayer dollars to its constituents.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW