The condemnation of NSW Liberals minister Andrew Constance, and NSW Nationals Deputy Premier John Barilaro, over the Eden-Monaro debacle is universal. The deliberately destabilising leaking of Barilaro’s furious texts to the permanently acting federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack, in particular, has columnists across the full spectrum of media outlets condemning the rural party’s self-obsession and juvenile mentality, given we’re in the midst of a health and economic crisis.
There hasn’t been this much fury at the Nationals since, well, February, when parliament reconvened while the east coast still smouldered from a bushfire catastrophe and Barnaby Joyce, as if to draw attention to the Nationals’ single-minded focus on disaster recovery for their constituents, bunged on an unsuccessful coup.
All those critical column inches, however, won’t change the mindset of the Nationals, and certainly won’t deter its parliamentary members from continuing to obsess over partyroom games and the leadership, or improve the behaviour or discipline of prominent backbenchers.
It doesn’t matter what the media, even the far-right media, says — there’s no penalty for division, indiscipline, or internecine warfare, as far as the electorate is concerned.
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Consider how McCormack was undermined from day one by Joyce backers in the last term of parliament, with constant speculation of a return to the leadership by Joyce, if not before the election last year, then immediately after it.
Voters didn’t care. As it turned out, the Nationals’ vote in the lower house last year barely changed, and it retained all its seats. In Queensland, the LNP — which had played a major role in destabilising Malcolm Turnbull as well — actually increased its lower house primary vote by 0.5 percentage points.
George Christensen, a far-right LNP MP who, according to Malcolm Turnbull, “presents as a devoutly religious person” but who, according to the Federal Police, “had been spending substantial sums in Manila bars and nightclubs as well as making many small payments to women there”, who had spent nearly a third of the year in south-east Asia between 2014 and 2017, and who threatened to go to the crossbench in order to undermine Turnbull (before chickening out), was rewarded by his electorate with an 11.2% two-party preferred swing.
Joyce himself picked up a 2.5% primary vote swing in New England, despite the unresolved allegations of sexual harassment against him and his undermining of McCormack.
Meanwhile in Gippsland in Victoria, Darren Chester — by far the Nationals’ best, most disciplined minister, one of parliament’s most civil MPs and a perceived enemy of Joyce and the Queenslanders — suffered a 1.84% swing against him.
What lessons can be learnt from these results for Nationals MPs? Being disciplined, hard-working, civil and diligently representing your electorate doesn’t help your vote. But being utterly self-obsessed, undermining leaders, engaging in bizarre, even unstable behaviour, being accused of sexual harassment and spending months out of your electorate in foreign countries doesn’t hurt your vote. Hell, it might even increase it.
Indeed, the Nationals can look at their Liberal partners and reflect that conducting a “Muppet show”, in the words of the prime minister himself, over the prime ministership, has no electoral consequences either. No wonder the Liberals are incapable of demanding the Nationals pull their errant MPs into line.
Political journalists and commentators may as well save their breath. Voters appear happy to reward poor behaviour. At this rate, the Liberals will win in a canter in Eden-Monaro.
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