Barnaby Joyce and Michael McCormack (Images: AAP/Lukas Coch, AAP/Mick Tsikas)

As the only party in Australia with an explicit focus not on the national interest, but on sectional interests, the Nationals are predisposed to corruption, rorting, destabilisation and economic vandalism. But for the second time in 2020, they are confirming that there is literally no crisis big enough for them to shelve their wrecking and irresponsibility.

In February, as COVID-19 spread across the world, Australia began shutting its borders, and the likelihood of a major recession became apparent, federal Nationals gathered in Canberra to fight again over the party leadership. That involved a push for Barnaby Joyce, a man over whom there remains a series of unresolved sexual harassment allegations.

Last week, as if to remind voters of where their priorities really lie, the Nationals were again embroiled in speculation about dumping Michael McCormack.

Now, as NSW continues to work hard to prevent a persistent low level of infections turn into an outbreak that would further cripple the economy, the NSW Nationals have tried to wreck one of Australia’s most successful governments, with Deputy Premier John Barilaro leading under the unusual banner of a demand for farmers to be able to mass-slaughter koalas. This just months after catastrophic bushfires induced by climate change incinerated thousands of the animals.

Barilaro, by the way, is a climate denialist and says anyone who discusses climate change in relation to bushfires is a “disgrace”.

He is also a by-word for both a lack of judgment and self-interested wrecking. Who can forget his brief flirtation with a run in Eden-Monaro, before pulling out, then undermining the campaign of the Liberal candidate? The Liberals certainly won’t. Let’s not forget that was another part of the endless saga to replace McCormack.

As part of his brave War on Koalas, Barilaro — having failed to warn his Coalition partner Gladys Berejiklian — announced that the NSW Nationals would be moving en masse to the crossbench but would, of course, continue to hold ministries in the Berejiklian government (with remuneration up to $300,000).

Barilaro’s stunt was straight from the Joyce playbook. Barnaby, too, thought he could enjoy the huge salary and privileges of being a cabinet minister while being free to publicly attack cabinet decisions.

Berejiklian did exactly what she should have done, and told Barilaro he was having himself on. Either the Nats were in or they were out. Barilaro promptly caved in completely this morning — a lesson that other Liberal leaders forced to put up with the Nationals should heed. The lure of the ministerial office and the big bucks in the bank account will always win out.

But the NSW premier would save herself considerable trouble if she followed through with her promise to appoint a Liberal-only ministry and leave the Nationals to stew on the cross-bench. What are they going to do — vote no confidence in her? Back the shonks and spivs of NSW Labor? The more distance the toxic mess that is the National Party is from power, the more stable governments are.

Having threatened to destroy his own government only to spectacularly back down, Barilaro’s position is surely untenable — how can Berejiklian, or anyone for that matter, trust him? And now that we know, courtesy of both Eden-Monaro and today, that Barilaro likes to talk big but never follows through, what good is he?

But we live in an age where traditional rules of politics no longer seem to apply and the electorate seems disinclined to punish even the most egregious political indiscipline. Even by contemporary standards, though, the sheer stupidity and recklessness of Barilaro and his MPs beggars belief.

It’s not as if the NSW government doesn’t have better things to do, like getting NSW out of recession and preventing hundreds of deaths. But this narrow, sectional interest is dedicated to tearing the government apart mid-crisis.

Peter Fray

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