Minister for Resources Keith Pitt and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack
Minister for Resources Keith Pitt and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack (Images: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

This morning’s RN Breakfast interview with Water Minister Keith Pitt tells you everything you need to know about the shonky, negligent shambles the National Party has become. A melanoma on the face of the Australian body politic.

Starting in that faux jocular “aw shucks I’m a country boy” tone Nats love (“yeaaaaaah hiiiiii Fran….“) Pitt quickly found that he would have to answer actual questions about the Productivity Commission report on national water supply. It was painfully clear that he probably hadn’t read the report — which is strong on water recycling for urban needs, and rights buy-backs, and scathing about new infrastructure, i.e. dams, which can be up to 50 times as expensive as other solutions.

Pitt’s country boy mode disappeared — pre-politics he was an electrical engineer who ran a safety training company, i.e. making a living from state regulation, so not exactly Blinky Bill — and he started to get shirty.

“Well, uh, look we disagree with the findings,” he said of the report he gave no sign of having read.

His response to suggestions that Melbourne’s water crisis, coming in seven years, could be solved by water recycling as Victorian rainfall declines? Yes, an upstream dam. The closure of Melbourne’s Altona refinery, leaving us with only two refineries remaining, both of them threatened? “Ah, well that’s a commercial decision…”

Pitt is Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia and on the strength of this interview he is either lazy, stupid, complacent, or a mix of all three. He’s a man not only utterly out of his depth in the water portfolio — ka-ching — but showing no great sign that he really cares.

It’s part of the Nats’ new swagger, as evidenced by the dilatoriness and cynicism of Barnaby Joyce and the nihilism of leader Michael McCormack’s recent comment: “I’m certainly not worried about what might happen in 30 years time”.

That’s a pretty interesting attitude for a party representing rural society. It shows why the Nats have become the absolute enemy of proper future-proofing in this country, and why white-anting its support base — and hopefully collapsing its platform altogether — is an essential task in Australian politics.

You wouldn’t want to exaggerate the degree to which the National Party — or the Country Party as it was — ever had a long-term concern for Australian land as such, given the practices of Australian agriculture, which turned the arable part of the country into a treeless salt pan in the space of a century.

But they could at least plead ignorance then. There’s no excuse now. Any party genuinely concerned with the continued viability of rural Australia should have converted to a sort of Tory green policy decades ago, acknowledging that much of rural Australian society was surplus to requirements in an age of megamines and megafarms and would need to find new ways to live.

Instead they went the other way, becoming both clients and directors of the mining and resources industry at exactly the time when said industries were losing even a vestigial connection to actual community.

The switch made visible the class character of the party: based around a set of families — and a few parvenu ones — interconnected through elite rural universities. Its ability to get swags for rural Australia — at its height, total agricultural state monopsony — made it possible to obscure the divergent interests. Hence the need for dams: to look busy, give the impression of creating rural jobs while actually making things worse for strangled river systems.

It’s pretty much the Nats in a nutshell.

Such cynicism has served them well in the past. But that was when it was in service to rural areas. Increasingly it is turned against them. It’s quite possible that leading Nats haven’t noticed how cynical they have become, as fealty to mining has reshaped their consciousness.

If your base is farming then some notion of “living with” the land, and a sense of place that goes with it, is imparted. If your base is mining then the necessary principle of mining — that the land is raw material to be torn apart and discarded — comes to determine your thinking. How else could the leader of a rural party say he doesn’t care what happens in 30 years?

Half his voters luxuriate in the 19th century heritage, take pride in having built something to hand on. Does McCormack know his voters? Or have he and the party elite become utterly separated from their base?

If it’s the latter, then opportunities abound to see a real transformation in rural representation over the next two to three elections. That’s particularly so as the “Voices” movement spreads from its initial manifestation in Indi in north-central Victoria. Cathy McGowan’s victory there showed that a movement which combined grassroots dialogue with a bit of canny social analysis can nip around the back of an arrogant and out-of-touch local member, take the seat, and then hold it with a new member.

Since numerous rural Lib and Nat members have now become utterly out of touch with their increasingly complex electorates, the opportunities for such a movement have correspondingly increased. It would only need the taking of two or three Nats seats and knocking off a senator or so to give the Nats the wobbles that would prompt further disarray on the road to collapse through fragmentation.

It’s not easy, especially in a single cycle, but very doable if the will is there. And — as the party’s drongos make clear every day — it’s essential if the country is to be something other than a dead, hot, salt flat at ransom for its basic energy needs with a city-country divide based on exclusion and enmity rather than regional autonomy with cooperation.

If Pitt and McCormack are the party’s future then, as we city folk say of old lapdogs turned nasty, it’s time the Nats went to live on a farm.