Flat White

Country wisdom and the Liberals’ tin ear

17 July 2016

11:23 PM

17 July 2016

11:23 PM

In the hands of Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott alone rests the chances for stability of the new Parliament and the Liberal Party itself for some years.

Turnbull today will announce a Cabinet and ministry containing at least four new faces after the shell-shock cliff-hanger of 2 July.

The Prime Minister has a clear choice of continuing his dangerous agenda of regenerating the Liberals from government or embracing the “broad church” approach practiced by Menzies and Howard to settle the party room and indeed provide a semblance of rational government.

The team he took to the election missed some hardened campaigners – 25 per cent of the Coalition cohort retired at the election and all but one had at some time been on the frontbench.

And standing back from the real action was the deposed Abbott. Re-elected for another term in Warringah and the spiritual focus of the right of the Liberal Party, Abbott’s minions have championed the former Prime Minister’s return to the frontbench with the same tenacity as Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce staking claims for additional Nationals joining the executive team.

If Abbott does not find himself back on the blue carpet of the Ministerial Wing, his disciples will likely run rampant and destroy the hopes of the Coalition navigating a difficult Senate and risk surviving to the next election.

The co-habitation of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in the Labor Caucus destroyed a government and almost a political party. It took the gracious retirement of one and electoral rejection of the other before Labor could redefine itself as an alternative.

Similar divisiveness kept the Liberals in the wilderness throughout the 1980s when John Howard and Andrew Peacock coveted supremacy in the battle of the wets and the dries.

But there’s another role suited to Abbott and of potential benefit to a second Turnbull Government – playing the tough role on the floor of Parliament and attacking the weak spots in Labor. No one has effectively filled that role since the Turnbull Ascension.

Turnbull and Abbott must determine whether personalities will continue to define their political existence or commitment to unity in government to make a genuine difference through good policy and governance.

Barnaby Joyce sees himself as a 21st century version of the revered Country Party legend Sir John “Black Jack” McEwen.

The Nationals will return to Canberra with more seats after snatching “Black Jack’s” old seat of Murray to end a 20-year hiatus in Liberal hands.

The National (Country) Party from its beginning has never been afraid to exercise influence or veto on the “senior partner” to achieve and retain government. Only twice has that seen one of its own as Prime Minister – Sir Arthur Fadden for 40 days and 40 nights in the early years of World War Two and McEwen while the Liberals found an alternative after he vetoed McMahon in the summer of 1967-68.

On the Nine Network’s Today Show the week after the election, host Lisa Wilkinson asked Joyce: “If the coalition does cling to power, will you have a more active role in government?“ Mr Joyce responded: ‘Yes’.

His answers to Wilkinson throughout the interview were certainly brief. But be in no doubt, Joyce wants a bigger say on the conservative agenda that pits the modern Liberal Party’s obsession with policies driven by pure ideology against the practical and pragmatic approach of the Nationals.

The Liberals have lost the skill so well practiced by Howard over more than a decade to make accurate judgements on what was palatable for the electorate. Joe Hockey’s horror 2014 Budget required tough decisions but went far beyond what voters could stomach, setting in train dissent with Tony Abbott.

If Turnbull, Abbott and the Liberals find themselves overly challenged bridging the divide exposed since 2 July, Barnaby may well step in with a dose of country kitchen wisdom to keep the conservative ship on an even keel.

Chris Earl is a rural and regional consultant

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