05 September 2010

Which way will the country independents jump?

The nation waits with bated breath while the three country independents make their momentous decision about which of the two political leaders, Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, they will support in the formation of a minority government to run the country for the next three years.

My guess has always been that at the end of the day they will support a minority ALP Government, and as this is easy to say after the event I am chancing my arm by saying so now, and the reasons why I think so, before any decision is announced.

The urban commentariat, political commentators, columnists and journalists alike, has no idea. They have characterised the three independents as “agrarian socialists” who would settle for a suitable amount of electoral pork, and as people who would have to go with the Coalition because they are “conservatives” and their electorates are “conservative”.   

The fact is that they are neither of the above. They are, in their very individual ways, exemplars of the finest aspects of the Country Party in its glory days. 

“Agrarian socialist” or “agrarian populist” might be an apt description of the Nationals today – a party that has seriously lost its way – but it does not begin to do justice to the glory days of its predecessor, for  which the word “Country” denoted the towns and villages of rural and regional Australia, not just – or even primarily – its farmers. This is entirely consistent with the fact that in my youth “the country”, rather than “the bush” was the normal expression for non-metropolitan Australia – no-one who grew up in Armidale, Tamworth or Wagga would describe themselves as coming from “the bush”.

At state level, men like David Drummond and Sir Michael Bruxner were not running around chasing hand-outs for farmers, and the farmers were not exactly waiting at the farm gate for the handouts to arrive. They were all concerned with the strategic issues for the communities they served, issues like education and infrastructure – passenger rail in the days before widespread car ownership, the rail services that would shift the wool and the wheat to market, and the establishment of scheduled air services to places like Armidale.

Their strongest supporters in the establishment of the education infrastructure which characterises Armidale were farmers who were contributing rather than receiving – people like T.R Forster, who donated Booloominbah for the establishment of the New England University College, and Philip Arundel Wright, who was a supporter of the movement to establish the University College and a generous benefactor, and who ultimately served as the University’s Chancellor after the retirement of Sir Earle Page.

Earlier, in the 1890s, The Armidale School had been established on purely private initiative as the New England Proprietary School, led by campaigners such as F.R. White, a leading landowner and builder of Booloominbah.

Many of the key figures, including Drummond and F.R. White, had limited formal education, but they understood the benefits that it could bring. How wise they were. In my view the University of New England, with its innovative Faculties of Rural Science (which trained its students to see farming in “whole of system” terms) and Agricultural Economics, transformed the fortunes of northern New South Wales  - there was a close connection between the academics and the farming community, and in the  summer schools which filled the university colleges during the long vacations researchers communicated their knowledge direct to the farmers who came from far and wide. Those farmers in turn diffused their new knowledge to those of their neighbours who were a bit coy about “goin’ back to school”.

An important factor to be understood about this approach was the fact that these political practitioners were taking up the cudgels on behalf of strong local campaigns for moves that would have widely dispersed benefits. T.R. Forster donated Booloominbah for the University, but it was in the context of an existing campaign led by people like the local newspaper proprietor, a local medico and others, and before he could get the idea over the line in State Cabinet, Drummond had to demonstrate widespread local support by raising a specified quantum of local funding.

Similarly with the airport, where the political thrust was to get a wartime emergency strip upgraded to the point where the Department of Civil Aviation would licence it for scheduled passenger transport. That done, it was left to local businessmen and graziers to found East West Airlines, based initially on refitted war surplus Lockheed Hudson bombers. For David Drummond’s white hot fury at the Menzies Government’s attempts to force East West to merge with Ansett in 1961, and his ethical approach to the situation, read his grandson James Belshaw’s description here.

Part of the fabric of this northern NSW political tradition, as the James Belshaw piece noted above makes clear, was a strong movement to establish a new state of New England, a movement which survives to this day.  The northern tablelands were a long and arduous journey from Sydney, the north coast likewise, “back o’ Bourke” even more so, and people correctly understood that the attitude of Sydney politicians to the country towns was essentially a colonialist one: Sydney is where the action is, “the bush” is a nuisance that must be tolerated, but one should always try to spend as little there as possible, the correct role of colonies is to generate wealth for the metropolitan polity. If there is a net outflow of funds from the city to the colonies, something has gone wrong.

By the 1980s the Country Party (since 1972 known as the National Country Party) was seriously losing its way. Under pressure from a declining regional support base and from Queensland Premier Jo Bjelke-Petersen, it ditched the magic word “Country” from its title, and became the National Party of Australia, apparently in the delusion that it could become a “third force” in national politics, with an appeal to urban as well as country voters. The problem with this was that it had to drop its focus on regional Australia, yet it had no hope of taking on the Liberal Party, with which it was in coalition and with which it had an agreement not to run candidates in electorates held by a sitting member, and in any event its only hope of appealing to any part of the urban vote was to try to park itself to the right of the Liberal Party, a difficult ask at the best of times and well nigh impossible by the time John Howard was moving the Liberal Party itself so far to the right.

The National Party soon returned to its regional focus, but with a title which had ceased to mean anything to people in country towns. It became less the representative of non-metropolitan communities, and more the representative of the assorted primary producers’ associations, whose members it came to see as its main support base, and its efforts for regional communities degenerated to outrageous pork barrelling through the Regional Partnerships Program, under which it was OK to give millions of dollars to the Mareeba Zoo a few months before it folded, or to renovate one of the two pubs in Eden at public expense, but it was not OK to provide assistance to the Regional Airlines Association of Australia to enable it to respond to dramatic changes in air traffic control policy, essentially because a project like that would not induce gratitude in specifically identifiable electorates.

In parallel with all this the National Party fell for the line that it had to be “a good Coalition partner”, which it seemed to take to mean that, as the junior partner in the Coalition, it must always do as the Liberal Party wants. It leaders never seemed to have the wit or the will to make use of the fact that the Liberal Party could not govern without them, as the latter would soon have discovered if the National Party had chosen to occupy the cross-benches. This left John Howard with a free hand to set about the important business of seeing the National Party off the national political stage, a task to which he applied himself with considerable dedication and skill.  

This brings us back to the three country independents.  It is a complete misreading of these men to say that they come from a National Party tradition and hence will jump that way when it comes to the crunch. Each of them left the National Party for a reason, and while that does not automatically imply that they would not install an Abbott government, the distinction in the underlying approach to politics is an important consideration.  I would argue that they come from a strong Country Party tradition, not a National Party tradition, and that there is a difference.

The first thing to understand about people in this tradition is that they are serious people.  They are completely unimpressed by the meretricious persiflage that now passes for political debate in every jurisdiction in the land – “two dogs barking at each other” in the wonderful phrase of Tony Windsor.

Nor do they enter politics to acquire social standing; they get nominated because they already have respect and standing in their local communities, and as often as not they are press-ganged into service because they are regarded as outstanding candidates.

Both factors make them utterly incomprehensible to people like Tony Abbott, John Howard or Julia Gillard, people for whom too much politics is not nearly enough, for whom politics with its plotting and scheming and clever debating points is the only reason for drawing breath, and to whom it is very important to be important.

Consistent with their approach, the three independents have approached their task diligently and strategically. Strategically because they have realised from the outset that their best hope of securing a more equitable deal for country Australia on an ongoing basis is to reform the processes of the Parliament itself, and then use those better processes to argue individual policy settings on the floor of the House (even if Paul Kelly does see “ethical pomposity” in this – one of the many exhibits, Your Honour, in my contention that the urban commentariat simply doesn’t get it).

While they came to the negotiation with various policy agenda, they did not come armed with electorate-specific shopping lists, which meant that Julia Gillard got off to a bit of a rocky start with them: Michael Gordon reported in his perceptive piece in The Age, Saturday 4 September (see here) that:

Gillard’s only serious mistake was to present each of the “indies” with a folder outlining what was on offer to their electorates as the outset of their very first meeting – an unsubtle gesture described by one who is close to the three men as offensive.

Bob Katter has since come up with a shopping list, but it is consistent with the approach of seeking better policy settings rather than electorate-specific pork. As Laura Tingle put it in her column on page 8 of The Weekend Australian Financial Review:

Katter had released a wish list of issues but was quite clear in his pragmatic understanding that most of the things he would like to see happen will not get up.

“Obviously, a government that is heading in that direction [his wish list] would be more acceptable to me than a government that is heading away from that direction,” he said.

But even so, Katter’s eclectic list was not one of demands for spending in his electorate.

  As for the policy settings themselves, and the all-important intangible that goes with them, “trust”:

-   The three independents will have been unsettled by the cavalier way the Coalition went about its costings, and by the catalogue of excuses which was wheeled out as pretexts to evade public scrutiny. Every aspect of the way these three men have approached their task indicates that they will have regarded policy costing as a matter to be approached with diligence and care.

-   They will be similarly unimpressed by the lack of substance to the Coalition’s pretence of a national broadband policy, and the evident failure of the Coalition leadership to even attempt to master a subject which was put forward as a major differentiator. Also, they cannot have failed to notice that the Government believes in its national broadband policy (it has established the NBN Company and is rolling the cable out) whereas the Coalition is lightly attached to its policy at best – it is a policy stunt cobbled together for the purposes of the election, and one wouldn’t want to hold one’s breath waiting for even this limited approach to be rolled out.

-   Oakeshott and Windsor at least will be bemused by the fact that Tony Abbott says that he will achieve dramatic cuts in the carbon intensity of our economy, but that as a self proclaimed conservative he will “never, ever” allow market forces to play a role in achieving this. (Hint: there is a difference between a conservative and a right-wing radical).

-   If (as I suspect) there are orchestrated campaigns in their electorates, then that too will go to the issue of trust; again the Coalition is misreading these people.  They will read a propensity for amateurish dirty tricks as both amateurish and wanting in trustworthiness.

My guess is that the three of these gents will come to the conclusion that support for Labor is in the best interests of their electorates, and for country Australia generally (indeed for all of us). There will be people in their electorates who will not like that, but the Coalition can place no reliance on that as a determining factor; indeed their attempts to go over the heads of the independents by making public statements about what they ought to do, or about what their electorates think, are more likely to have hindered than to have helped. As Michael Gordon concluded his article in The Age:

Whether it is Gillard or Abbott, the imperative is to listen, engage and not take them for granted.

“They are all men of integrity and honesty and decency, the sort of people who are offended by bad language,” one veteran observed this week.  “These are men without fear – and the most dangerous politician you can have is a fearless politician with nothing to lose”.

I have worked for Ministers with that attitude, an attitude that “I am going to do what I think is right, and if they don’t like it they can get someone else”. It is very real, and deeply felt, and all involved in the next Parliament had better understand it and learn to work with it.

I may be completely wrong in my assessment of the three country independents, but of one thing I am sure; their decision will be a very conscientious one, one over which they have worked and agonised long and hard, in a situation that was neither of their making nor their asking.

If Tony Abbott is brought undone by the process, it will be largely because he did not apply himself to his duties with the same diligence as the hitherto ignored country independents have to theirs.


Noodle36 said...

Absolutely agree with your assessments in regard to Tony Windsor, and I think he can sway Rob Oakeshott. Katter, however, I think will ask too much and be left out.

Anonymous said...

"a difference between a conservative and a right-wing radical" This comment alone ruins your credibility. Their can be differences between the two, or they can exist in harmony. Because "conservatives" are not about keeping things the same, they have always been about take things BACK, back to an imaginary hayday they are nostalgic for. Conservative delusions of a golden past work well with radical rightwingers cause to try and take us back to oligarchy and feudalism by creating a new corporate feudalism.