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Littleproud leads the Nationals, but they face more than just a leadership tussle

Littleproud leads the Nationals, but they face more than just a leadership tussle

David Littleproud is the new Nationals leader this morning, after ousting Barnaby Joyce. But whatever his profound political and personal failings, Barnaby Joyce at least has a coherent vision of the Nationals. It may be the only coherent thing about him. It’s a vision taken from the mining industries that are such generous donors to the federal Nationals: get in, rip as much out as you can while you’re able to, don’t worry about the rules and regulations too much, and don’t worry about the damage you inflict on everyone else. If called out, just claim you’re good for Australia and the backbone of the country.

For miners, it’s about resources in the earth. For Joyce and the Nationals who share his view of their role, it’s taxpayers’ money.

It’s the “don’t care about the damage you inflict on everyone else” part that is now troubling the Nationals. Joyce couldn’t care less about the damage he personally inflicted on so many Liberal candidates across the country. It’s not his problem, even if he, along with the equally toxic Scott Morrison, cost the Coalition government and stripped the Liberals’ ranks of a generation of talent. He doesn’t care because the Nationals held their seats, although that disguises the fact that, where Barnaby campaigned, their vote fell, and where he stayed away apart from a few hours’ of visits — Victoria — it went up.

Victorian Darren Chester, who also challenged Joyce for the leadership today, has a different, more sophisticated view of the Nationals’ role. “There’s no question in my mind that some of the comments by a few colleagues … had an impact on the Liberal Party candidates in those more moderate parts of urban areas,” he said last week. “[Let’s] not be sabotaging the campaigns of Liberals in the city.”

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He understands that without the Liberals, the Nationals are just one of the smaller minor parties good for colourful media copy and not much else.

He also understands that the way that Joyce and his cronies, such as Matt Canavan, have communicated is also important to the alienation of moderate voters. “I think they want us to be perhaps more moderate and more respectful in public debates.”

In the middle is Littleproud, who claims to represent generational change for the Nationals, but who is more a combination of the traditional extractive attitude to the public purse, with a more moderate and calmer demeanour.

What’s missing from the Littleproud and Joyce visions of the National Party is that it can actually combine supporting commonsense approaches to climate policy that would not undermine Liberals, and delivering for regional communities — rather than simply pork-barrelling relentlessly and appointing mates to second-tier government bodies, which is the current Nationals’ view of delivering for communities.

The NSW Nationals get it. They’ve been readily working in cooperation with the NSW Liberals to deliver major energy projects to regional areas that come with billions in investments and thousands of jobs. What’s not to love? Private-sector infrastructure, regional jobs, lower emissions, more rapid decarbonisation, a just transition for fossil fuel economy workers.

That’s not to say the NSW government was not riddled with pork-barrelling until recently — Dominic Perrottet says the days of pork are now over — but if you wanted a simple demonstration of how the Nationals can fulfil their claim to genuinely represent the needs of regional and rural communities while making life easier for urban Liberals, there it is.

Whether Littleproud is prepared to heed the lessons from NSW and, for that matter, from the 2022 election, remains to be seen. For the next three years, under business as usual, the Nationals have nothing to extract. They’re just another minor party good for colourful media copy.

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