Koalagate was all about the Nationals trying to regain their faded political support | Quentin Dempster

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Koalagate was a stunt. John Barilaro’s NSW Nationals attempted to breach the party’s 2019 Coalition agreement with the Liberals because they are struggling to retain constituent support in its remaining electorates.

The blanket publicity generated by the “madness”, as Barilaro played brinkmanship with premier Gladys Berejiklian over koala habitat protection regulations, has been seen by the Nationals as a big win for the brand.

But the intense pressure seems to have taken a personal toll on Barilaro, who announced late on Friday that he was taking at least a month’s leave to restore his mental wellbeing. Whether or not he remains as leader, the collective problems of the Nationals in NSW are not going away.

It is important to note that each move in the confrontation, including Barilaro’s apparent capitulation to a resolute premier, was endorsed by all Nationals MPs consulted hurriedly over Zoom and text messaging.

A number of Nationals MPs have indicated their intention to resign from the party and sit on the crossbench if the koala state environmental planning policy is not amended after cabinet negotiations next month, potentially forcing the Berejiklian government into minority. While these defectors would not be expected to vote no-confidence in Berejiklian’s leadership, the government would still be destabilised.

The madness perhaps can best be seen as a desperate attempt to revive a party fading in constituent NSW politics.

The state of the parties in the NSW legislative assembly is Liberal 35 seats, Nationals 13, Labor 36, the Greens 3, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFF) 3 and independents 3. The Coalition holds government with just a two-seat majority so the useful danger of defections is clear.

Next March, the Coalition will celebrate 10 years as the government of New South Wales, having taken power in a landslide in 2011 after NSW Labor was discredited through Icac corruption exposes and the split over electricity privatisation.

Under NSW’s fixed four-year terms, the next state election is already scheduled for Saturday, 25 March 2023. Why destabilise the government when Berejiklian’s 2019 re-election delivered four more years of executive power for the Coalition, its ministers and MPs?

Recent elections have shown the Nationals have lost significant ground in the state. They are under attack from the SFF in remote electorates and the Greens and Labor in NSW coastal electorates. The Nationals lost north coast Ballina to the Greens in 2015, and inland Barwon and Murray to SFF in 2019. Orange was lost to SFF in a 2016 byelection and, significantly, retained by SFF in 2019. Coastal Lismore was taken by Labor, aided by strong Greens preference after a tight contest in 2019.

Three further Nationals seats are under imminent threat: Dubbo (margin 2%) challenged by a strong independent; Upper Hunter (margin 2.5%) with a close contest between Labor and SFF; and Tweed (margin 4.9%) under threat from Labor with a strong Greens vote.

The state electoral commission is now undertaking a full redistribution. ABC psephologist Antony Green believes this could result in the loss of a rural seat and one new seat in south-west Sydney, owing to population changes. Under the state’s one-vote-one-value rule, the loss of any rural seat would become a bone of contention.

The Nationals appear vulnerable because of developing perceptions of rural and regional neglect, with such negatives emphasised by rhetoric from their constituent rivals. In coastal electorates still held by the Nationals, the Greens MP Jamie Parker says his party is taking votes because of the Nationals’ consistent climate change denial, with farming communities now “extremely vulnerable to changes in the weather and water shortages”.

And in more remote electorates, Helen Dalton, for example, won the seat of Murray in the south-west New South Wales for SFF in 2019 with a 26% swing against the Nationals.

Dalton describes herself as an environmentalist. A former primary school teacher and longstanding family farmer (barley, oats, wheat, beef cattle, fat lambs, wool and rice), she told Guardian Australia she had become deeply disaffected with the Nationals over many years of indifference to poor rural and regional services.

Speaking in support of the Barilaro no-confidence motion, Dalton told parliament:

“There is a reason that Murray is no longer represented by the National party. They have neglected my region for so long. For 35 years we got nothing. It’s only when they feared losing the seat that the money started flowing towards us.

“We have the highest suicide rate in NSW. But we don’t have a single mental health service in any of the hospitals in my electorate. Why doesn’t the deputy premier jump up and down in the media about that? That’s something he should be threatening to leave the government about.”

Since arriving in parliament, Dalton has tabled a bill to establish a searchable register of water licence ownership as a first step against corruption of the water market. She wanted a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin plan and complains that after once supporting the idea, Barilaro reneged when the Coalition government was returned.

She said the protection of koala habitat should not be by punitive compliance measures. Sustaining koala populations on private land should be included in a new land management incentive scheme that takes into account a land owner’s native vegetation management, carbon sequestration through more tree planting, the management of feral animals like foxes and cats, as well as the protection of endangered species.

“Landowners should be paid for these ecological goods and services. It’s about recognising the costs of time and money involved.

“Farmers have to focus on productive returns for their labour. You can’t be green and be in the red. You have to make a quid too.”

Dalton said the SFF was now working on a land management policy to take to the next state election.

In the face of determined rivalry for their seats, stand by for further agitation by the NSW Nationals to persuade their constituents that they are more militant, even at the cost of destabilising their own Coalition government.

It might already be too late but perhaps it explains the Barilaro ill-timed or desperate “madness” at a time of our focus on pandemic and recession.

The NSW Coalition agreement between the Liberals and Nationals has not been made public. But it is understood to be an agreement on the spoils of high office only, with ministries allocated according to seats won and the portfolios distributed by agreement between the Liberal and Nationals leaders.

Never has the National party used its substantial leverage at this time to include reforms like minimum standards for health and hospital services, upgrading telecommunications, enhancing Tafe or needs-based schools funding to the benefit all rural and regional constituents – let alone workable measures for koala habitat protection.

That might explain why the Nationals are a fading force in New South Wales.

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