As the door closes on Bridget McKenzie, Michael McCormack faces his own battle — unity

Bridget McKenzie’s resignation is the latest mess in a string for the Nationals over the past few years, and the biggest test now is whether the party can clean itself up and unite.

Feb 03, 2020, updated Feb 03, 2020
It is expected Victorian Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester (centre) will return to cabinet after Bridget McKenzie's resignation. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

It is expected Victorian Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester (centre) will return to cabinet after Bridget McKenzie's resignation. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

That arduous task begins with the election of a new deputy leader and the appointment of a new Cabinet Minister and Senate leader.

But the situation is already looking more complex than that, with some in the party agitating for an entirely new leadership team.

Former leader Barnaby Joyce has told the ABC he would stand for the position of leader, if it was spilt in the partyroom meeting on Tuesday.

“If there is a spill, I will stand. It is entirely up to them if they wish to spill,” he said.

“A spill is a real option but not a certainty.”

There has been internal pressure on Nationals leader Michael McCormack, with some viewing his leadership as weak.

Matt Canavan will take on the position of Senate leader, while it is tipped that Victorian Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester will return to Cabinet. The latter is not a given.

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It would mean added responsibility when there is already an enormous recovery underway in his own electorate.

But Chester may be asked to take on the disaster recovery portfolio from David Littleproud, who could in turn slot back in as Agriculture Minister, a job Senator McKenzie appropriated from him.

It is hard to say whether Chester would have the support to become deputy, and unclear whether he would even nominate. Conservatives in the party do not approve of his more progressive views, such as support for same-sex marriage.

The more likely successor is Littleproud, a Queenslander who was catapulted from the backbench to the cabinet by Joyce and who has built a reputation for straight-talk and getting things done.

But if history is any guide, the act of choosing a Nationals deputy can become a dog fight because, as one MP chuckled, “pretty much everyone will want to nominate themselves”.

The party has been divided for some time

The list of nominees could include Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan, Keith Pitt, David Gillespie and Mark Coulton, to name a few.

There are 21 members in the National Party — 16 in the Lower House and five in the Senate. They elect leaders through a convoluted process of eliminating unsuccessful nominees one by one, before entering subsequent rounds of ballots.

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The intricacy can make it difficult to determine where votes will go once certain individuals are knocked out.

And making it harder to predict is the fact there is already some division within the party — and has been for a while.

A lot of that angst stems back to former leader Barnaby Joyce’s captain’s picks. On separate occasions he promoted Senator Canavan and Littleproud from backbench positions to Cabinet.

Those moves offended some in the party, who felt they had been around longer and were more worthy of promotion. But the party’s real chaos began when Joyce and his then-deputy Fiona Nash became embroiled in the citizenship saga in 2017.

Both were sent packing by the High Court, sparking a by-election in Joyce’s seat of New England and the ousting of Nash because she was a Senator.

At the same time there were rumours swirling about Joyce’s private life and the eventual revelation he was having an affair and baby with his now-partner Vikki Campion. The nail in his leadership coffin was an allegation of sexual assault, which an internal investigation found to be inconclusive.

So what now for the National Party?

McCormack took over as leader but has failed to settle several restless backbenchers and, occasionally, senior party members who are frustrated with what they (privately) describe as his “lack of spine and cut-through”.

Those concerns almost came to a head early last year, when unsourced comments in news reports raised the possibility of a leadership challenge.

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Prior to that, a Nationals MP had been doing the numbers at the party’s federal council. Amidst it all, former junior minister Andrew Broad kissed politics goodbye after it was revealed he’d used a dating website to meet a younger woman on overseas work trips.

And the Member for Manila, George Christensen, was at the centre of allegations about travel to parts of South-East Asia known for prostitution and drugs. Nine reported his now-wife worked at an adult bar he frequented.

Now, the party’s deputy leader — who was the target of angry colleagues last year over her handling of a dairy code of conduct — has fallen on her sword for failing to disclose her membership of a gun club that received federal funds.

Add it all together and it hardly makes for a pretty political picture. So what now for the National party?

McCormack will struggle to appease everyone

The Coalition’s strength hinges on a working relationship between the Liberals and their junior partner. Liberals have been embroiled in chaos too.

Don’t forget Energy Minister Angus Taylor is still the subject of a federal police investigation.

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But the Nationals, which used to be a party that gave out curry on behalf of country people but protected each other to the hilt, have become known, politically, for drama and division.

There are those in the party who claim the perception of division is over-hyped, and that an angry few keep fuelling it. Even if it is overblown, the fact there are fractures makes life difficult for McCormack.

Some Nationals are adamant he should have fought harder for Senator McKenzie, while others concede she dug her own grave.

McCormack still has the majority of support in the party room and newer members have to acknowledge they were elected under his campaign leadership.

But there is a growing number who, never on record, feel he is not up to the job. And he will struggle to permanently appease uneasy Queensland Nats.

They’re talking about themselves — again

The question now is, whether with a new leadership team, McCormack can unite his party, which, despite all the shenanigans, still performed well at the last election.

The score board shows that since 2007, the Nationals have increased their representation in Federal Parliament.

But, while all this rages on, Nationals’ constituents have been suffering through one of the worst droughts on record, thousands of people have lost homes, properties, livestock and pets, and anxiety about climate change is red-hot.

Yet the media is focussed on the Nationals’ turmoil and, in turn, the mob elected to represent country people are talking about themselves… again.

People in the bush are not dropping everything to gossip and rant with each other about sports rorts saga.

Those who have paid attention might think it stinks, but they remain focused on drought and bushfires, and the challenges of day to day life.

In essence, where Mother Nature has created a serious mess, real people are busy cleaning it up themselves.


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