Greens could learn a thing or two from larrikin Nationals

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The Nationals, led by the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, are still the under-rated story within the Turnbull government.

Barnaby JoyceFrom the moment the party negotiated its binding agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he took over last September to its continuing influence over contemporary Australian politics, it has stood strong and determined.

It has had the Liberals in a vice-like grip. That agreement laid down a range of commitments that Turnbull undertook, with some, like the same sex marriage plebiscite, against his better judgement.

There should be greater focus on these Coalition arrangements and agreements for this reason, rather than worrying so much about internal Liberal Party politics, conservative Liberals and Tony Abbott's continuing profile. A focus on the Nationals gives greater insights into what the government stands for.

The Nationals are tough and rough competitors and have lots of sharp edges to their personality. Their influence extends over both economic policy, where they are influential on matters like taxation and competition policy, and social policy, where they have resisted reform on matters like same sex marriage.

They are not afraid to speak out boldly or to threaten to draw a line in the sand, such as crossing the floor, to hold their privileged place within the Coalition. They even hold a licence to be outrageous.

The Nationals' power and style are put into context by a comparison with the party at the other end of the continuum, the Greens. The two junior parties are equivalent in many ways, including each having the support of about ten per cent of the electorate (the Greens are actually larger), one part largely rural and the other largely urban, but they are also very different in terms of influence and behaviour.

The difference between the parties applies to many of their parliamentarians but is perhaps best illustrated by the striking difference in style between their leaders.

 

"The Greens are still regarded in some quarters as extremists yet this belies their style which is very domesticated and responsible. Yet this mild exterior does them little good."

 

Joyce, with his tomato-red complexion and bush hat, gets away with being rough and outspoken, often appealingly direct yet sometimes close to incoherent. He is largely tolerated by the electorate but engenders some real affection. Greens leader Richard di Natale, the man with the studious looking glasses, is on the other hand the very model of the measured, well-mannered, thoughtful and quietly spoken politician — everything that Joyce isn't.

There is something quite incongruous about this difference. Perhaps appearances are deceiving. The Greens are still regarded in some quarters as extremists yet this belies their style which is very domesticated and responsible. There have been some exceptions, including Senator Sarah Hanson-Young on refugees and asylum seekers, but most of the other Greens, including the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, are cut from the same cloth as di Natale.

Yet this mild exterior does them little good apparently. Perhaps they try too hard to be responsible. If anything the Greens would benefit from a dose of some of the larrikinism which the Nationals offer. They may be radical in substance but they are far from radical in approach.

More importantly though the Greens lack the leverage that being in the Coalition provides the Nationals. Labor, under Gillard, Rudd and Shorten, just can't get their act together with the Greens. At the federal level, though not in some of the states and territories, Labor shuns the Greens whom they see as not just competitors but electoral poison.

As a consequence the Greens are still fighting for the sort of status and general acceptance the Nationals have long been accorded. They are here to stay but have not yet found their place in the scheme of things.

The Nationals are a success story after about 100 years in Australian federal politics. They regularly hold their own, as they did at the last election. Far from fading away they continue to prosper. After about 30 years the Greens are still finding their way and learning their trade. They remain the outsiders looking in whereas, despite appearances, the Nationals are the ultimate insiders.

 


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Greens, Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, Richard Di Natale, Adam Bandt, Sarah Hanson-Young


 

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Existing comments

The latte sippers vs. plain old traditional country folk. If only it was that simple. Changing our style is a very difficult thing to do, and not always advisable, if for no other reason than "it's just not me". And I'm not sure that being an insider in politics is all that wonderful. Far better to be subversively responsible. Or responsibly subversive.
Pam | 31 October 2016


Back in the Seventies the Nats changed their name from the Country Party largely to retain some relevance in semi rural electorates where the challenge was often from the Liberals. Back then there was a feeling the Nats would slowly fade away after McEwan and Anthony and as Australia became more cosmopolitan. But that didn’t happen and it is a credit to a number of pragmatic and intelligent leaders – Fischer and Anderson come to mind, as does the dull but bright Warren Truss – that they are still around and still influential, thanks in part to the Liberal Party’s problems. The Nats also have an effective grass-roots network of supporters across their strongholds. It is still early days for Joyce and his larrikin image (everyone calls him Barnaby) will only go so far. If there is no substance he won’t last. The Nats major competitor is often the Liberals rather than Labor. John is right that the Nats benefit when the Libs look weak, as we are seeing now. I can see them being around for decades but the small traditionalist in me would like to see them go back to being the Country Party.
Brett | 01 November 2016


Sad reflection on the Oz voters. When we say we want an alternative to the Coles-Woolworth duopoly in politics the Greens ought be a popular. option Then again, Barnaby told Peter Hartcher he enjoys the hayseed image because they don't see where the tackle is coming from. Are we really as unthinking as the article implies? Or have the medial just gone for goodies and baddies and omitted the complexities?
Michael D. Breen | 01 November 2016


An interesting article. The Greens poll more votes than the Nats but that is not reflected in seats in the Reps where governments are formed and where coalitions are made. The Nats are a conservative bunch, economically and socially, and fit well with the conservatives in the Libs. The liberal Libs have learned to tolerate them in order to stay in power. The Greens are a 'progressive' party in the sense that they want to change things, economically and socially. They should find like minds in the progressives in the ALP, but any coalition would not be tolerated by the right wing conservative apparatchiks.
Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2016


You can, actually, trust the Nationals. Some of the Greens - Lee Rhiannon for one with her former CPA association and our very own Larissa Waters in Queensland, who recently launched an intellectual jihad against giving "gender specific" Christmas presents - are on my "don't trust, ever" list. Three cheers for "boring" normalcy in Australian politics!
Edward Fido | 02 November 2016


It is an unfortunate feature of the Australian (or Western global?) electorate that they are so totally cynical. A party that tries to change the system and bring a modicum of real democracy is treated with deep suspicion. There seems to be little room in Australians' distaste for politics to let the light in to our polity.
Pat Mahony | 02 November 2016


ACT shows what happens with a mature relationship between ALP and Greens - no hissy fits just negotiations over policy
Doug | 02 November 2016


Barnaby Joyce attended St Igantius Jesuit College. How much does this top private school/Jesuit influence matter? I think it does give the Old Boys a sense of great self-confidence and entitlement.
Janet | 02 November 2016


Interesting article. While you say the Nats are "not afraid to speak out boldly or to threaten to draw a line in the sand, such as crossing the floor, to hold their privileged place within the Coalition", could it be that they actually do have some ethics and seem to uphold Christian morality in matters of human life such as marriage and abortion, and actually place those things above holding their "privileged place within the Coalition" (a very cynical view!). This distinguishes them above all else from the current Labor Party and the humanistic if not frankly Marxist Greens. You also suggest that Barnaby is not well-mannered compared with the colourless Mr di Natale. I think he is one of the best mannered of the lot of them along with Turnbull. Manners does not preclude being rough and outspoken or adhering doggedly to a principle, even if that does produce a certain florid countenance.. Manners are reflected in how others relate to us and as you say, many relate very well to Barnaby. Perhaps he is a proud product of his family, his heritage and his Jesuit educators rather than the "advisers " and "sensationalists" who plague our political environs.
john frawley | 02 November 2016


John I don't think being a larrikin Green will bridge the gulf in ideology and values that differentiate them from the 2 major parties and especially the Liberal party. The Greens and Labor party would be better off putting some political energy into forming a new coalition to counter the conservatives
Wayne McMillan | 02 November 2016


If only Gina Rinehart and the other coal barons would fund the Greens so generously as they do the Nationals. Then maybe the Greens would join the powerful people in Canberra and on the Flemington racecourse.
Tom K | 02 November 2016


I'm not an Old Ignatian, Janet but I was educated at Xavier and Melbourne Grammar School. I'm not sure either gave you a sense of privilege per se. It depended on your parents. Many Old Xavierians and Old Melburnians are perfectly normal. All my friends from both places are.
Edward Fido | 03 November 2016


I think the Nationals have neither substance nor style that the Greens should adopt. The Country Party/National Party has been from the beginning an Agrarian Socialist party. As such they have stymied the ALP which is an Industrial Socialist Party. The Nationals despite their deceptive name have captured only the rural vote in Australia. From Black Jack McEwen through Tim Fischer to Warren Truss the Nationals have been able (most times clandestinely but sometime blatantly) to twist the arm of the leaders of their Liberal Party coalitionists. They have not hesitated to exploit any vulnerability in a Coalition leader's armour to get what they want. They have no respect for due process. Australia does not need a Greens Party adopting the strategy and tactics of the Nationals. The Greens biggest failing, is trying to have a policy on everything. Much like the ALP. Hence while there are numerous areas for agreement between the two (which the Coalition uses to label both as Socialist Engineers) there are also areas of disagreement which members of both parties cannot help themselves from fighting over. United they stand. Divided they fall.
Uncle Pat | 03 November 2016


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