Demystifying the Coalition

12 Comments

 

The downfall of Barnaby Joyce and his replacement by Michael McCormack from Wagga Wagga as Nationals leader shows once again that maintaining the Liberal-National coalition has a considerable impact on the nation, and thus it deserves greater attention and transparency. Instead it is clouded in secrecy and often taken for granted.

Michael McCormackThe two parties are usually described as senior and junior partners, though the arrangement is sometimes described as a marriage, even if it is a marriage of convenience in which there are no alternative suitors.

But the term marriage has never fully captured the flavour of the relationship between the Liberals and the Nationals. The Coalition is a strictly business relationship struck between two exceptionally hard-headed organisations whose business is politics and whose aim is election victory and then government.

On both sides there is suspicion and condescension. Heaven knows how the Liberal National Party works harmoniously in Queensland.

What brings the parties together is the same thing as in any business deal. Each side has something that the other wants and which can only be achieved by working together. The Liberals need the Nationals to form a parliamentary majority. There are no other realistic options. The Nationals need the Liberals to gain entrée to government. The Liberals won't risk minority government by standing alone, while the Nationals won't risk losing the perquisites of office. They want to be inside the tent.

This Coalition is only maintained by stringent non-competition rules for sitting members for the House of Representatives and joint tickets for the Senate.

Even then the precise governing contract is negotiated in private between the two leaders whenever a government is formed or whenever a party leader changes. This happened when Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in 2015 and again in 2016 after the federal election. The Nationals have always driven a hard bargain. It is unclear though whether any alterations have been made on this occasion or whether discussions between Turnbull and McCormack have been restricted to personalities and the distribution of ministerial portfolios.

 

"Turnbull will be eager to swap a turbulent relationship with the hard-driving, media-hungry and unpredictable Joyce for an easier one with McCormack."

 

The public aspects of the bargain are the division of portfolios according to the number of seats each party holds and the gift of the deputy prime minister's position to the Nationals leader.

McCormack's election and subsequent promotion reminds us what a tremendous gift that is. A virtual non-entity is catapulted into the second most senior job in the government over the head of much more experienced senior Cabinet ministers, who happen to be Liberals, like the Treasurer and the Foreign Minister to name just two.

The private aspects of the bargain, never published, are agreed behind closed doors, including the concessions demanded by the Nationals and agreed to by Turnbull when he became prime minister. These included no change to same sex marriage policy and to Nationals' control of water policy.

Even given all these concessional arrangements the Nationals have always felt free to attack the Liberals without fear of retribution.

Nationals leaders strive for an independent rural identity, hence Joyce's style and his symbolic Akubra hat. Nationals members and voters applaud any sign of independent behaviour, no matter how outrageous or silly, even to the extent of supporting ex-Nationals like Bob Katter. McCormack will be under pressure to maintain such a spirit of independence.

All this explains the position Turnbull found himself in when Joyce's perilous personal situation became public. Coalition government weakens the power and control of the Liberal prime minister. It was that weakness which led Turnbull to engage in megaphone diplomacy with his deputy rather than trying to assert his authority privately.

The elevation of an unknown quantity like McCormack may have cost the government communication and campaigning fire-power, because Joyce shared with Abbott a reputation for vigorous plain-speaking which cut through with the electorate.

But even if that deficit proves to be true Turnbull will be eager to swap a turbulent relationship with the hard-driving, media-hungry and unpredictable Joyce for an easier one with McCormack, even though the latter will be under pressure within his own party to match Joyce's profile and aggression.

There are plenty of precedents for such an approach, including the role played by the quietly-spoken Warren Truss during the Abbott and early Turnbull years. If that relationship can be replicated Turnbull will be a relieved man.

 

 

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Barnaby Joyce, Michael McCormack, Nationals Party


 

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Existing comments

The best time to get married? When we are amazed at our luck. Others may not see what we do though. Politics is a bit like that.
Pam | 02 March 2018


The agreement operates only when the coalition is in government. Trying to find out, then, what the agreement contains is like trying to breach the convention of cabinet solidarity: unnecessary because regardless of what is in it, the government as a whole takes ownership of its outcomes.
Roy Chen Yee | 03 March 2018


Why not call it a Liberal minority government with the National party? Why save the hysteria and negative political commentary for a partnership of convenience of a ALP government with the Greens or any other minority ?
Frederika STEEN | 05 March 2018


That depends on which agreement you are talking about Roy. The agreement not to compete in lower house electorates is a clear case of anti-complétive practice which denies all voters the opportunity to choose between these two right wing but very different parties. The joint ticket in the Senate has preferences from city voters who voted Liberal going to elect senators whose interests are far from those of our metropolises. The agreement on sharing ministries means that we end up with the less competent people filling important ministries than we might have had were they distributed on the basis of merit. The position of Deputy PM is a classic example. And the agreement, the one you are talking about, to go into coalition binds the major member to the social mores of people whose views are often very different from those of the majority who vote for the Liberal party.
Ginger Meggs | 05 March 2018


Ginger Meggs, the agreement is negotiated between adults with agency who are leaders of their respective parties. The non-leader members of the respective parties, parliamentary and organisational, are adults with agency. The voters are adults with agency. These adults have agency because Australia allows the sellers of political wares the freedom to contract with each other, the buyers of those wares in the voting public to look for other sellers, and the non-leader members of the selling organisations to kick up a stink if they don’t like what happened. The outcome? National Party voters vote for the NP despite knowing about other rural alternatives. Liberal voters vote for the LP despite knowing about other urban alternatives. Non-leadership organisational and parliamentary members haven’t jumped ship. And anyone can split their vote for the Senate. As for ministerial competence, is there some a priori principle that an NP member is never qualified to be Treasurer, or Foreign or Defence Minister, because it’s a bit unfair the NP never get a look-in for those jobs. Is there some a priori principle which says that in a coalition breakup of say 60:16, all the dunderheads will unfailingly be found in the 16?
Roy Chen Yee | 06 March 2018


I suppose the position of the National Party with seemingly allotted power beyond the population it represents has something to do with money in that the Party represents in the main those electors whose work contributes the vast proportion of the country's income and wealth. That was certainly the situation when the Party was born and remains so particularly with the continuing emasculation of manufacturing in this country and the outsourcing of non-rural labour by the big end of town with a view to greater shareholder profit.
john frawley | 07 March 2018


‘As for ministerial competence, is there some a priori principle that an NP member is never qualified to be Treasurer, or Foreign or Defence Minister, because it’s a bit unfair the NP never get a look-in for those jobs. Is there some a priori principle which says that in a coalition breakup of say 60:16, all the dunderheads will unfailingly be found in the 16? ‘. Of course not, but that is not what I said Roy. Counter my arguments by all means but please don’t misrepresent what I said.
Ginger Meggs | 07 March 2018


Ginger Meggs: “don’t misrepresent what I said.” Merely responding to “The agreement on sharing ministries means that we end up with the less competent people filling important ministries than we might have had were they distributed on the basis of merit.” How do you know someone from the National Party couldn’t have been a better choice (as at the time of her appointment) than Julie Bishop as Foreign Affairs Minister or, given that Artie Fadden was Treasurer, Warren Truss couldn’t have been at least as good a treasurer as Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison?
Roy Chen Yee | 08 March 2018


I don't know, Roy, nor did I say so. Again, you either misunderstand or seek to misrepresent me. Of course there have been competent National (or Country Party) senior ministers before, e.g. Fadden, McEwan, etc. What I said was that the Coalition agreement-in-government means that Ministers are not chosen solely on merit but rather (presumably, because we don't see the detail) on the basis of that agreement. If you want some real live examples you don't have to look far beyond recent appointments to the role of Deputy PM. The present one has never been in Cabinet before yet now chairs it when the PM is absent. Whatever his merits are, they were not the basis for his appointment as Deputy PM.
Ginger Meggs | 09 March 2018


The Coalition Agreement is a marriage of convenience between two parties whose main (only?) basis of agreement is being anti-Labor. It’s a same-sex marriage if you like. They learnt to co-exist over nearly 80 years since Menzies formed the Liberals out of the existing anti-Labor parties. My understanding is the then Country Party refused to join the new conservative party, perhaps acknowledging Billy Hughes’ joke about having to draw the line somewhere. McEwan tested his Party’s strength in the Coalition when he refused to have McMahon as PM after Holt drowned, and the Libs blinked. With that precedent the Liberals could refuse to accept a particular National as Party leader, or refuse to have him (it’s always him) as deputy PM. But as far as I know the Libs have never pushed that line and they never would. It seems the Nats are more likely to put pressure on the Agreement, knowing their numbers won’t change greatly from one election to the next. The Libs are the ones who win and lose government for the Coalition, although Barnaby’s antics have put a dent into that thought. I laugh when Coalition members talk about Labor’s “faceless” faction leaders making “secret deals”. The Coalition Agreement does exactly the same thing. Transparency? It’s a dream.
Brett | 12 March 2018


Ginger Meggs: “What I said was that the Coalition agreement-in-government means that Ministers are not chosen solely on merit but rather (presumably, because we don't see the detail) on the basis of that agreement” isn’t as stringent as “The agreement on sharing ministries means that we end up with the less competent people filling important ministries than we might have had were they distributed on the basis of merit.” Firstly, you’re arguing for an impossibility. If you have two parties in coalition, you’re going to have to have an agreement anyway, because a free vote of a joint party room will possibly see the numerically superior Liberals grab all the ministries for themselves. Secondly, you can’t know whether an appointment is meritorious except in retrospect. In response to “The present one has never been in Cabinet”, what about John Curtin, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd, Tony Blair, David Lange, John Key, Jacinda Ardern, Brian Mulroney and Justin Trudeau? Except for John (through death), Kevin (you might have some support for your argument there!) and (for the moment) Jacinda and Justin, the people decided that the cabinet neophytes had the necessary merit to be returned to their cabinet positions.
Roy Chen Yee | 12 March 2018


The first coalition was born before the UAP, whose 1930s heroes were about to lose WW2, smokescreened the people with the new name "Liberal"' Though Lyons was the UAP's first PM, Menzies had been a key member of the cabal that secured the latest ALP turncoat, and formed the "new" reactionary party in the Melbourne offices of National Mutual Life Assn. Lyons-Menzies supported Hitler and Hirohito through the 1930s. Lyons died, Pigiron Bob took the reins. Nats, called Country Party since their foundation, had Gallipoli & Western Front Medical Officer, highly and deservedly decorated Dr Sir Earle Page, as leader. One day, as we were fighting for freedom in the 2nd World War, Sir Earle rose in Parliament and denounced Menzies for his conspicuous cowardice in the 1st. End of Coalition, start of the excellent ALP Government of Creswick's noblest son John Curtin.
james marchment | 24 March 2018


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