News National Now the Nationals are rebelling, deepening Malcolm Turnbull’s troubles

Now the Nationals are rebelling, deepening Malcolm Turnbull’s troubles

Malcolm Turnbull
The Prime Minister is facing more upheaval just in time for Christmas. Photo: AAP
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Next Monday, the 21 members of the Nationals’ federal party room will endorse a push to break ranks with the Liberals and their own government to support a banking inquiry.

The numbers are there for a strong assertion of a separate identity and, so they think, demonstrate they are more in touch with their constituents on a need to put the blowtorch on the banks.

The party expects its leader in exile, Barnaby Joyce, to be back in the fold after Saturday’s byelection in his seat of New England – although there is some nervousness given he has 16 candidates running against him and the Turnbull government has by almost unanimous opinion been a disappointment since its scrape across the line at last year’s election.

Barnaby Joyce
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is expected to convincingly win the New England byelection. Photo: ABC

Indeed, Tony Abbott drew huge applause at a Christian conference in Sydney last weekend when he echoed this very sentiment.

Mr Joyce, with the luxury of not actually being in government or indeed in Parliament at the moment, has sent a strong signal he is open to supporting a banking inquiry.

He must be counting on not being formally back in Parliament or cabinet when his colleague, Queensland senator Barry O’Sullivan, moves for an inquiry in the Senate later this week. Other Nationals in cabinet or on the frontbench will be in a tricky position.

If they actually cross the floor to support the motion in either house they will surely have to resign. That would instantly precipitate a government crisis.

Maybe they will vote with the government and leave it to the 13 Nationals who aren’t in the executive to carry the day along with Labor and the crossbench.

The Queensland election result, which saw a dramatic 8 per cent collapse in the Liberal National Party’s primary vote, has spooked what is affectionately known in Canberra as “cockies’ corner”.

The party’s most high-profile rebel, Queenslander George Christensen, caught the mood in a tweet on Sunday where he apologised to One Nation voters – which in his neck of the woods outnumbered LNP voters – for letting them down.

Mr Christensen said his party “needed to listen more, work harder, stand up more for conservative values and regional Queensland to win your trust and vote”.

The crunch came in the last line: “A lot of that rests with the Turnbull government, its leadership and policy direction.”

And, as far as he and his mates are concerned, the best place to start is with a banking inquiry.

This does nothing for the cohesion of the Coalition government let alone its credibility.

It flies in the face of the Prime Minister and Treasurer Scott Morrison’s view that such an inquiry is a waste of time and money. They argue they are getting on with pulling the banks into line.

This week Mr Morrison is promising to unveil a new tribunal to care for those claiming to be victimised customers.

On Tuesday, more of the government’s fault lines will be on view as the Senate begins debating amendments to Liberal senator Dean Smith’s same-sex marriage bill.

Three Liberal conservative frontbenchers have loudly joined the push to extend religious exemptions to discriminate against homosexuals.

One, Michael Sukkar, has gone so far as to describe the Smith bill as flawed and points to support by Labor and the Greens as evidence of that. Never mind that is the end result of an extensive Senate committee process that guarantees religious freedoms.

Mr Sukkar and most of the Nationals argue that even in their electorates where there was convincing majority support for the “Yes” case they claim those who voted “No” belonged to their parties’ base and they must be accommodated.

So much for listening to what a majority of Australians want and who they are elected to serve.

There is no tidy end to this messy year.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. 

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