The departure of Barnaby Joyce from the leadership of the Nationals has set off a bizarre transformation within the Coalition that could see the junior country party become more progressive as the Liberal Party lurches further to the right.
When Mr Joyce was still at the helm, the traditionalist Nationals extracted commitments from new Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull that cemented the Coalition’s conservative approach on key policy issues.
That deal included persistence with a plebiscite on gay marriage and a vow not to introduce an emissions-trading scheme.
Mr Joyce was able to do this because the Nationals had helped to overthrow Mr Turnbull as Liberal leader in the past – specifically because of his support for an emissions trading scheme.
Even though they didn’t have a vote in the Liberal party room, the Nationals under Mr Joyce teamed with Liberal arch conservatives in the Coalition’s joint party room to strenuously resist any ‘softening’ of policies once Mr Turnbull was returned to the leadership.
Even after Mr Joyce stepped down as Nationals leader, it appeared his hardline approach would continue with protegés such as the new Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.
But then a curious thing happened two weeks ago, when Mr Littleproud took the PM to visit some of the worst drought-affected farming regions in Queensland and NSW.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Turnbull acknowledged the influence of climate change on the nation’s climate patterns, saying: “The climate is changing. I know it becomes a political debate, but there’s no doubt that our climate is getting warmer.”
Much more unusual was the additional commentary provided by Mr Littleproud, a former rural banker and the son of a former minister in the notoriously conservative government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Making use of the additional media attention that comes with the presence of the PM, Mr Littleproud repeated comments he’d made back in March advocating the need for Australia to act on climate change and that the adoption of renewable energy was a good thing.
In the media coverage that followed, it became clear the new agriculture minister had a better handle on the changing demographics of the Nationals’ heartland – regional and rural Australia – than his famously ‘retail’ predecessor Mr Joyce.
Regional centres are becoming more urbanised, bringing voters with more progressive views, and farmers are also becoming more aware of the need to live up to their PR as custodians of the environment.
The Nationals’ historical reluctance to adjust their policies accordingly has seen the party lose seats, but pragmatic Nationals like Mr Littleproud and moderate Nationals like Darren Chester seem to have taken Mr Joyce’s move to the backbench as an opportunity to make some badly needed changes.
In an address to the National Press Club this week, Mr Chester said Nationals MPs needed to prove to voters that they were “much more than blokes in big hats” if they wanted to increase the party’s meagre numbers in Parliament.
He argued the party needed to broaden its appeal to adapt to the increasingly diverse regional communities that still included farmers but also “small-business owners, health workers, teachers, minerals and tourism-industry staff”.
As an example of the electorally dangerous disconnect between Nationals MPs and their voters, Mr Chester pointed to the outcome of the postal survey on marriage equality, where 15 out of 16 National party electorates voted yes.
But for every Littleproud within the Nationals extolling renewables as a technological disruption that is exciting “not only for the environment, but for the hip pocket”, there’s a Matt Canavan warning state colleagues against having a ‘post-coal’ plan and mandating renewables.
Then there is the conservative counter-revolution occurring within the Liberal Party. While considerable media attention has been devoted to the noisy death-rattle emanating from old guard conservatives like Tony Abbott and his supporters, an increasing number of second-wave conservatives have quietly infiltrated the Turnbull ministry and become dominant in many of the Liberal Party’s state divisions.
Mr Turnbull opened the gates to the right-wing barbarians now within his ministry at the behest of the two conservatives that continue to protect the PM from a leadership challenge – Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann.
As a result, a growing cohort of new conservatives is not only shaping the Liberals’ policies of today – such as Alan Tudge’s proposed English test for migrants – but influencing pre-selection processes to shape the Liberals’ party room of tomorrow.
This would likely mean that, just as some Nationals have started to challenge themselves to better reflect the more progressive views of their broadening constituencies, the Liberals risk becoming more disconnected from their supporters by choosing policies and MPs that cater only to a narrow range of highly conservative voters.
Yes, it is bizarre. Particularly if both transformations are ultimately successful.