The Nationals rarely roll their leaders. That’s not how it’s done in the bush. Usually they wait for a wounded leader to retire.
After this week’s chaotic events, in which the NSW Nationals brought the Coalition to the brink of destruction over koala protections, there are questions about how John Barilaro, the leader, can work with the Liberals in the future.
The views of the Liberals are no secret. “Untenable” was how most described Barilaro remaining as deputy premier, a position that automatically goes to the Nationals leader.
The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, wisely adopted the adage that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. As she left the crisis talks, she waved and smiled but avoided commenting to the media.
After all, she had extracted a capitulation from her deputy.
The Nationals at this stage are sticking by Barilaro.
At least four MPs had vowed to sit on the crossbenches over the koalas issue before Barilaro declared the entire party would do so, effectively threatening to end the coalition.
Presumably they will be sticking by their man. Two of them are from the north coast and are believed to feel very strongly about the koala protections. Several others in the partyroom were just as adamant that the Nationals should take the fight to the Liberals on environmental matters that impacted farmers.
According to insiders, the riding instructions to Barilaro, in the face of Berejiklian’s ultimatum that they would lose their ministries, was “no compromise”.
Yet in the meeting Barliaro capitulated, effectively overriding the party’s instruction. Barilaro has claimed victory in the sense that he has got the koala protections back on the agenda of cabinet. But Berejiklian was offering that anyway.
Barilaro came out with no firm commitment to change the actual koala policy.
Meanwhile, there are very angry Liberals who have direct responsibility for the policy. They are ropable about Barilaro’s over-the-top misrepresentations about what the policy did – he claimed it would prevent farms building fences and included noxious weed species – and they are unlikely to forgive him.
Whether Barilaro can win changes to the policy through cabinet will depend not on hyperbole but on actually presenting real evidence of problems. One compromise that might emerge is financial help for small farmers who are required to undertake ecological assessments.
On the other side, environmental groups who pushed for the enhanced regime to protect koalas will be defending it. If anything, their complaint is the regime is too weak.
Meanwhile, the Liberals will be reconsidering how much latitude they give the Nationals on other environmental issues in future. Water policy, land-clearing, brumbies, national parks and bushfire management are all contested policies between the Coalition partners. To date the Liberals were prepared to let the Nationals wag the dog in many of these areas.
Now they are inclined to call time on the pandering.
The Liberals will also likely take a hard line on three-way contests in seats when Nationals retire and may baulk at running a joint ticket for the upper house at the next election.
Will Barilaro’s presence as leader make that more likely? The answer is unequivocally yes.
This is the man who bizarrely declared he was running for the federal seat of Eden-Monaro earlier this year, then within 48 hours pulled out and said he was leaving state politics at the next election.
His colleagues will be weighing whether his pugnacious style and mercurial nature is what they need.
Watch this space.