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A betrayal of farmers: The Nationals are lackeys for coal

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

The National Party has abandoned farmers in favour of caving into the demands of fossil fuel donors, writes David Paull.

THE NATIONALS LEADER and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Barnaby Joyce, spelt it out for all at the National Press Club last week: the Nationals are unconstrained by reality when he equated climate science with something akin to a fringe religious belief.

Now belonging to an exclusive club of open climate denial with other political parties such as Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party in Brazil and the Republican Party in the U.S. We have to ask: how did they get to where they are today?

As the bones of vested interest now poke through the ruse, the rise and fall of the National Party of Australia seems to be a very special case of political self-implosion.

At the political level, climate change denial takes two forms. There is the more typical corporate "greenwashing" form, which pays lip service to global targets, embraced by the Liberal Party and Labor which is silently compliant.

There is also the anti-science denialism of the Exxon-funded campaigns of last decade. It seems the Nationals, particularly Joyce, the bullish Minister from Victoria, Keith Pitt, and the young gun from Queensland, Matt Canavan, remain in this eye-opening netherworld of alternative facts.

The Nationals have come a long way from the party which first started 100 years ago. Radio National’s Rear Vision program Politics in the Bush looks at the National Party, where it has come from and where it is going and makes some intriguing observations.

Once an agrarian party with a mandate to look after agricultural and regional voters, it was an independent party proudly keeping the two major parties honest. Formed from farmers associations representing both large and small farmers, and united in their opposition to organised labour, the National Party's attempt to control the politics of the land has now been resolved in favour of the big players.

As Gabrielle Chan points out in her new book, Rusted Off, the deregulation of the agricultural sector started by the Hawke Government reached full corporatisation under Howard and the ultimate domination of the supply and production chain by the big actors such as Woolworths, trucking, machinery and chemical companies, throwing many small producers by the wayside.

The Country Party liked to play the "country-mindedness" card, the idea that despite Australia’s predominately urban population, the rural battler underlies the Australian character because agriculture once underlay the economy. This is still played out though in a more adversarial way today, pitting city versus country in a false dichotomy in order to shore up regional votes.

But things have changed in "the bush" with the rise of mining as the predominant contributor to the Gross State Product (GSP) in most states. This has certainly been the case in Western Australia for some time. Queensland Treasury accounts show that mining and agriculture were more or less on level-pegging until 2004 when mining doubled the contribution from agriculture.

Mining in Queensland last year contributed $39 billion to the GSP, down from the $48 billion peak in 2018/19 due to a downturn in coal and gas prices.

By comparison, agriculture in Queensland last year contributed $7.9 billion. Interestingly, mining eclipsed manufacturing output in Queensland in 2016, becoming the biggest contributor to the State economy.

The fact that mining, which includes the petroleum industries, is now the most important economic feature in the regional landscape has long been recognised by National Party politicians. The leaders of the "revolving door" from politics to the mining sector was first championed by Howard’s two deputy prime ministers, John Anderson and Mark Vaile. Anderson moved into the gas industry and Vaile worked in the coal industry, and both made a fortune in these poorly regulated sectors. 

Queensland Senator Matt Canavan and his brother John have strong interests in coal, enough to spur Canavan’s climate denial rantings in the media. 

Canavan said:

“There is far too much emphasis on climate. It just not that big a deal. The planet is not going to blow up tomorrow." 

He also recently stated that farmers are no longer the core constituency of the Nationals. Besides personal interest, perhaps this is also due to the fossil fuel sector’s financial support of the Party.

In the last five years, Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) records show the National Party has received significant declared donations from Woodside, Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy Pty Ltd, Carmichael Rail, Santos, Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting and a $330,000 donation from Clive Palmer’s wife Anna in 2018/19.

However, these donations are chicken feed when compared to the money being transferred through the National Party’s AEC registered "associated entities". Through these avenues, the various National Party entities received money from various companies and trusts with associations to fossil fuel development. 

Millions were received from entities such as Foscoe Pty Ltd (a company registered in South Australia); Zupp 4000 (perhaps linked to Zupp electricity supplier) Blue Commercial (an industrial property developer); the Surf Lifesaving Foundation (with backing from petroleum and shipping interests); ISPT Pty Ltd ATF Superannuation Property Trust (with connections to network energy suppliers); and money from Adani, Fortescue, Santos and Morgan Stanley.

But will the pull of mining and petroleum continue to narrow the Nationals public platform? Already tensions in the Party are evident in NSW over coal seam gas, with the National Farmers Federation over stances on public assistance for climate adaption.

For example, the Nationals have stonewalled any real progress on the implementation of meaningful soil carbon sequestration programs, despite the concept being around for at least ten years. It seems that government support for the retention of native vegetation and the care and rehabilitation of water systems are still seen as a threat to the big corporates who dominate the agriculture sector.

It is the average, smaller producer who continues to suffer.

Their public platform on action on climate change has created a crisis in the Nationals constituency and their leadership. Most agree the issue led to the removal of former Leader Michael McCormack with the latest Joyce takeover. Perceived neglect, corruption and mismanagement has led to the loss of rural seats to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in NSW.

It seems the current Nationals leadership has chosen to keep digging the hole they are in rather than providing the leadership required to ready their constituents for the challenges ahead.

After all, they now claim mining jobs are most important. Perhaps this will return to hurt them at the ballot box, making their last stand against climate science the ultimate own goal.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist and blogger on politics and the environment. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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