Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack during the election campaign.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack during the election campaign.

Can the Coalition survive the drought?

Ask Liberal Party veterans the most important reason why their party has dominated Australian federal politics for almost 50 of the past 70 years and you might be surprised.

The answer probably won't be "better" leaders, "smarter" campaigns or "sounder" economic policies. It's more likely to be the Liberals' traditionally close relationship with their conservative cousins, the Nationals.

First formed in 1922 between the Nationalist and Country parties, the Coalition - like any marriage - has had its up and downs. And only on two brief occasions in 70 years have the two separated: once after the 1972 defeat, and once during the mad "Joh for PM" campaign in 1987.

 

Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen promised to “wreck the Coalition” when he revealed the extent of his political ambitions in 1987.
Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen promised to “wreck the Coalition” when he revealed the extent of his political ambitions in 1987.

 

In that time they've weathered some ugly leadership transitions - Country Party leader John McEwen refused to serve under Liberal Treasurer Billy McMahon after PM Harold Holt drowned in 1967, but the Coalition remained intact - and celebrated massive victories in 1975, 1977 and 1996.

Indeed, so close has their relationship been that Liberal PMs Malcolm Fraser and John Howard could have governed alone after their landslide wins but chose to share the spoils of victory with their farmer friends.

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Now that's loyalty. But it's also pragmatism. Yes, the two parties share a fundamental belief in the virtue of the family unit, and in the power of private enterprise. But so do any number of Australian parties. And the Liberals know this. They also know that if the Nationals decide to leave the marriage and shack up with some other party, the Liberals' domination would end.

Think it impossible for the Libs and Nats to brawl? Look no further than Victoria - so long the jewel in the conservative crown - where, before the 1980s, the two parties were so often at each other's throats. Not only did they stand candidates against each other but the Nationals often voted with Labor in the parliament to stymie Liberal ambitions.

 

Michael McCormack and Scott Morrison at swearing-in ceremony at Government House in Canberra after this year’s federal election. Despite the appearance of solidity, not everything is peachy between the two parties, writes Paul Williams. Picture: Kym Smith
Michael McCormack and Scott Morrison at swearing-in ceremony at Government House in Canberra after this year’s federal election. Despite the appearance of solidity, not everything is peachy between the two parties, writes Paul Williams. Picture: Kym Smith

 

It could so easily happen again. After all, the Nationals share more in common with Labor than many care to admit. Each began political life as a pressure group - Labor for workers and the Country Party for farmers - with each feeling ignored by wealthy city interests. Both therefore know the power of the group, and each understands the need for governments to occasionally intervene in the economy to protect the most vulnerable, whether they be the unemployed in the cities or drought-affected farmers in the regions.

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Yes, all Liberal PMs have known the fragility of the Coalition. All, it seems, except Scott Morrison who - in a blind zeal to deliver a budget surplus at any cost - appears to be shafting the very regional MPs who helped deliver him his May victory.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan let loose in Morrison's office. The reason? Canavan during the campaign promised regional Queensland a $10 million study to develop a business case for a new electricity generator. But, with the election long over, the bean-counters in the PM's office are now back-pedalling, and making Canavan look like a fool and regional Queenslanders, once again, feeling like they're second class citizens.

 

Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan reportedly had a testy meeting in the Prime Minister’s office recently. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt
Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan reportedly had a testy meeting in the Prime Minister’s office recently. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt

 

Then there's a frustrated National Party backbench angry at a PM who appears to offer only prayer as a national drought policy. That's why the Nationals, tired of waiting for leader Michael McCormack and deputy leader Bridget McKenzie to stop sucking up to the Libs, released their own $1.3 billion drought funding plan. Indeed, so frustrated are Nationals MPs that it's odds-on both McCormack and McKenzie will be spilled before the next election.

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Don't be surprised, then, if former leader Barnaby Joyce - who, whether from new fatherhood or the humility of a recent public downfall, appears to have been reborn as a gentler politician - makes a comeback. If so, expect a National Party far more attuned to rural interests and a leadership less inclined to bow to the Morrison-Frydenberg budget bottom line.

 

Barnaby Joyce. The former Nationals leader still has leadership aspirations and could become a key figure in the party once again, writes Paul Williams. Picture: Kym Smith
Barnaby Joyce. The former Nationals leader still has leadership aspirations and could become a key figure in the party once again, writes Paul Williams. Picture: Kym Smith

 

And if all that gives Morrison a headache, it spells absolute disaster for a merged Queensland Liberal-National Party that, despite appearances, is still home to two very different ideological tribes. With every squeak of federal Nationals dissent, another hairline crack appears in the state LNP.

Realistically, how can a small government Gold Coast MP, sensitive to southeast Queenslanders' concerns over coal, genuinely reconcile with a pro-mining central Queensland MP or a western Queensland farmer demanding federal drought relief?

The answer is they can't. And that means the federal Coalition relationship will get worse before it gets better, with the state LNP inevitably revisiting dissolution. Watch this space.

 

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer in politics at Griffith University.