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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nats `In Open Revolt'

Elements within the National Party are reportedly not only openly protesting John Howard's cabinet reshuffle - in particular, his decision to dump underperforming Veterans Affairs Minister De-Anne Kelly and thus deprive the party of one cabinet position, a move Howard has put down to `arithmetic' - but casting doubt over the very future of the Coalition, following Julian McGuaran's ill-timed (or perfectly-timed, depending on how you look at it) defection to the Liberal Party. And, according to ABC political reporter Jim Middleton on yesterday's ABC News, at least three other Nationals MPs have considered - and may still be considering - following McGuaran's lead. Meanwhile, the reshuffle has also sparked disquiet in the Liberal Party, with the Member for Herbert, Peter Lindsay, complaining that the new cabinet tips the balance away from Queensland and towards Sydney and Melbourne.

Lindsay has pinned the blame for the discord in the Nats on - wouldn't you know it - Barnaby Joyce, for being a `destabilizing influence'. This is at worst, silliness and superficial fingerpointing; at best, only part of the story. There is no doubt that for some Nationals, Joyce represents a major problem. However, for many - and who knows, perhaps many more (particularly in Queensland, as evidenced by the fact that long serving conservative Nationals senator Ron Boswell's preselection is again under serious threat) - he clearly represents the way of the future for the National Party. As the ABC's election analyst Antony Green pointed out on last night's 7:30 Report (as part of their in depth story on the controversy - well worth reading), electoral support for the Nats has steadily been declining since the Joh for Canberra campaign and today is at an all-time low. Were the party not part of a ruling Coalition, perhaps there would be a formal split like that seen in the ALP in the days of B A Santamaria. It's unlikely that such extreme measures will be taken today, especially with the future of the Senate majority hanging in the balance, but should there be further defections to the Liberal Party, this would not only endanger the future of the Nationals by sapping the already declining party of credibility, but would potentially function as a de facto split.

Howard was, naturally enough, keen to hose down the speculation in his interview with the 7:30 Report , yet it was also clear he was more keen to move on from the story altogether. He's unlikely to be pleased about such ill-discipline in a team over which his control is necessarily limited, much less descriptions, such as that on today's Channel 10 News, that he now faces the greatest level of discord within his government in its ten years of existence.

Kim Beazley put it perfectly today when he said (and I paraphrase, but not by much) `Oh, the Libs hate the Nats and the Nats hate the Libs - wouldn't you just love to be rid of the lot of them?'

Well put, Kim.

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