Many Nationals already fear their conservative base is haemorrhaging under Mr Turnbull’s leadership. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
Malcolm Turnbull’s party woes go well beyond Tony Abbott’s unholy war.
Because, with One Nation biting deep into National Party heartland, there’s a risk the federal Coalition will be torn apart. In a fight for their lives, some MPs might decide they can’t battle an anti-establishment insurgency if they are the establishment.
A rational conclusion might be that only way to convince angry voters that you are on their side is to lay siege to the Government. Or leave it. Mr Abbott’s latest intervention will only embolden Nationals who already fear the conservative base is haemorrhaging under Mr Turnbull’s leadership.
Ground zero is Queensland, where poll after poll shows One Nation is on the march.
The unique problem in the north is that the establishment conservatives have merged into the Liberal National Party. It’s possible that the LNP could be disentangled politically — the Queensland MPs and senators still hold separate Liberal and National party room meetings in Canberra — but the real hurdle would be how to divide a $25-million property portfolio. Divorce isn’t on the cards because it would be long and messy.
So, perhaps the only choice for a federal MP convinced he is facing electoral oblivion is to quit.
The most obvious candidate is the congenitally disgruntled member for Dawson, George Christensen. But there are others who fear that being handcuffed to a city-focused Liberal Party, led by a soft-centred urbanite, means they are riding Bambi into a war with Godzilla.
And maintaining party discipline in the Nationals is complicated by its choice of leader. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is popular in regional Australia because he has what so many of the current political class lack: authenticity. But he won that reputation because he spent so much of his early career at war with his own party. As a Queensland senator in the Howard government he crossed the floor 19 times.
So how can a leader who made his reputation as a renegade demand discipline from his team? That’s as much a worry for Mr Turnbull as it is for Mr Joyce because the Coalition’s one-seat majority in the Lower House empowers every backbencher with a beef. Any MP can cause a crisis by simply threatening to cross the floor, or march out of Government.
Renegade politician Barnaby Joyce faces a challenge keeping his own party in line. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)
The National Party is likely to grow more restive as the year wears on. The West Australian election is just a fortnight away and Queensland should go to the polls late this year. A strong result for One Nation in either, or both, could cause a stampede.
There is already anger at the Liberal’s decision to preference One Nation ahead of the Nationals in some of the races in the west.
Western Australia’s Liberals say the deal is fair enough, given the relationship with the Nationals there is a very loose alliance and that the rural party once threatened to support Labor in government. That’s all very rational but this is a time when the herd is running on emotion, not reason, and what might work for the West Australian Liberals could still damage the federal relationship.
And there is one thing that those who struck the deal with One Nation should understand. It was all about survival. And it’s the fear of death that has Queensland’s Nationals spooked.