THE NEWS former “Industry Assistance” minister Ian Macfarlane will shift to the National Party should surprise nobody; Macfarlane — a poor performer under Tony Abbott, and representing a Darling Downs electorate — faced limited prospects under Malcolm Turnbull: Macfarlane’s usefulness in government is an oxymoron. It gifts the Nationals another MP and another electorate, but he may not be the last conservative to desert the Liberals.
Let’s not mince words: The defection of Liberal backbencher Ian Macfarlane to the National Party could hardly send a clearer message to the Prime Minister than if he had simply fronted Malcolm Turnbull and said “fuck you” to his face.
And the fact the move is happening at all illustrates just how deeply antagonism towards Turnbull is still running among Liberal Party conservatives, with Tony Abbott being pilloried for articulating a different position in the ISIS threat to Turnbull’s line in recent days, and murmurs over Turnbull’s historic shortcomings as a leader beginning to seep from the proverbial “walls with ears.”
Another brutal example of conservatives’ anger with the way Turnbull’s ascension occurred yesterday, with the leaking of a story to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that one of the government’s Boeing business jets had made the round trip from Canberra to Perth to collect the partner of Foreign minister Julie Bishop at a cost of some $30,000 to taxpayers: not the handiwork of happy inmates.
Macfarlane represents the Darling Downs-based seat of Groom, for decades a National Party stronghold until the Liberals won it in a by-election in 1988; as was pointed out to me this morning by “a friend,” his action in defecting to the Nationals also obliges whoever eventually follows him in Groom to sit with the National Party in Canberra under the Queensland LNP’s rules on such things, so this act of vengeance against the Liberal leadership change gifts both an MP to the Nationals now and another seat to them on an ongoing basis.
At first blush — and we will, of course, learn more as the story unfolds — Macfarlane’s actions appear to have been meticulously thought through and planned with pinpoint precision, for the Fairfax press is reporting that the Nationals will probably be entitled to an additional frontbencher at the Liberals’ expense; it not only puts Macfarlane in line for a thoroughly undeserved return to the ministry (and I will come back to that) but also to potentially serve as deputy leader to Barnaby Joyce if he replaces Warren Truss as leader, as expected, after the looming federal election.
Fairfax reports Macfarlane as “a long-time supporter of Malcolm Turnbull” who voted for the new Prime Minister at the leadership ballot in September; I have to say his subsequent dumping from the ministry showed some astute judgement on Turnbull’s part, but it doesn’t seem that Macfarlane shared that view.
At time of writing (2pm, AEST) there are whispers fellow Queensland Liberal Scott Buchholz is also set to defect to the Nationals: we’ll see how that plays out before remarking on it any further.
Broadly, there are two comments I would make.
First, that for a party seemingly presented with an opportunity to widen and broaden its appeal and base following the dumping of Tony Abbott and the swing left that seems inevitable to occur under Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberals, recruiting Macfarlane is an odd development: this column has pilloried him as “Industry Assistance” minister under Abbott, with his desire to work with unions to save jobs by shovelling more government subsidy money at the car industry, and by then agitating to throw even more largesse at other businesses (read: the Coca Cola-owned SPC) despite the loss-making SPC sitting in an ownership structure that netted half a billion dollars’ profit last year.
Accusations of conservatism are not taunts Macfarlane is going to be burdened with at any time soon, and for the conservative modern-day Nationals, he seems a poor fit. Then again, the real prize was probably Groom anyway, so they can afford to indulge him: and in any case, every Liberal MP who defects to the Nationals reduces the numerical imbalance between the parties by two, so they probably reckon they can accommodate a passenger or two along the way.
And this leads to the second comment: that really, really pissed-off Liberal party conservatives have a straightforward way of protesting against Turnbull — with their feet — open to them.
I know we raised the prospect yesterday of conservative Liberals tactically voting National in the Senate as a kind of passive protest against Turnbull, but Macfarlane has shone a spotlight on a more potent — and, where Turnbull’s interests are concerned, more politically dangerous — way of saying “FU, PM” on the way out the door.
I don’t expect, at this stage, to see a wholesale defection of Liberal MPs to the National Party.
By the same token, I don’t expect Macfarlane (and Buchholz if he follows suit) to simultaneously be the start and end of the exodus, either.
The unrest among conservatives over Turnbull’s judgement, his verbosity, and his approach to Foreign matters is growing — and in addition to their residual dislike of Turnbull’s social and environmental policy objectives, the potential for some kind of boilover to occur is rising swiftly.
Yet perversely, Macfarlane’s defection may take some of the sting out of the storm that has broken again this week over Special Minister of State Mal Brough and, on balance, provide a little smoother sailing for Turnbull as the parliamentary year draws to a close.
Even so — and without speculating about any names, for now at least — other conservative Liberals could well follow Macfarlane’s lead in jumping the fence to join the junior Coalition partner.
What might make it interesting is whether any of them are metropolitan-based lower house MPs, ceding as they would chunks of Liberal turf to the Nationals.
Either way, Turnbull and the government will easily weather one or two defections, but any more than that would be a bad look, and half a dozen or more, whilst nowhere near enough to hand control of the Coalition to the Nationals, would put an unquantifiable but nonetheless sizeable dent in Turnbull’s authority — and the government’s standing in the electorate.
I have in the past advocated Macfarlane being a target for disendorsement ahead of next year’s election; now he is gone from the Liberal Party altogether, and as a law unto himself unrestrained by any meaningful consideration of the Liberal Party’s welfare, he may well have triggered a process that could destroy its legitimacy as a party of government.
Not bad for a spiteful one-fingered salute, but Macfarlane’s usefulness as a member of any government — as I indicated at the outset — is an oxymoronic concept at best.