Sunday, April 15, 2012

coii (Part 2 - the end of the coalition)

In Part 1, I introduced and justified my so-called curse of imminent influence (coii) – basically what human nature does to 90% of political parties when they try to make the jump from a small ‘balance of power’ party to one capable of holding a majority.

Click here to read all about the coii.

Part 2 is actually a bit of a warning to the party that, like the Greens, is at grave risk of the coii because I think they are planning to declare themselves the next, next “third force in Australian politics”. That Party is of course, the Nationals. And if I’m correct, what will happen immediately before the coii hits them will be the end of the formal federal coalition.

Sound a bit far-fetched? Let me justify my claim.

The Nationals’ Member for the Federal electorate of O’Connor Tony Crook, aggressively took the seat from long-term Liberal Wilson Tuckey at the 2010 election. As we all know, this election resulted in a messy hung parliament. During the first few weeks of that parliament, Mr Crook tried to use his self-declared “independence” from the federal National Party to help the Labor Party form Government – on the condition it created a national “Royalties for Regions” (RfR) scheme.

However, Prime Minister Gillard found the votes she needed in a few slightly more independent independents and the national RfR scheme hasn’t eventuated… yet.

Royalties for Regions was the brainchild of Mr Crook’s Western Australian colleagues, lead by current Minister for Regional Development Brendon Grylls. It isn't overstating it to say RfR has been an absolute political boon for the Nationals in WA.

In short, the policy quarantines big wads of cash (the equivalent of 25% of WA’s mining and onshore petroleum royalties - around $6b) for the Nationals to spend at their discretion on things in regional parts of the State. I say “things” because the criteria for spending is, well fairly flexible and “at their discretion” because this money really is not linked to the State budget at all. In fact, I recall being in a Chiefs of Staff meeting in 2011 during which Brendon Grylls’ representative reported that, “The Royalties for Regions budget process is going very well”. I’m not sure it was meant to antagonise, but it certainly highlighted the very uncomfortable fact that 3 Nationals Ministers were deciding how to spend 25% of the Government’s money totally independently of the mainstream State budget that our 14 non-Nationals Ministers were wrestling over at the time.

Notably, this situation only came about because the WA Nationals chose to not enter into a traditional coalition with the Liberals prior to the 2008 State election. When the result was a hung Parliament, the Nationals did something quite extraordinary - threatened to form a government with the Labor Party. During a week of tense negotiations, the bold young Nationals Leader Brendon Grylls stood his ground, declaring that his Party would only form a government with a major Party if it would honour the terms of the Nationals’ pre-election RfR policy. There was some attempted horse-trading but in the end, Liberal Leader Colin Barnett extended his right hand and became the Premier of Western Australia – governed by an unorthodox Liberal-National “partnership” (not coalition).

Since then, Mr Grylls and his team have travelled around regional Western Australia throwing cash at projects that the government as a whole simply can’t afford – ironically because of the drain RfR is to the State’s wider budget. Virtually everything that gets built in a Western Australian country town now carries the “Royalties for Regions” logo and the Nationals have once again become the undisputed champions (and heroes) of the bush.

RfR has probably been good for country-based Western Australians, but it’s also been the best campaign fund the Nationals could have ever hoped for. And that is precisely why Queensland’s new Premier Campbell Newman has adopted the policy for new government  – and why it will be part of a federal National’s policy platform in either 2013 or at the latest, three years after.

But for the Nationals to have enough weight in Canberra to force a majority Party to hand over what would be an absolutely enormous slush fund, they will have to have more than just Tony Crook’s vote to offer the Labor Party, or perhaps the Liberals as a “partnership, not coalition”.

Re-enter, Brendon Grylls and his youthful bullishness.

In the next WA State poll due in March next year, Mr Grylls will vacate his safe Nationals wheatbelt seat and stand for the currently safe Labor seat of Pilbara, in the heat of WA’s booming mining sector. By all accounts, he’s not likely to win it.

But as we’ve seen, Brendon Grylls isn’t as silly as he is courageous. He is fully aware of the potential to lose his seat in State Parliament and my hypothesis is that he actually wouldn’t mind if he did.

A few things lead me to that theory.

  1. Mr Grylls is the Leader of his Party. There’s no higher position unless the Nat’s form a coalition with the Libs and he became Deputy Premier of WA – but that has already been ruled out, and Mr Grylls likes the freedom he gets by not sharing a Party room.
  2. He is already a hero within the National party, personally credited with reviving it from near-death. The ballsy gamble Mr Grylls took in holding out until he secured a promise from Colin Barnett to implement RfR has been a huge political coup and now seen as the way forward for the National Party all around the country.
  3. He’s young, but already been in State Parliament for 11 years. It must be pretty boring to sit on comfy blue chairs all day listening to others waffling on about things that simply fail to hold the attention of a successful and ambitious gen-xer like Mr Grylls.
So if he loses Pilbara as widely predicted, Mr Grylls will be fairly happy to bow out of State politics.

But I suggest Brendon Grylls is willing to lose in such circumstances is because he is planning to use his new high-profile martyr status to embark on something even more ambitious - become the lead advocate for a national RfR scheme and become a candidate for a Federal House of Reps seat at the soon-to-follow federal election.

If successful in that quest, he will be joined in Canberra on the big green comfy chairs by another ambitious and high-profile RfR supporter and friend, Barnaby Joyce - who is himself, planning to move to the lower house where he can use his vote to directly influence government spending.

Assuming Tony Crook can get re-elected in O’Connor and Premier Campbell Newman does some good politics with the Queensland RfR scheme, there will be at least three Nationals in the next House of Reps bold enough to cross the floor to squeeze a Royalties for Regions commitment from Prime Minister Abbott – or perhaps even Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her new Labor-National government…

Either way, the word “coalition” will be replaced by “partnership” before the 2016 election – mark my words.

The growth of the Nationals’ influence as a result of the Royalties for Regions scheme in WA and Qld will provide the adrenalin required for a whole new bunch of ambitious Nationals to stand, win and declare that they too will soon become the next, next third force in Australian politics - starting with Messer’s Grylls, Crook and Joyce.

My only advice to the “new Nationals” - beware of the coii!!

PS. There’s another piece of this puzzle that I didn’t get to include in the main body of my post. The Nationals’ recently appointed a new Federal Director – a politically astute guy who was integral to the successful implementation and operation of the WA Royalties for Regions scheme and takes with him all the knowledge and support required to replicate RfR in every state (and even federally)….

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