Barnaby Joyce should be worried: The Nationals might choose Ian Macfarlane as leader over him

Ian Macfarlane's party switch has been billed as a coup for the Nationals, but it's hard to see how it will help them or the Coalition.

In my column two weeks ago, I laid bare my concerns about the National Party, particularly in Queensland, exerting political pressure on the Coalition at the expense of good policy.

What I did not realise then was that the Nationals were already secretly trying to enhance their political clout by enticing former Liberal minister Ian Macfarlane back into the Nationals fold.

Ian Macfarlane's career as a serious contributor in the national Parliament is over.
Ian Macfarlane's career as a serious contributor in the national Parliament is over. Photo: Getty Images

This little saga will run on for some weeks, because Macfarlane has to front his electorate committee before he can make a switch. It might give him and his colleagues some time to think more carefully about how this will work out.

The underlying worry for the Nationals is that their influence is declining as urban areas attract more and more people. This trend will not change. Over time, the Nationals will have more difficulty attracting quality candidates for Parliament. Even in my time, the number of real farmers representing the Nationals was slipping. For that reason, the shenanigans of last week are a symptom of the underlying problems facing the Nationals.

Barnaby Joyce, leader of the Nationals in the Senate, needs to tread carefully after Ian Macfarlane's switch.
Barnaby Joyce, leader of the Nationals in the Senate, needs to tread carefully after Ian Macfarlane's switch.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

So, while the first public mention of the Macfarlane switch was dressed up as a coup for the Nationals, I am not sure how this move is in their interests, let alone the Coalition.

The switch is not as simple as it seems and the celebratory party held in Barnaby Joyce's office might have been premature.


There has been little detailed commentary from any of the players on the agreement between the Liberals and the Nationals. Some claim that with MacFarlane switching to the Nationals, the required proportion for a further ministerial position is satisfied, but I'd like to see the arithmetic. Until we see the maths, nothing is certain and the Nationals get nothing unless they can find another defector.

The second reality is that the Prime Minister has the sole authority to decide who goes into the ministry. In his time, John Howard decided who was in and who was out, and there were times when some Nationals were kept out.

Obviously, Malcolm Turnbull would be within his rights to reject Macfarlane's ambition. He would need to consider that a Macfarlane return would be badly received by the Liberal party room. If Turnbull refuses to reward Macfarlane for the switch, then Macfarlane will not be a minister again. His career will slip away.

But that's not the end of the options, even if there are no further spots for the Nationals – Macfarlane could take a ministerial position from one of the Nationals.

I doubt Macfarlane is a new Machiavelli, but Turnbull might be wise to consider one alternative, especially if the Libs are not too full of revenge. In September, when Macfarlane lost his ministerial position because the new Prime Minister wanted to refresh his ministry, Turnbull had the advantage of a number of bright, younger Liberal ministers, such Josh Frydenberg​, from whom to select. In that case, Macfarlane lost out in a competition. However, if Macfarlane was compared against the Nationals line-up, he rates as good a minister as any of the ministerial Nationals and certainly better than some.

The other scenario to be considered is the possibility Warren Truss might want to retire fairly soon. In that case, some Nationals would prefer Macfarlane as leader over Joyce. At the very least, Macfarlane's presence would give the Nationals some choice about their next leader.

Macfarlane has had far more experience as a minister than Joyce. Macfarlane is not exactly a raging pro-enterprise reformist; he would be no different to Truss and he would be a steady partner for Turnbull. He might even be a more conciliatory colleague in the modus operandi of Tim Fischer or Doug Anthony, as opposed to Joyce.

Macfarlane has a good record on resource-sector issues and has in the past worked well in a collegiate style. He might also better appreciate, as a result of his long experience in the Howard government and since, that Queensland is not the only player in National Party politics. The antics of Queenslander Joh Bjelke-Petersen ended up as a gift to Labor in the 1980s and any repeat of those days of conflict between the Coalition parties is only ever to the benefit of Labor.

Of course, the Nationals want more influence over policy. And yet they already get too much of a say on issues such as foreign investment or supporting the Labor Party in Queensland in its new measures to reregulate the sugar industry.

Both parts of the Coalition need each other and the Nationals would be making a mistake if they push beyond what's a fair go in their junior role in the Turnbull government.

Peter Reith is a Fairfax Media columnist and a former Howard government minister.


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