Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has warned the coalition between the Liberals and Nationals is at stake as a civil war erupts over Senate voting just days before the election.
The Nationals took the "extraordinary" step on Wednesday of advising members to ignore Coalition how-to-vote cards and instead vote below-the-line to support the National Party, after renegade Liberal senator Jim Molan stepped up his own below-the-line campaign.
Senator Molan - who was relegated to the unwinnable fourth spot on the Coalition's joint Senate ticket - is asking supporters to ignore the Liberal Party's directives and instead give him their first preference below the line.
The Coalition is running a joint ticket in NSW with Liberals filling the top two spots, the Nationals' Perin Davey in the difficult third position and Senator Molan fourth.
In an email to members on Wednesday, the Nationals' NSW state director Ross Cadell and chairman Bede Burke accused Senator Molan and his backers of breaching the Coalition agreement and significantly harming the National candidate's chances of winning a seat.
This left the junior Coalition partner with "no choice but to follow suit", the pair wrote.
"Supporters of Liberal senator Jim Molan have taken it upon themselves to campaign for a 'below the line' vote, which in our view breaks the Coalition agreement and seriously harms the chances of a Nationals senator being elected," they said.
"We are not taking this extraordinary step lightly ... this is not something we want to do, but we need every one of our members to vote below the line for Perin Davey and Sam Farraway, and to encourage everyone they know to do the same."
Mr Cadell said the Nationals were primarily responding to Senator Molan's "mean" decision to take out advertisements in regional newspapers, directly targeting their voter base.
"We're disappointed," he said. "We have had a tight Coalition for a long time that has worked very strongly. Jim's an honourable guy, he's done a lot of things in his life well. But at a time when a bit of loyalty and a bit of team spirit [is needed], it's just disappointing."
Senator Molan's renegade campaign is also causing grief in his own party, with Tony Abbott's campaign team angry that Molan supporters are trying to poach volunteers from Mr Abbott's hard-fought campaign to retain Warringah, and Liberal MP John Alexander caught on tape advising someone how to vote for Senator Molan - in defiance of party instructions.
Defending himself on Wednesday, Senator Molan blamed former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for making below-the-line voting easier in his 2016 suite of Senate voting reforms. Voters now only need to number 12 boxes below the line rather than every box.
"Malcolm Turnbull gave us this option, that's the key thing," Senator Molan told 2GB radio. "That made it feasible. I'm not asking people, my colleagues out there, to kill themselves over this. But the people now have the ability to speak independently of factions."
Mr Joyce - who has argued for the Nationals to run their own Senate ticket in NSW - said the Liberal Party had "fired the first shot" in the war and said the furore had the ability to cause "utter chaos" if it drove the long-running Coalition partnership apart.
"This is not a marriage, it never was a marriage, it was a business arrangement," he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. "If you do over your business partner, the partnership won't go so well. If the Liberal Party and the National Party were separate parties in every seat, that would be utter chaos."
The former deputy prime minister also took a thinly-veiled swipe at his successor, Michael McCormack, for failing to secure the National Party the number two spot on the Coalition's NSW Senate ticket.
"The National Party has had a senator from NSW in either the Country Party or the National Party since federation," Mr Joyce said.
"The crux of any Coalition agreement is that that will be maintained by the National Party getting a winnable position. Number three is not a winnable position. Nonetheless for the sake of harmony it was accepted - reluctantly, very reluctantly."
Labor's campaign spokesman Jim Chalmers said the Coalition's latest ructions were "final proof that the Liberals and Nationals are a dumpster fire of disunity and dysfunction".
- SMH/The Age