Collective responsibility in New South Wales

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary government is the collective responsibility of the ministry: the idea that, whatever their personal views, ministers must all give public support to government policy, and must resign if they cannot. As Lord Melbourne famously expressed it back in 1841, “It is not much matter which we say, but mind, we must all say the same.”

This lesson has just been brought home to the members of the National Party in New South Wales and their leader, deputy premier John Barilaro. Yesterday, Barilaro announced their dissent from government policy in relation to, of all things, protection of koala habitat, and promised to move to the crossbench and no longer hold themselves bound to support the government. But, he said, he and his six colleagues would retain their jobs as ministers.

Liberal Party leader and premier Gladys Berejiklian quickly set him straight. Last night she issued a statement:

It is not possible to be the Deputy Premier or a Minister of the Crown and sit on the crossbench.

… I have just made it clear to the Deputy Premier that he and his Nationals colleagues who are members of the NSW Cabinet have until 9am Friday September 11 to indicate to me whether they wish to remain in my Cabinet or else sit on the crossbench.

They cannot do both.

Left with no room for manoeuvre, the Nationals backed down. This morning it was announced that they would stay in the coalition and continue to support the government. All they got in return was a promise that the koala policy would be considered by cabinet, which was apparently going to happen anyway.

The state’s koala population suffered badly from last summer’s bushfires, and conservationists have warned that the species could be extinct in NSW by 2050. Regardless of the merits of these particular regulations, choosing to force a crisis over koala protection does not sound like good political judgement.

Coalition politics in Australia is not what it is in most of the world. In other countries, coalitions reflect the real bargaining power that parties have, and elections regularly reset that bargaining power by showing how much support they have in the electorate. Parties that feel they are not getting a good enough deal, or are more in demand elsewhere, can and do leave one coalition and join another, often restructuring governments in the process.

But the Liberals and Nationals (formerly the Country Party) are not like that. Their relationship is much closer, reflected in the fact that Queensland and the Northern Territory they constitute a single party. They rarely compete against each other electorally, presenting a united front and sharing the available seats.

As the smaller party, the Nationals’ bargaining power is mostly illusory – as this morning’s confrontation demonstrated. Unless they were certain of popular support, to vote with Labor to bring down the government would be suicidal, because voters have chosen them on the basis of being part of an anti-Labor coalition.

Yet although their capacity for independent action has mostly disappeared, successive Liberal leaders, both state and federal, have mostly continued to treat the Nationals as if their support was worth paying a price for – sometimes quite a high price. It’s also been a matter of internal politics; federal Liberal leaders from the right wing of their party often feel closer to the Nationals than to their own more progressive members, and have welcomed Nationals support to maintain a conservative majority in cabinet.

The other thing that’s become clearer over time is that the Nationals’ claim to be the representatives of rural Australia is not all it might seem. Actual rural areas have been increasingly voting for independents and for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, which presents much the same policy outlook as the Nationals but without being tied down to collaboration with the Liberals.

Meanwhile, more and more of the Nationals members represent seats that are mostly urban in character, particularly along the north coast of NSW. Places like Forster-Tuncurry, Taree, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour and Tweed Heads are no longer farming country; they are cities and coastal resorts. The fact that they have Nationals MPs is mostly just historical accident.

If the Nationals ever made good with their threats, those seats would be highly vulnerable to Liberal challenges. That fact probably has something to do with the premier’s successful display of backbone.

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