THIS week's announcement of the Member for Groom, Ian Macfarlane’s defection from the federal Liberal Party to the federal National Party is yet another example of political expediency by both the National Party and the Member for Groom.
Some commentators are suggesting that the defection is a move against the Prime Minister, but it is far less about hurting the Prime Minister than it is about benefitting Mr Macfarlane.
The Member for Groom has made no secret of his political ambition since his entry into federal politics.
It was widely known he joined the Liberal Party because he believed the Liberal Party afforded him the best opportunity for political advancement.
His relegation to the back bench under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership was a mortal blow to his options for political advancement within the Liberal Party, but this defection is not about revenge.
As late as last week, local media speculation suggested Mr Macfarlane may quit politics now that his front bench career was over.
In media interviews he even alluded to the fact that he was considering this as he assessed his options.
The National Party has been in leadership crisis for some time with significant animosity toward Barnaby Joyce as the leader in waiting, both within the Liberal Party and the Federal Parliamentary National Party.
Warren Truss has apparently been lobbied to stay on for at least another term to delay Barnaby’s ascension. Warren Truss has made little effort to hide his personal disdain toward Barnaby.
Why would Ian Macfarlane defect? What is in it for him?
Defecting to the National Party affords him the best opportunity to be re-elevated to the federal front bench of the coalition.
In fact the most likely role Mr Macfarlane is being groomed for is to take over the leadership of the Party from Warren Truss which would make him the Deputy Prime Minister, an office he had no chance of achieving within the Liberal Party even if he had not been dismissed under Mr Turnbull.
What is in it for the National Party?
Media coverage of Mr Macfarlane’s move suggests he will fall in behind Barnaby Joyce’s leadership aspiration, but it seems much more likely Mr Macfarlane is in fact being parachuted in to displace Mr Joyce as a more palatable alternative leadership successor.
He will be much more acceptable to the Liberal Party machine and ensure a much more stable coalition when Warren Truss stands down.
This will be very appealing to many of the National MPs too.
Mr Macfarlane’s positions on key issues like mining and agriculture will also sit comfortably with the pro mining/pro coal over agriculture culture of the National Party under Federal President Larry Anthony.
In the end, the National Party picks up a Lower House seat and superficially at least makes the Party look a little stronger to the broader electorate.
This belies the fact that in Queensland the Liberal and National Parties are in fact a single party; the Liberal National Party, having done away with the pretence of independence many years ago.
What is in it for Warren Truss?
Mr Truss has reported he has been involved in the discussions with Mr Macfarlane to secure his defection.
It is no secret that he is not a great fan of Barnaby Joyce and certainly no fan of the prospect of Barnaby at the helm of the National Party.
Ian Macfarlane’s defection does not create any significant issues in regards state politics or pre-selection processes given the structure of the Queensland Liberal National Party.
Mr Truss can now step down with a suitable successor and the promise of a stable coalition.
What is in for rural and regional Australia?
Almost nothing. Mr Macfarlane has a track record of doing things that provide opportunity for political advancement even from the outset in choosing which party he would stand for.
There is little to suggest there will be any significant change or hardening of the National Party’s resolve to truly stand up for rural and regional communities and reprioritise its genuine commitment to agriculture.
What is in it for Barnaby Joyce?
Even less. Barnaby Joyce is on increasingly thin ice politically. Reportedly his Ministerial expenses are allegedly now the highest in the government exceeding even the Foreign Minister’s.
He is not popular with the Liberal Party hierarchy and is awkward in the media delivering little political value to the Coalition generally.
The government’s and National’s position on prioritising coal developments over agricultural lands and his Ministerial “high flying” have seen him largely absent in his electorate and are making him increasingly unpopular there.
It seems pretty clear that the most basic analysis of the Macfarlane defection is that it is a contrived agenda to: Pass over Barnaby Joyce as the next federal parliamentary leader of the National Party. Secure a higher office for Macfarlane than he could have ever realised within the Liberal Party as well as provide a significant financial boost as the leader of a federal parliamentary party and Deputy Prime Minister. Enable Warren Truss to retire without giving any benefit to Barnaby. Ensure the Coalition relationship federally will likely be more comfortable under the leadership of an ex Liberal Minister.
Unfortunately, rural and regional communities will not benefit under a new leader who has demonstrated repeatedly a willingness to secure his own political advancement over any ideological commitment to a cause. The whole episode demonstrates a further cultural reinforcement of political expediency by the Nationals.
In the end this defection can only reinforce the Nationals commitment to the Coalition.
Any hope of ardent independent rural advocacy through the Nationals is further lost, reinforcing the need for a credible alternative.
Pete Mailler is a farmer on the Queensland/NSW border and president of CountryMinded party.