‘If, as a result of this, we end up with more concentration and less competition we deny our own raison d’Ãªtre.’
So said the National Party MP Paul Neville last week. And even though he pronounced it ‘raisin date-ra,’ most people knew he wasn’t talking about dried fruit.
Paul Neville is not one to say much about anything, most of the time. Certainly not to the media. But his usual political reticence has been overcome by concerns about media policy.
So has the National Party lost it? It’s a question people have been asking for years and one that becomes more relevant as the wool price continues to drop, as pretty country towns get transformed into ‘tree change’ retirement villages, and as ugly country towns (with dead main streets and few real opportunities) just dry up.
The Nationals lost the fight on Telstra. They long ago lost the big philosophical debate about tariffs. Over the years, they’ve seen their representation in Federal Parliament almost halved. And now they’ve lost another seat in the recent redistribution.
Gwydir the seat now held by former Party leader John Anderson has been abolished. Gwydir was one of just a dozen the Party still holds. It was one of the few that had held out over the years, against the steady disenchantment. Gwydir had defied the trend seen in some neighbouring seats to opt for outspoken independents to take their views to Canberra.
For the Nats, policy in government is a series of tests. They constantly find themselves caught between loyalty to their Coalition partners and their own instinctive, old-school, agrarian socialism. They huff and puff and bellow like old bulls only to finally agree to be led, reluctantly, into the economic rationalist holding yard.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
The latest test is over the new media rules. No one in the National Party likes them. Their concerns centre on the proposal to dump the current cross-media and foreign ownership restrictions, and introduce instead a new diversity test that would require five major outlets in the cities and four in regional areas.
But it’s who owns those outlets that’s worrying some. The Nationals want to ensure that the same person or company doesn’t end up owning the local TV station, the radio station and the newspaper. They want a ‘two out of three’ ownership clause. In fact, they’re so worried about it that the National Party leader Mark Vaille spoke up.
What next? An agrarian revolt? An akubra renaissance? Rather than losing it have the Nationals found it?
Quite simply, its started to dawn on them that they have to stand up for something. And, in the past few months, the Coalition has been a shambles. There’s internal revolts over the media laws, over a Bill that threatens to kill off independent petrol retailers, over taxation breaks for forest plantations, and over a mandatory code of practice for the horticulture industry which would allow a fairer trading environment and more transparency in contracts with retailers. (That last one was an election promise, and as Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce said last week, ‘if we don’t get a win on this one, I won’t be the only one crossing the floor.’)
This is a consequence, of course, of the Howard Government’s Senate majority. The Nationals now have to influence policy by actually using their political power inside the Coalition. They have to force change from within or they have to take a stand. The Liberals don’t like it, but they are likely to see more and more Barnaby-like defiance. (The Libs hate him but, while they don’t admit it publicly, the Nationals know Barnaby’s defiance and old-school, rural conservatism is going down a treat out in the bush.)
The Nats may have given way on big issues Industrial Relations and Telstra but the way Barnaby sees it, it’s not much of a marriage if they can’t have a win or two on the margins.
And on media policy, at least, the Nationals had some unusual support last week. Paul Keating’s interview on ABC TV’s Lateline was the talk of the corridors around Parliament House. Keating may be a slightly delusional revisionist and a complete egomaniac but at least he’s got a pulse which is more than you can say for most modern Labor figures:
PAUL KEATING: What will happen [if you don’t protect diversity through cross-media regulation] is that dissenting voices will be further and further … I’m trying to find the right word … but the selection of dissent will be pushed further and further away by those who command these instruments and that becomes pretty critical. I mean, if you look at these big urban aggregations in Australia, to think that we would end up with two owners is really unthinkable. You see, I don’t know what is in this for the Liberal Party; what is in this for the National Party. Certainly nothing in it for the Labor Party and for the community at large. There is nothing in it. What’s the trade-off in removing the cross-media rule and going for this phoney thing about five voices? What’s the trade-off?
What indeed. Well there was a lot in it for the political tragics who were watching. This was compelling viewing. It was vintage Keating. His mocking references to ‘fast Eddie,’ ‘little John Alexander’ and ‘the hapless John Lyons’ kept us longing for the days when Australian political debate had spirit and passion and even heaven forbid humour.
No doubt the modern Labor types will tell us this is precisely what they don’t want. This sort of smart-arse policy invective is a voter turn-off, they say. Well they might be right but I’m not sure the voters want it replaced entirely by the policy waffle that often passes for Labor Party passion these days.
Just as the Nationals need a touch of the Barnabys to keep the voters looking at them, Labor needs to find someone who can at least get a message through. Don’t worry about English tests and Values contests, what the Labor Party needs is someone who knows enough French to know their raisins from their dates.
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