You might call him a born-again conservationist, but there’s a very real pragmatism to Phil Laird’s bottom line when it comes to farming and business. He might have been a traditional Nationals voter but there’s a real green tinge around him these days, courtesy of the ecological bent of his business. He is a spokesman for the Maules Creek Community Council, a farmer and fifth-generation Laird family member living in Maules Creek.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between a Liberal and National, but land-use conflict has sharpened the differences like never before. While some locals have publicly abandoned the party, many in rural NSW are standing by The Nationals. And it’s not because we are slow learners, it’s because the Nats have the balance of power in the state government. That’s right – the balance of power. And all they need is the strength to wield it.
Some argue the missing ingredient is the permission to use that power in the Coalition.
As the Tony Windsor experience in the federal hung Parliament shows, some rural and regional voters would prefer to be polite and lose rather than make a fuss.
This must change, as The Nationals need support and policy guidance in order to work effectively in the cabinet and party room for rural and regional interests.
Others say that it is a question of personnel. In the North West and Central West, Kevin Humphries, Kevin Anderson and Troy Grant represent the new guard in The Nationals and are hardworking, intelligent, local reps – no ring-ins here – and their interests are our interests. In contrast, there is a perception that the old guard are damaged goods, hopelessly and irreversibly compromised by mining interests and that it is time for them to make way for some new blood and an entirely different approach. In a similar way, non-performing Nationals members in the legislative council, where they hold the balance of power, need to be moved on.
Embarrassingly, the cupboard is littered with mining industry skeletons, as exposed by Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham.
“Nathan Tinkler’s Maules Creek mine has a stench about it, with undeclared donations to the National Party, former Nationals leader Mark Vaile on the board, former general secretary of the NSW Nationals and Barry O’Farrell’s former chief-of-staff, Liam Bathgate, lobbying, and former National Party minister Garry West on the three-person Planning Assessment Commission,” he said.
“With such close links between the mine and Coalition government, it is no wonder that local farmers and environmentalists have taken direct action to stop these coal mines destroying an important forest and threatening nearby water resources and
For anyone who has ears, the draft Strategic Land Use Policy is not delivering for rural NSW and is obviously wrong if it delivers the proposed open-cut Maules Creek coal mine outlined above. Among the collateral damage could be the long-term decline in the ranks of The Nationals who are the incumbents in the mining electorates of Upper Hunter, Tamworth, Barwon, Dubbo and Lismore.
The reality is the draft policy doesn’t strike the middle ground.
It is an ambit claim that sees the entire state opened up for mining and gas extraction.
Urban areas, water catchments, sensitive environmental areas and productive agricultural land are all part of a land grab that could see The Nationals voters much poorer for the experience. Despite their best intentions and spirit of compromise, the non-mining stakeholders were, in the end, completely ignored in favour of a largely foreign-owned industry with a track record that impacts on communities, water resources and important environmental assets.
The looming land-use battle will be the acid test of this parliament and for The Nationals going forward. It’s difficult territory, but if The Nationals prove their worth and exercise their power, their long-term future as a party is more certain. If not, they will be rightly regarded as irrelevant and swallowed up by the Libs as a NSW LNP, or carved up by the independents and the new-look and resurgent Greens. The federal Greens leadership under Christine Milne, with a renewed focus on regional Australia, will exploit a rural constituency which is hungry for representation and now finds a new and plausible alternative.
The Greens are well positioned to engage with rural Gen Ys, due to social media and the generational inequities of a future clouded with climate change and resource scarcity. The National Party could be left in isolation with an ageing demographic and a slow decline.
It’s a diabolical position that The Nationals and their long-term supporters find themselves in, with their Coalition partners sowing the seeds of their fall.
How they find the strength to take on the power of big coal and gas could be the defining test for their time.