Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Federal Coalition: Double or Nothin'?

With the Queensland Nationals and Liberals uniting as one party rather than as an unbalanced Coalition, perhaps it’s time for the federal coalition parties to do the same. My country cousins are constantly complaining that the National Party does nothing for the country. In fact, even when the coalition is in government, the Nationals do less for country voters than the Independents do.

I believe that’s because the two parties that make up the Coalition are determined to remain as individual parties, with different structures, policies and platforms. As the party with fewer seats, the Nationals are routinely disregarded, as we’ve seen this past week.

It started sometime last weekend, when I saw a few tweets suggesting that Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce had contacted the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to suggest doubling the baby bonus, from $5,000 to $10,000.

Twitter was wrong. Both Senator Joyce and Mr Abbott have denied that any such contact was made. Barnaby has gone even further and has denied that he supports the existing baby bonus, at least in its current form.

So where did this rumour come from? Where did we first hear that Barnaby supported doubling the baby bonus, and how did it gain such traction?

At midnight Saturday night, News Limited’s Online versions ran with the headline “The big push for $10,000 baby bonus by Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce”, complete with justification for the push.

Fearing a backlash over the generosity of the Coalition's proposed paid-parental-leave scheme, which would offer wealthy working women up to $75,000, the Nationals have proposed a better deal for stay-at-home mums.

"It's an incredible sacrifice for women to stay at home. You can see it in their superannuation and everything else," Senator Joyce said.

"We want to make sure people don't lose their house. Because everything is based on two incomes these days. All policies have a cost. But it's a substantial sacrifice for people not to go to work."

But when did Senator Joyce say this? Why won’t anyone on the Coalition side of politics own the statement or the policy? Why is there no footage? The Double the Baby Bonus story was reported widely, including on ABC’s Insiders and the Breakfast Giggle-Fests, the websites of politicians from both sides of the aisle, various blogs and a selection of niche magazine sites on everything from parenting to HR.

This was another big story featuring the unpredictable Barnaby Joyce, but Barnaby wasn’t confirming or denying anything. Yet.

The story was credible enough to force a joint media release from Penny Wong (Finance Minister) and Jenny Macklin (Minister for Families and Community Services). The release referred to a ‘blunderous back flip’ by the Coalition after Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne confirmed on ABC’s Insiders programme that “Barnaby is entitled to his ideas, but the Coalition doesn’t support the policy.”

By Sunday evening it was starting to sound flimsy, and because Barnaby’s reputation precedes him, it was all too easy to accept that he’d gone rogue and was whispering sweet somethings in Tony Abbott’s ample ears without the knowledge of the Nats. It’s no secret that he wants the leadership of the Nationals; his move from Senate to Lower House is designed to make that possible.

With surprisingly little creative googling, it’s not too hard to find the origin of the story. It’s right there on Page 23 of the Nationals 2011-2012 Policy Platform document, albeit worded a little obscurely. How it made it from a policy document to national headlines is anyone’s guess, but there it is.

And here's Christopher Pyne claiming that no, it’s not Coalition policy, although yes, it exists as policy within one of the Coalition’s policy papers. Warren Truss, Leader of the Nationals has confirmed that it’s National Policy, but not Coalition policy.

So why even mention it? I’m sure it would make a lot of stay-at-home mothers very happy, but if it’s not Liberal policy, and it’s likely to cost around $900 million dollars in the first year alone, it’s unlikely to become a reality.

After some pretty fancy backpedalling and policy doubletalk, it now seems that what Barnaby is willing to accept is a rethink of the Baby Bonus, with the Nationals’ policy as one possible way forward. That’s quite a distance from the headlines we saw on the weekend.

Historically, the Liberal Party and the Nationals (or the Country Party) have shared conservative ideology; that doesn’t seem to hold true any more. Historically, the Liberal Party has needed the support of the National Party as coalition partner in order to win and govern effectively.

If their policies are no longer aligned, and with the ALP so week across the board, perhaps now is the right time to either consolidate as a single party with a single platform, or dissolve the coalition to allow the Nationals to support what they actually believe in.

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