Starting the year with a leadership spill will be seen by many, especially those hit by the bushfires, as the Nationals being particularly self-indulgent.
Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack admits as much, but notes he wasn’t the initiator of his party’s bad behaviour.
“We should not have been talking about ourselves. This was never of my making or doing. And we should have spent the entire day, not just those sitting hours, but the entire day reflecting on just what has taken place this summer,” he tells the Politics podcast.
McCormack also says he supported Bridget McKenzie “the whole way” through the sports rorts controversy and he again stands by her decision-making.
The National leader defends his new frontbench line up against criticism that it’s short on women, mounts a strong pitch in favour of coal, and rejects claims he’s been too invisible and a weak leader.
Transcript (edited for clarity)
Michelle Grattan: The Nationals have had their worst week since Barnaby Joyce quit as leader in early 2018 amid a scandal around his personal life.
On Sunday, Nationals Deputy Leader Bridget McKenzie was forced to quit cabinet in the sports rorts affair. Two days later, Michael McCormack faced a leadership challenge from Joyce, who argued that the Nationals need a stronger voice. In between, Cabinet Minister Matt Canavan resigned from the frontbench to support Joyce.
Michael McCormack survived the challenge, but his colleagues will be watching carefully whether he can improve his leadership style and most important in their eyes, heighten the party’s profile. The deputy prime minister joined us today to discuss the week’s events and the future.
And please ignore some ringing of the bells during this interview.
Michael McCormack, did you fight for Bridget McKenzie, who in the end, after all, resigned on a technicality of failing to disclose membership of sports organisations, or did you accept the inevitable that she had to quit?
Michael McCormack: I supported Bridget McKenzie the whole way through Michelle, and I know the sports grants program was a good program, I know the delivery it had, particularly for regional Australia, and Michelle, Bridget had ministerial discretion over these grants. She exercised that ministerial discretion while, of course, taking on board the advice and the recommendations given to her by Sports Australia, of course. And the decisions were all eligible projects. All the decisions she made were eligible. I did support her. I always supported Bridget, she was a very good deputy leader and we got on very, very well.
MG: But you couldn’t save her in the end. You could not save her.
MM: She resigned. She resigned. She understood and accepted the fact that the Wangaratta Clay Target club membership had not been put onto her register of interests and the associations that she had. And unfortunately, as you say, on this technicality, she accepted that Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of PM&C, Prime Minister and Cabinet found that that was an apparent breach of ministerial standards. And so, Bridget accepted that this was the case and resigned.
MG: Now your new deputy, David Littleproud the other night suggested that the approach to the sports grants with the party colour coding spreadsheet and the like, was overly partisan. How does that square with your defence, which you’ve just made again, that the distribution was all proper?
MM: Bridget also made clear that she hadn’t seen that document, as I understand. And whilst, yes, there was a colour coded document that somehow found its way to the ABC, the Sports Australia recommendations that Bridget McKenzie received, she made sure that there was 8% more allocations to Labor seats than was first given to her by Sports Australia.
So there was no bias shown against Labor seats. And I know that Anthony Albanese, the Labor leader, Catherine King and others acknowledged and recognised the fact that their electorates received large grants. And in fact, even the opposition leader thanked Senator McKenzie for the allocation of funds to the Grayndler electorate, as I understand.
MG: How do you expect Australians in the regions who are beset by drought, now by fires, to react to the National Party indulging in a leadership spill on the very day that the parliament was dedicated to the victims and the heroes of these bushfires?
MM: And it should have been dedicated wholly and solely. We should not have been talking about ourselves. This was never of my making or doing. And we should have spent the entire day, not just those sitting hours, but the entire day reflecting on just what has taken place this summer and for those more than 30 people, for those volunteer firefighters who’ve lost their lives.
We did honour and recognise them in an appropriate way. And the lives that have been lost will be forever remembered as a very dark day in Australia’s history - very dark days. And we should have been focusing on that. We should have been focusing on the drought. We should have been continuing. That’s always been my focus, Michelle, I’ve never swayed from the fact that, yes, the drought is ongoing, and, yes, the bushfires have been very bad. That’s always been my focus.
And indeed, I didn’t ring around every member because I was in important meetings the previous day. We had about seven hours of ministry meetings, including six of cabinet the previous day. And I was very much tied up with that, focusing on why people actually sent me here to do the job for them. To talk about drought, to talk about the fires, and more importantly, to come up with the recovery and relief efforts and the right answers for the Australian people that I serve and that we as National party members serve.
MG: Now, you’ve said that you don’t think Barnaby Joyce will challenge again.
MM: Well, he said he won’t.
MG: I actually heard you say you also believed in the tooth fairy for a while.
MM: No, I didn’t. Well, the question was put to me, do you still believe in the tooth fairy? And unfortunately, somebody who is listening to that broadcast sent me an email yesterday saying their young child was then questioning as to why the tooth fairy wasn’t real. And for all of the children listening, put your tooth under a little thimble and you might get a coin from the tooth fairy. That’s really important.
MG: But the lesson of history is that once an aspirant challenges, he is likely to challenge again. Are you saying the Nats are different from other parties in this regard?
MM: Well, I hope we draw a line under this and move on. It’s so important for regional Australia. They need to know that we don’t come here to serve ourselves, we come here to serve them. This sort of thing is, it’s really, it’s about power, it’s about self-indulgence. Look, as Barnaby has said himself, the boil has been lanced. He spoke of the the fact that he was now going to support me and to support the National Party. He needs to keep his word and I’m sure he will keep his word.
MG: There’s a move to have a rule that would stop random spill attempts.
MM: Similar to the Labor and Liberal parties.
MG: You’ve supported this, although Barnaby Joyce opposes it, not surprisingly. Will it go ahead and what’s the process?
MM: Well, it’s not a matter for me. That’s a matter for the party and the party’s management.
MG: Is that the management committee or…
MM: That would be the federal executive.
MG: So what would that process be, that it goes through the federal executive and then the parliamentary party?
MM: I can imagine that would probably be the case, yes.
MG: And do you think…
MM: I have had nothing to do with this, by the way. It was a proposal brought forward. In fact, it was a proposal raised at a party meeting last year after we won the election, to avoid the intense media speculation as to “will there be a spill, won’t there be a spill?”. And there was a case back in, I think it was about December 2018, around about the last parliamentary sitting week, where in an editorial view written in a Melbourne newspaper, then led rise and belief to the fact that there might have been a spill on because that’s seen as killing season, and no such spurious allegations or suggestions were being raised, but that then, of course, set the rabbits running. And of course then, we had all this intense media speculation and it shouldn’t have been the case then. It should not be the case now.
And, you know, we’ve drawn a line under it. I’ve now put myself up for the leadership three times: in February 2018 when Barnaby Joyce resigned, just after the election when we won in May last year, and again this week. Three times in less than two years. I think that shows that the party supports me. We need to move on.
MG: The Coalition party room debate on Tuesday showed that the the National party rebels, if we can call them that…
MM: I wasn’t in that particular phase of the party room. Scott Morrison and I had gone out to meet the families of the bushfire victims. So I need to place that on the record. I wasn’t in on that discussion in the joint party room.
MG: But you’re obviously across it. And they have shown that they’ll resist hard any nuancing of the government’s climate change policy…
MM: Which we took to the election.
MG: Would you accept any changes? Would you personally accept any changes to that policy as the government approaches the next election?
MM: Well, we always look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and of course the mood of the of the country. That’s what we did leading up to the May election last year. And of course, that’s what we do all the time. There’s hopefully a long time between now and the next election. But the policies that we took to the election were endorsed by the people of Australia. And that’s why we retained government. That’s why we make the decisions in cabinet, and that’s why we still hold the treasury benches, because the majority of the Australian people wanted us to continue to govern for and on their behalf. And that’s what we’ll do. We took our climate action policies to the election and the Australian people endorsed us and endorsed those policies.
MG: But as you know, there are different views, especially in different parts of the country.
MM: Of course.
MG: Do you at least understand the viewpoint of southern Liberals who want more done on climate change, or do you think they’re simply wrong?
MM: I understand their views.
MG: But you don’t agree with those views?
MM: Well, what we do need is a vibrant resources sector, and I’m really pleased that this morning I announced that Keith Pitt would be the minister for resources in Northern Australia. Of course, adding water to that portfolio as well, but really pleased that he will continue the strong advocacy for our resources sector that Matthew Canavan has championed for so long.
MG: Now, Keith Pitt is a strong supporter of nuclear power. What’s your attitude to nuclear?
MM: Well, we had a committee looking at this headed by Ted O'Brien. It, of course, has made various suggestions as to where we need a mix of energy, but it has to have bipartisan support. I mean, to take a partisan approach to something like this to the parliament would be, in all honesty, probably a waste of time, because it would just cause a lot of dissension amongst the parliament, let alone the people of Australia.
MG: Now, in your reshuffle, which you and prime minister just announced you still only have one woman on your frontbench and she remains in an assistant minister position, yet the election produced several new women in your parliamentary party. Won’t women supporters in the regions be disappointed by this failure to have more women on the frontbench? And is the message that in the Nationals it’s a case of waiting your turn for promotion rather than a principle of merit?
MM: I’m glad that Sam McMahon from the Northern Territory, Susan McDonald from Queensland, Perin Davey from New South Wales, and indeed Anne Webster from the house of representatives seat of Mallee have all taken their place in the parliament. But they’re new members and I’ve only been here a matter of months, and I don’t believe that somebody should be thrust into a ministerial position, let alone cabinet in their first few months as a parliamentarian. They need to serve the communities who sent them here to Canberra to do the job. They need to be able to ensure that they’ve got that grassroots representation right. And look, they’re very, very talented women.
And, of course, Michelle Landry and Bridget McKenzie, they were both in the ministry I put together. I had both of my women in ministerial positions. And to think that the National Party has gone from from two to six women in one election is really important. And I think that says also something about the way I lead the party and that the way that I’ve taken the National Party forward. And I’m sure they will, as you say, get their turn. It has to be merit based, Michelle, I’ve always believed that you should be getting positions on merit. Yes, of course, gender has its place. Yes, of course, geography has its place in ministerial decisions. But you have to be able to do the job. And I’m sure those women who I’ve mentioned and others besides will get their turn eventually.
But it’s a cut and thrust game this politics. And we need the best people serving in the ministerial positions and around that cabinet table. I’m really pleased with the people that have been elected to those ministerial positions for the National Party. And I’m sure that they’ll serve Australia, particularly regional Australia, very well going forward.
MG: To go back to the resources area, the government before the election promised an inquiry into whether a coal-fired power station was feasible in central Queensland.
MM: In Collinsville, yep.
MG: Where is that up to, and do you want to see such a project eventuating if possible?
MM: Well, I think it’d be good, because what we want to do is make sure that resources rich area in and around Gladstone is well serviced by the energy needs that that wonderful port city is going to require going forward. The port at Gladstone is a magnificent facility. The activity on that port is so important to not just central Queensland, but indeed the state and the nation. So we want to make sure it has the energy needs. The Collinsville project, the proposal, should it tick all the boxes, and I know that it is being put through the rigour at the moment, and sure enough, it’s got to pass that those tests. It’s got to pass those environmental outcomes. Of course, there are state implications as well.
But should it measure up, I think it’d be a great thing for Gladstone. And that’s what it’s aimed at. That’s what it’s based on. We look at the Tomago smelter in the Upper Hunter and around that area of New South Wales. Sometimes it has to load shed and not necessarily have full output because we’ve got too much power being used in New South Wales. We need our industries, we need our factories, to be running at full bore. We need to be able to turn the lights on, we need to be able to keep the wheels of this nation turning. We can only do that if we’ve got reliability in the sector.
Affordability is also important, and that’s why I am a supporter of coal. That’s why I am a supporter of the resource sector. And you just take coal, $62 billion of exports, that pays for a lot of state schools and state hospitals, 55,000 jobs. So many people get up of a morning and put a uniform on and go to work in that sector - they should have the opportunity for a better future to for themselves and their families. And of course, not to mention the two-thirds of our energy needs are coming from coal. So it’s an important part of our resources sector, of our energy needs and our nation.
MG: Well, that’s a pretty strong coal statement. And one of the issues in the…
MM: Pro-job statement as Michelle, if you don’t mind me just saying that.
MG: One of the issues in the leadership contest was that the Nationals should be more assertive within the government and within the electorate. Do you take that point and will the party be speaking out more loudly in the future?
MM: I always speak out. My inaugural speech to this place, I said I won’t be silent when I ought to speak. But I think sometimes, too, you need to have those debates behind closed doors. And I’ve had great success in making sure that we’ve got the infrastructure spend that we need for regional Australia. And I’ve had those discussions behind closed doors at times with Malcolm Turnbull, at times with Scott Morrison, and I’ve had some good wins along the way. Just because you might get a blood nose or give a blood nose behind closed doors doesn’t mean to say you need to come out with that trickle still down your nose for yourself or the other person. And the public doesn’t always need to know what goes on when you’re having those important meetings in discussing the needs and wants of regional Australia or indeed Australia in general.
I know it might satisfy the the media and it might grab you a headline, but I would rather get a project up for a regional town or centre, than get a page six headline in a leading daily newspaper in metropolitan Australia. I would prefer that any day of the week. I’ve sent here to get delivery, to get things done. And I know I’ve been doing that.
MG: You probably find it a bit galling, all the criticism that’s been made of your leadership in the last little while. But do you think you need to be making any changes in the way you do your job?
MM: I think we can always take a look at ourselves and think about how you can do things better. I’m not perfect, never suggested I was.
MG: So what are you working on?
MM: Well, I’m certainly working on making sure that we get even more regional delivery for Australia. More outcomes for regional Australia. What I want to do this year is build dams. I’ve been frustrated at the state’s lack of cooperation in this regard, I’m so pleased that I’ve established the national water grid. I’m working well with New South Wales and Queensland to do just that. Constitutional rules dictate that states play a big part in this. And I think the Australian public wants to see shovels in the ground and bulldozers busy at work on sites where dams have been projected and proposed for too many years now. So I’m looking forward to seeing bulldozers in the ground at Stanthorpe in Queensland. That Emus Swamp dam is going to be, I think, the catalyst for more water infrastructure to come.
MG: And will people be seeing more of you in the regions or do you think…?
MM: I don’t think you can see any more of me in the regions, I’m there all the time. But I’ll tell you one thing I don’t Michelle, and that’s I don’t always take necessarily banks of cameras with me. Camera crews following along behind. And I think that served me very well. And indeed, moreover, the communities that we try to serve best, during the bushfire season. I went to and visited so many of those evacuation centres, communities where people have lost their homes, their farms, their businesses, and I think they really appreciate the fact that I didn’t have Channel 9 and Channel 7 and every other camera crew trailing along behind for that photo opportunity.
I tell you what, when they asked me for a financial counsellor, when they asked me for a counsellor in general to help with their mental health, when they asked me for a ADF support or a pop up for human services, I was able to ring the minister there and then and provide it, if not within hours, within days. And that’s the sort of delivery that I think regional Australians would much prefer than to see a minister or a deputy prime minister, indeed, who, yes, gets the one line grab on the six o'clock news bulletin, but then doesn’t provide that generator or that counsellor all that support for their communities when they’re at their lowest ebb.
MG: Just finally, before we came for this interview, I did hear a woman on television from somewhere on the South Coast saying that it was very difficult to actually get to the services one needed. The suggestion was that when you didn’t have any resources after going through this bushfire, doing all the things you have to do to get those services is pretty taxing. Do you think that the recovery effort is going smoothly or does the government need to do more so people can cut through bureaucracy and get what they need?
MM: Everybody’s not going to get what they want right when they want it, and particularly tough for those people who’ve lost everything other than the clothes they’re wearing . And many of them, they have different levels of frustration. I know speaking to some people who’d lost everything, they were still optimistic. And those who perhaps had been only slightly touched by fires are very angry and very frustrated. So the moods differed as to where you went. Yes, we can, and we’ve been doing everything humanly possible to get the assistance to where it’s most needed. But charities need to play a part in being a bit quicker. Yes, governments do, too. And we’ve had a lot of lessons learned from this summer.
And I’m sure that the royal commission and the review that New South Wales is conducting and and and other states will as well, I’m sure we’ll take some some lessons from this summer and put in place measures to ensure that in future there is a more rapid response. But it’s been devastating this summer and of course it’s not over yet. There’s still bushfires raging out of control as we speak. But those volunteer firefighters, people such as Shane Fitzsimmons, the commissioner here in New South Wales, have been magnificent. Andrew Colvin worked day and night heading up the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. The work that he’s done has really helped support those communities. And I want to make special mention of the ADF. When they were sent in 6,500 uniforms on the ground and for my own home city, Wagga Wagga, first unit mobilized, went to Batlow, went to Tumbarumba, made such a difference on the ground, Michelle.
And yes, there will be lessons we learn from this. We need to adapt those measures in time for the next summer fire season, which you and I both know and everybody else does, they’re coming forward earlier. The first fires this summer were in September. Who knows, this year, it may well be August, but we need to be responding quicker, as you say. We’ve learnt lessons from this summer, and let’s just hope we get through the rest of these hotter months without any more tragedy.
MG: Michael McCormack, thank you very much for making time for us on what’s a very busy day for you.
The re-vamped Nationals frontbench line up following changes:
Michael McCormack: Leader of the Nationals, Minister for Infrastructure
David Littleproud: Deputy Leaders on the Nationals, Minister for Agriculture, Minister for Drought and Emergency Management
Darren Chester: Minister for Veterans Affairs
Keith Pitt: Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia
Mark Coulton: Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government
Andrew Gee: Minister for Regional Education, Decentralisation, Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment
Michelle Landry: Assistant Minister for Children and Families, Assistant Minister for Northern Australia
Mr Kevin Hogan MP: Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister
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Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra