Nationals betray the bush — again

A protest against fracking in Carnamah, WA, last year.

Among the death and destruction left in their wake, there are some positive political developments that have come from the devastating bushfires that ripped through New South Wales and Queensland.

One is that the conservative taboo on linking bushfire intensity and frequency to the climate crisis has been broken. The other is that the National Party has well and truly revealed itself to be no friend of regional Australia.

The desperate attempt by Nationals leader Michael McCormack to dismiss any reference to climate science as the preserve of "woke capital-city greenies" — in stark contradiction to the clearly expressed views of firefighting experts and people in the bush — marked a genuine turning point.

The frantic insistence by former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce that the Greens bear some responsibility for the fires, even though the Coalition has been in power for several years, both federally and in NSW, was truly unhinged.

Once upon a time, the National Party was characterised by its "rural socialism", a mixture of pork-barrelling and support for farmers. Those days have long since gone.

It now functions as a simple sidekick for the extension of the Liberals’ ruthless neoliberal agenda into the bush. The Nationals’ unconditional support for coal mining and billionaire cotton producers, at the expense of the Darling River ecosystem and downstream agricultural industries, is brutal proof that they represent agribusiness and fossil fuel capitalists, not family farmers.

In Western Australia, the Nationals flirted with trying to distinguish themselves from the Liberals during the 2017 state election campaign. Out of nowhere, they proposed a dramatic rise in the fee imposed on big iron ore miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, from 25 cents to $5 a tonne.

But this was snuffed out when leader Brendan Grylls lost his seat following a multimillion-dollar campaign against him by the mining industry. Before and after that blip the WA Nationals have made sure to stick to the neoliberal script.

Since 2013, WA's private railway network operator has closed 720 kilometres of rail lines in the Wheatbelt, forcing an extra 40,000-70,000 truck movements a year on the state’s roads. Road accident trauma and pollution have risen. It is vastly more expensive for the state to upgrade roads and much of this cost has been shifted onto rural shires.

Faced with this scenario, the farmers’ cooperative CBH offered to take over management of the rail lines, but the private operator refused.

None of this even raised a peep from the Nationals. Perhaps because Brookfield Rail (now known as Arc Infrastructure), the very company that owns the lease, sponsored their state conference at the time.

The Nationals have also offered no serious resistance to the Liberal-Labor push to allow fracking in the state's Wheatbelt, the home of its traditional supporter base. Like the East Coast, these voters are taken for granted as the Nationals do the bidding of mining companies.

Yet, it is in the campaign against fracking that we are starting to see hope for a positive realignment of rural politics that could halt voters dissatisfied with the Nationals swinging over to right-wing racist outfits or the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.

When the corporate media starts fretting about farmers, greenies and lefties uniting to confront the mining industry, you know something good is happening.

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