The Nationals, Gippsland and Climate Change

The recent change in leadership in the National Party replacing Michael McCormack with the climate change denier Barnaby Joyce has brought the question of climate change action to the fore. With the demotion by Joyce of Darren Chester from the ministry, the split in the Nationals has become public. The public perception of the Nationals has long been the ‘big coal’ party. Six years ago, even Darren Chester was part of this faction and I wrote a blog calling him a climate change dinosaur. Since then he has modified his views as his electorate has experienced severe drought, heat waves and bushfires – all made more extreme under a warming globe.

In the middle of our ‘black summer’ an EGCAN delegation visited Darren to discuss climate change and he told them he did “not share [their] same level of concern”. The delegation “left seriously disappointed” and wondered if they “should have been harder and more critical. With all that has happened since and indeed with major fires set to burn until they run out of fuel… a dramatically more effective response is required from our regional politicians.” Darren accepts the science of climate change but until now has made no statement about it. Following his sacking Darren labelled his new leader ‘incoherent’ and wrote in the Herald Sun (2.7) that the “Nationals fight isn’t Joyce v Chester, but 1950 v 2050” and the “hard line Nationals” are locked “into a climate denial agenda”.

An article by Richard Willingham of the ABC noted that the “Nationals’ decision to replace Mr McCormack with Barnaby Joyce prompted Victorian leader Peter Walsh to move a disaffiliation motion at a recent Victorian Nationals board meeting. It was not passed, but it highlighted the deep anger among Victorian MPs about the behaviour of their federal colleagues” and “Deputy leader Steph Ryan… is adamant that voters in rural seats want to see action on climate. ‘I actually think this is an extraordinary opportunity for our party to argue for a strong investment in research and development, for agriculture, but also for different sectors across our communities,’ she told the ABC. ‘We know this week; we’ve seen a huge heatwave across places like Siberia and Canada. If we were to have similar conditions replicated here, we will have farmers who lose crops, we will have infrastructure that fails, and the health of our communities will be put at risk. So, the stakes are high. And I think our voters are asking us to do more.’”

Willingham also noted that the “first motion passed at this year’s Victorian Nationals conference welcomed moves by agricultural industries to achieve zero net emissions and put in place policies to support farmers to achieve this goal.’” The conference was in Wonthaggi and members of the Bass Coast CAN demonstrated outside. Both Peter Walsh and Steph Ryan spoke to the demonstrators. One participant concluded: “by speaking with us…they got to understand that we were educated about climate change and that they were somewhat deficient when it came to scientific facts” and “I think this was a worthwhile exercise. The more that we confront them with facts, the more they realise that that can’t run from us any more…”

I have thought for a long time that the Liberal Party was a split waiting to happen over the climate issue and it appears that the same applies to the Nationals. Perhaps the hard work of the climate activists across the region is now starting to tell.