Inside Story

Big-hat blues

Will a Victorian MP save the National Party from itself?

Norman Abjorensen 4 February 2020 1226 words

Odd man out? Veterans’ affairs minister Darren Chester (left) with prime minister Scott Morrison (centre) and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack viewing a poppy installation at Parliament House in October 2018. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

For a century now, the Nationals (long known as the Country Party) have defied all predictions of impending extinction. For most of that time, in fact, the party has been an island of relative stability in a sea of swirling currents.

The Labor Party split twice during that period, in one case helping give birth to the United Australia Party, which itself eventually imploded before Robert Menzies and others gathered up the pieces to form the modern Liberal Party. A decade later, Labor split again, extending Menzies’s prime ministership into Australia’s longest. Through it all, despite a spat or two, the Country Party stood solid.

In its first sixty-nine years, the Nationals had seven leaders. Indeed, the four and a half decades between 1940 and 1984, a time of unparalleled stability, saw just three: Arthur Fadden and John McEwen, each of whom served briefly as prime minister, and Doug Anthony. In the three decades since 1989, by contrast, the party has had no fewer than seven leaders.

From the start, the Country Party saw itself as promoting the interests of agriculture. Defying demography — Australia was already a heavily urbanised country in the 1920s — the party continued to portray Australia as an essentially agricultural society with a “pioneer spirit,” an image that continues under the ubiquitous Akubra favoured by many of its members.

But can non-urban Australia still be so narrowly defined? No, says one of the party’s shining lights, Gippsland MP Darren Chester, who just might find himself poised to reshape a party reeling from the “sports rorts” controversy and the destabilising influence of its wayward former leader, Barnaby Joyce.

Chester was dumped from cabinet in late 2017 after clashing with Joyce, who was party leader at the time. From the backbench, he outlined a vision of a National Party that was more than “blokes in big hats,” a view that he stands by.

“The comment I made was that the National Party has to be about more than blokes in big hats because we are as regional people far more diverse than that,” he told the Latrobe Valley Express after he returned to the ministry following Joyce’s resignation the following year.

“We need to appeal to younger voters and regional cities as well as small country towns; we need to appeal to female voters as well,” he went on. “I think it’s critical for our party’s future that we appeal to a broader range of people and recognise that regional Australia is changing.” The marriage equality vote, he added, was the “perfect illustration of the fact that regional areas are not as conservative as people might think.”

Chester, a former newspaper and television journalist, had initially fallen in with his party on the issue, but when he took soundings in his own eastern Victorian electorate, he was persuaded otherwise. “It’s not the biggest issue in my electorate by any stretch, but it’s a significant issue for some people,” he said in 2015, announcing his support for a conscience vote. “A lot of younger voters who I talk to, perhaps in secondary school or forums, say they’ve moved on, they just want this to happen, that the parliament of Australia should vote that way.”

Chester has also been outspoken on matters of accountability and transparency — taking a stand long before the “sports rorts” furore erupted. Back in 2018, the then backbencher was highly critical of the administration of the Community Development Grants program after newspaper reports revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were going to marginal electorates while safe seats missed out.

“It’s not the projects that are funded which are always the issue, it’s the ones which miss out,” he said. “[The] lack of transparency on grant allocations is undermining public trust in our system of government.”

Chester returned to that theme when the latest sports rorts scandal surfaced last month, telling ABC radio on 21 January that declining trust in government needed to be tackled. “The greatest deficit we face right now in Australian politics has nothing to do with the budget, it’s a deficit in the trust between us… and the public we represent,” he said.

“The integrity of the way we deliver these types of programs needs to have the transparency that people can have confidence that a fair system is in place. There have been great deliveries under this program. The question is whether the decisions were based upon merit.”

The Nationals have only four Victorians in the party room, and Chester was a strong supporter of fellow Victorian Bridget McKenzie’s candidacy as deputy leader — a move that angered then leader Joyce, who wanted Queenslander Matt Canavan in the role. The two men fell out even further when Chester confronted Joyce, telling him that revelations he was having a child with a former staffer were adversely affecting the party and that he should reconsider his position. According to a senior Nationals source, Chester’s comments were met with an expletive-laden tirade.

While Joyce appeared eventually to accept the advice, he took short-term revenge by dumping Chester from the ministry, a move that prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was powerless to prevent under the terms of the Coalition agreement. Turnbull described Chester as having been an “outstanding minister” whom he regretted was no longer on the frontbench. Victoria’s Labor government also weighed in, with treasurer Tim Pallas saying that the state had lost an important voice in Canberra.

At the time, Chester said he had been offered an assistant minister position but declined it. He returned to the outer ministry in 2018 as veterans’ affairs minister, appointed by Joyce’s successor, Michael McCormack.

More recently, he has been outspoken on the issue of paying volunteer firefighters, saying he had been talking to people in his Victorian electorate about a payment model for “one-off” events, funded by a fire levy, with evidence continuing to point to longer and worse bushfire seasons as a new normal.

“It’s not a government position, it’s my personal opinion,” he told the ABC. “There’s an existing tax. I’m saying how we raise the money and deploy it to the communities. You want to maintain that volunteer culture. You have paid lifeguards, Monday to Friday on the beach; on weekends, you have volunteers.”

Chester is a popular and instantly recognisable figure in his electorate. Before winning the seat at a by-election in 2008, he had served as chief of staff to the Nationals’ Victorian leader, Peter Ryan. He unsuccessfully contested a state seat in 2002.

Like many rural members, he is deeply involved in the community and his network spreads wide. He is a former chief executive of the regional lobby group, Champions of the Bush, and served two terms as president of the Lakes Entrance Tourism Association. He led several community campaigns, and has been actively involved in projects to protect and improve the environment of the world-renowned Gippsland Lakes.

Once the party settles down (assuming it does) after the turmoil of Senator McKenzie’s departure and Joyce’s failed challenge to McCormack, the broad vision articulated by Darren Chester will be vital if it is to restore its standing. Given the strong Queensland populist influence in the party room, though, he might remain a lone voice — a man out of step with a party fixated on the rearview mirror. •