Inside Story

Time out for a rural moderate

What drives Darren Chester, the Nationals MP who has boycotted his own party room?

Brett Evans 1 October 2021 1276 words

Home ground: National Party MP Darren Chester (right) in Sarsfield, Victoria, with prime minister Scott Morrison after the January 2020 bushfires. James Ross/AAP Image

When the British politician Ernest Bevin heard someone say that his fellow Labourite Nye Bevan was his own worst enemy, he responded with some astringency: “Not while I’m alive ’e ain’t!” In politics, the greatest and most enduring enmities are often between rivals in the same party.

The federal National Party has just twenty-one Canberra MPs and they’d all like to be leader. The secret Coalition agreement that governs the division of spoils between the Liberal Party and its rural-based partner evidently guarantees that whoever leads the National Party is deemed competent enough to be Australia’s deputy prime minister. Get one job, you get the other — with a substantial pay hike thrown in.

As you’d expect, a desire to be deputy PM has caused quite a bit of unpleasantness in the National Party over the years.

Currently the Nationals are led by Barnaby Joyce, a man who combines the oratorical skills of the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen with the calmness of demeanour associated with former National Bob Katter. When Joyce rose again to reclaim the top job earlier this year, the two biggest losers were Michael McCormack, the man he replaced, and the member for the Victorian regional seat of Gippsland, Darren Chester, who had been a relatively successful veterans’ affairs minister. More than a third of the federal Nationals have lucrative ministerial positions, but Chester is no longer one of them.

Darren Chester entered federal parliament back in 2008 via a by-election triggered by the retirement of former Nationals minister Peter McGauran. He isn’t especially well known outside Gippsland and Canberra, but after a decade or so in politics he’d no doubt like to be.

Brought up in the Victorian coastal town of Sale, the fifty-four-year-old Chester is the classic local boy made good. Before entering parliament, he worked as a journalist in the Latrobe Valley and as chief of staff to Peter Ryan, leader of the Nationals in Victoria. In his spare time, he keeps in shape by running marathons, and he was once described by a DJ on Traralgon FM as “the George Clooney of Gippsland.”

In National Party terms, Chester is what passes for a dangerous moderate. When he announced his support for marriage equality in 2015, he had to fight a major stoush in his local party branches.

But his career hasn’t been free of some of the more mundane controversies that afflict Australian parliamentarians. In January 2016, for example, he copped some flak for his use of taxpayer-funded travel allowances. According to media reports, he claimed nearly $900 for a work trip to Melbourne that also allowed him to purchase an investment property and attend a soccer match while visiting the Big Smoke.

So, there you have it: Chester is handsome, personable, media savvy and battle-hardened, but it’s the age-old story: he voted for the wrong candidate — and paid the price.

In fact, Darren Chester has had the misfortune to be sacked twice by Barnaby Joyce in the space of just four years. Some Australians might regard these shaftings as two badges of honour. But for Chester — who is not without ambition — they must surely have stung.

Joyce first dumped Chester from his job as transport and infrastructure minister in a cabinet reshuffle in December 2017, and promptly awarded the portfolios to himself. In due course, Joyce was forced to resign from both the ministry and the deputy prime ministership, consigning himself to the backbench in February 2018 after a number of his personal failings came to light, not least of which was an allegation — which he denies — of sexual harassment.

Joyce’s main rival, the member for Riverina, Michael McCormack, took on the dented crown of National Party leadership. Among his supporters was Darren Chester.

The wheel turned again, and in June this year Joyce returned to the National Party leadership like a Lazarus on steroids after taking out the hapless McCormack in a party-room ballot. (Keep up — there’ll be a quiz later.) For his sins, Chester was punted to the backbench again. This time he lost veterans’ affairs and defence personnel. Joyce rang him with the sad news while Chester was out walking his dog.

Obviously expecting the call, the now ex-minister, who is well known as a lover of canines, didn’t feel any need to kick his pet pooch after he got off the phone. In fact, the phlegmatic Chester says the two men had a “matter-of-fact conversation.” Interviewed later about why he was sacked, though, Chester slipped in a sharp one, right up to the hilt.

“I wouldn’t normally comment on private conversations,” he said. “But I’m gonna say the conversation I had with Barnaby was so incoherent yesterday, I couldn’t actually explain what he was even saying to me.”

As Antonio says in The Tempest: “What’s past is prologue.” Chester announced on Sunday this week that he would be undertaking a sort of trial separation from the National Party.

“My decision,” he told the media, “follows months of frustration with the repeated failure of the leadership to even attempt to moderate some of the more disrespectful and offensive views expressed by a minority of colleagues.” It was a clear reference to his colleague from north of the Tweed River, George Christensen, who described the Victorian police who had to deal with violent anti-lockdown protesters as “thugs [who] should be arrested.” Christensen was not immediately reprimanded by Joyce.

Chester has also come out strongly as a proponent of Australia’s achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “I think the Nationals have a great future if we represent the mainstream regional values,” he says, “and that’s not the extreme right wing that others seek to represent.” Setting aside the efficacy of this target for a moment, it still means he is out in front of Barnaby Joyce’s current position.

“I continue to support the Coalition government,” Chester said on Sunday, “but want some time away from the Nationals federal parliamentary party room to reflect on a number of significant issues.” He still intends to contest the next election as a National Party candidate but said he would reassess his position when parliament resumed in mid October.

Could he be contemplating running as an independent in Gippsland? Might he shift to Victorian state politics? Or are his eyes still on the main prize: leadership of the Nationals in Canberra?

Since he got the boot in June, he has been remaking himself as the National Party’s anti-Joyce. In a Herald Sun op-ed he published soon after getting the sack, he argued that the future of the National Party is at a tipping point. “If the more hardline Nationals MPs lock into a climate denial agenda,” he wrote, “they can wave goodbye to the generation of voters who will shape the future of Australia.”

The bush is changing, he argued. “In Gippsland, I represent more nurses than farmers. My region is a food, fibre and energy powerhouse but health and education services actually employ more people.” He pointed out that younger rural voters support policies that actually deal with climate change; as do the many city people who’ve moved to the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Farmers are getting into renewables, he says; some are even earning good money from wind turbines.

It’s a very different picture of rural Australia from the one painted by Barnaby Joyce, though it would be familiar to Chester’s colleagues in the NSW government, which toughened up its emissions-reduction goal this week. Political rivalries are always personal, but sometimes they’re based on genuine policy differences as well. •