Energy looms as key issue for regional MPs in leadership spill

Where to now for regional representation?


Politics
Nationals Leader Michael McCormack and Deputy Leader Bridget McKenzie. Photo Mick Tsikas.

Nationals Leader Michael McCormack and Deputy Leader Bridget McKenzie. Photo Mick Tsikas.

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Energy top priority as Nats poised to negotiate new Coalition agreement.

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All eyes are on Canberra, as Liberal MPs are about to walk out of a party room meeting and tell the nation who the next Prime Minister is.

Among those with most at stake is the Nationals, who deliver the numbers the Coalition needs to command a majority and they’ll seek new terms of their Coalition with Liberals’ leader.

Energy policy top the list of burning issues in the bush, as households and businesses feel the squeeze of rising power prices, and the policy motions voted on at the Nationals general conference last week is a good indication of other hot topics.

That means policy change and bums on seats in critical portfolios. Nats Leader Michael McCormack is gently reminding the Liberals it's he’s got his eyes on the prize.

“(The Coalition agreement) has enabled The Nationals to play an assertive role delivering real results and outcomes for people who live and work in regional Australia,” Mr McCormack said.

Last time around the Coalition agreement saw former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce add the portfolio to his ministry. 

This time, the Nats could ask for the Energy portfolio, currently held Liberal Josh Frydenberg. Or Perhaps Regional Development, held by another Liberal John McVeigh. In these crazy times the Trade portfolio may be discussed. 

Energy

Despite its top priority, energy policy is in disarray and it’s still unclear how the Nats will influence it.

Last week, in an attempt to quell internal party ructions Mr Turnbull announced sweeping changes to National Energy Guarantee.

The Nats have been arguing for coal to remain in the mix, while energy experts have questioned its role in a renewables-dominated future.

The Nationals conference appeared less certain than its political leaders. A motion calling for “NSW Government to build, or facilitate the private sector to build, at least one High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) coal- fired power station as soon as possible” was carried.

Also approved were motions callins for a transition to “modern, efficient technologies” as well as for research into nuclear and wave power.

“For the Nationals, coal is certainly very much part of our thinking, part of our strategy, part of our support,” said Mr McCormack last week.

Deputy Nationals Leader Bridget McKenzie praised the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission energy market reforms, particularly government underwriting investment in ‘dispatchable’ power.

“I’m not afraid to say the C word. Coal, coal coal is going to be one of those areas we invest in,” Ms Mckenzie said.

Drought

Drought relief has been front and centre of federal politics in recent weeks, with Malcolm Turnbull and Michael McCormack visiting impacted regions to announce new policy.

They made three successive policy announcements, all of which focus on social welfare funding and financial incentives to farmers to encourage investment in drought preparedness.

A Nats conference motion calling for government to “continually assess” drought classifications hints at the sentiment among one section of the farm community that wants to see more direct financial support for farmers, but opinions remain divided on a return to old Emergency Circumstances system.

Employment and immigration

Australia’s immigration levels have been making headlines, with some conservative politicians calling for a significant reduction.

A motion from Eden-Monaro was defeated that called for Australia’s immigration intake to be halved, to 100,000. Like all parties, the motions are selected democratically and brought by regional groups to the conference.

However, many in the agriculture sector such as the Regional Australia Institute have been arguing for reforms to place migrants in job-hungry regional communities.

The RAI held an event in Parliament House to launch its push for a new visa category for regional migrant workers in May, which was praised at the time by Deputy PM and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack.

Government could help communities “join the dots” between demand for workers and new migrants, Mr McCormack said.

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