REGIONAL Australia and agriculture has lost one of its most senior and tenacious political fighters with the disqualification from federal parliament of Fiona Nash who was described as an “outstanding minister” by Malcolm Turnbull.
But it remains to be seen whether it will be a permanent loss.
Former Senator Nash was ruled to have breached Section 44 of the federal constitution by the High Court yesterday, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, due to dual citizenship, along with Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce and three other Senator.
Her place in the Coalition government is now expected to be taken by NSW Liberal and rural advocate Hollie Hughes – a former political staffer member to ex-Senator and Junee sheep and grains farmer Bill Heffernan.
Ms Hughes was initially pre-selected in a winnable position on the NSW Senate ticket for last year’s election, ahead of an incumbent Liberal Senator.
But she was controversially dropped to sixth place on the state’s Coalition ticket, when another pre-selection battle took place, after the double dissolution election was called and subsequently missed out on being elected.
Despite her disqualification, the Nationals could potentially provide a safe passage for Ms Nash’s return to federal politics via a casual vacancy, if NSW Senator John “Wacka” Williams was to retire earlier than expected.
“I will continue to fight for rural, regional and remote Australians – no matter where my life path takes me,” Ms Nash said in a statement where she listed helping to thwart the takeover of GrainCorp by US multinational agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland as one of the great achievements in her 12-year political career.
It’s understood some internal pressure within the nationals is being subtly applied to Senator Williams to safeguard Senator Nash’s return, who has previously indicated he will step down at the next election.
Having first been elected in 2007, Senator Williams has also been a staunch advocate for farming and rural issues and an influential member of the Senate’s Rural, Regional Affairs and Transport Committee.
Senator Williams is regarded as one of the closest allies and friends of Mr Joyce and rather than being persuaded by Senator Nash, who is unlikely to make a direct approach, he could be convinced to step aside as a parting act of loyalty and grand gesture to the party.
Prior to the revelation of her dual British citizenship, Ms Nash was reaching the zenith of her 12-year political career in pushing influential policy issues to back positive changes for farmers and regional Australians.
As well as being the party’s first female deputy-leader, she was also a prominent cabinet member as the Regional Development, Regional Communications and Territories and Local Government Minister.
Ms Nash also spearheaded the creation of a new regional ministerial taskforce comprising senior government cabinet ministers - chaired by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull - aimed at boosting long-term, strategic policy development and investments, which was announced earlier this year.
She was also one of the main architects of pushing the federal government’s decentralisation agenda in seeking to move public service agencies or parts of them out to regional centres, to assist economic opportunity and community development, which she announced earlier this year and was being intricately examined by cabinet.
Mr Joyce left the question open, when he was asked yesterday if the Nationals had a plan to return Ms Nash to parliament.
“Fiona is a great lady and has done so much work for regional Australia and I’m sure that’s the discussions the National Party and Senator Nash will have,” he said.
“I’m not going to start pre-empting what Senator Nash may wish to do as well – those discussions will happen in the future.”
Mr Joyce said he also offered his support to former Senator Fiona Nash, following the High Court ruling.
“Fiona has been so stoic during these times and had to put up with so much,” he said.
“I get the chance of a by-election, Fiona doesn’t.
“I’d like to offer my support to Fiona Nash.”
For now, senior Communications Minister Mitch Fifield will act in the Regional Communications portfolio and Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester will act as Regional Development Minister along with Territories and Local Government.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull heaped praise on Ms Nash for her efforts, when speaking to media yesterday, saying she’d been an “outstanding” minister.
“Fiona as a Senator of course, will not be able to contest a by-election - I thank her for her great service to the government and to the parliament,” he said.
“She has been an outstanding minister, passionately devoted to regional Australia and its advancement.
“She is a staunch friend, a very, very good colleague.
“A really good friend devoted to the National Party but above all to the Coalition.
“And as Barnaby acknowledged…her stoicism, her calm, her collected approach to the challenges that she's been facing while obviously carrying out her ministerial office all the time under great pressure has been remarkable.”
It’s understood the Nationals’ deputy-leadership would be contested following the New England by-election where a number of candidates are expected to throw their hat into the ring, with Small Business Minister Michael McCormack and Mr Chester considered serious contenders and strong performers for the party.
Scullion to lead Nationals in Canberra – Joyce still party leader
Mr Chester told ABC radio Mr Joyce was still the Nationals’ leader but in terms of how the parliamentary machinations would operate, the interim parliamentary leader was NT Senator Nigel Scullion.
“Nigel is our most experienced member in the parliament - so he’ll serve as interim parliamentary leader until such time as a by-election is held,” he said.
“Nigel is a very experienced Senator from the Northern Territory - he sits in the National Party room.
“He is our most experienced, most senior person by virtue of the fact he is the leader of the Nationals in the Senate.
“So as a parliamentary team, a united parliamentary National Party team, we voted for these arrangements to take place yesterday.
“And we support Nigel in the role he’s undertaking, but just as we support Barnaby, because we want Barnaby back in the House, we want him back in there representing the people of New England.
“We think he is an outstanding champion of regional Australia, we think he’s an outstanding champion of the people of New England and I know he’s out there today seeking their endorsement.”
Mr Chester said Mr Joyce remained the most senior party official in the public eye and would continue as the Nationals leader despite not having a seat in parliament at the moment.
“A bit like the situation which developed in Queensland a few years ago when Campbell Newman was made the leader of the LNP before he was actually elected to Parliament,” he said.
“So you can have that role as representing that political party and that’s the role that Barnaby will play and continue to play as he fights a by-election in New England.”
Mr Chester said relations between the Nationals and the Liberals at the federal level were currently “rock solid” despite the citizenship issues.
“We have a very strong working relationship, particularly in this term of government,” he said.
“It’s been a very productive period.
“There have been a lot of projects, particularly in my own portfolio of infrastructure and transport, which have been delivered.
“It’s been a pretty rough 24 hours, I’ve got to acknowledge…but we’re getting on with the job.
“We accept responsibility for the fact that some of our colleagues were caught out under the constitutional issue regarding dual citizenship.
“Now, we respect the High Court’s decision, but I’ve got to acknowledge, from the perspective of Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, they had no awareness that they had fallen foul of that issue through birth, through their parents’ descent.
“And I guess it’s come as a hell of a shock to a lot of people around Australia that that is an issue that needs to be explored more carefully by those seeking political office into the future.
“So we accept our responsibility that we’ve caused this situation to develop and we respect the High Court’s decision.
“But I’m not critical of my colleagues in the sense that they simply weren’t aware that they had a problem.”
Statement from Fiona Nash
“I came into Parliament in 2004 after winning pre-selection for a NSW Nationals Senate spot, as a farmer and proud mother of two young boys.
“I did so to try to improve the lives of rural, regional and remote Australians, who despite producing the food, water, electricity, gas and exports which power this nation, often have reduced access to basics which city people take for granted like doctors, health care and tertiary education.
“I always aimed to help build rural, regional and remote communities our children and grandchildren either wanted to stay in or come back to.
“Through 12 years of hard work, I’m really proud of the things I’ve been able to achieve.
- · Pressing forward with a whole-of-government decentralisation program, because regional Australians deserve public sector jobs just as much as capital city people do, and there’s no good reason for most agencies to be in a capital city
- · Creating the half-billion dollar Building Better Regions Fund, which co-invests with regional communities to improve the lives of the people who live in those communities
- · Delivering the Mobile Black Spots Programme and the 765 mobile towers to rural Australia
- · Turning around the performance of the Sky Muster satellites. Sky Muster delivers broadband network to the last 3 per cent of Australians, even those living in the outback or on remote islands or in mountain ranges. Sky Muster data was doubled this month, almost free of charge to users. Stability is 87 per cent better this September than last September. It’s now a very good service.
- · Delivering fixed wireless broadband to 3 per cent of rural Australians, mostly outside towns. It’s a great technology and very popular.
- · Releasing the Regions 2030 statement, the first time a regional vision statement had been delivered in more than a decade
- · The appointment of Australia’s first Rural Health Commissioner to advocate for rural health and help identify the varied skills held by many rural doctors and reward them appropriately as “Rural Generalists”. The commissioner will also create a pathway to enable young doctors to become Rural Generalists
- · The National Ice Taskforce and historic $300 million investment in drug and alcohol treatment and education
- · Initiating an important independent report into organ donation, which changed the game in Australia, then driving towards important and life-saving reform including online registration for organ donors
- · The Indigenous Health Implementation Plan, which received tri-partisan support
- · Redirection of $50 million in GP subsidies to doctors in small country towns rather than those in cities as large as Cairns and Townsville (174,000 people).
- · Helping stop the takeover of GrainCorp by ADM.
“It has been an honour to serve the people of this nation.
“I thank all my colleagues who have been so supportive, not just recently but over many years; particularly of course my National Party colleagues.
“I have the most wonderful staff in the building, and I thank ‘Team Nash’ for their incredible loyalty and dedication to excellence.
“I thank my wonderful sons, Will and Henry, for all their support, and of whom I am so proud.
“I will continue to fight for rural, regional and remote Australians – no matter where my life path takes me.”