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With diesel $2 a litre and a new leader, the Nationals could pivot on climate to focus on energy independence

You might look at the recent election result and conclude it was a reasonable one for the National Party. Its MPs held their seats despite several swings against them, and gained strength within the Coalition, after the Liberal Party suffered major losses.

But as the leadership change yesterday makes clear, the National Party has internal tensions. Its new leader David Littleproud must work out how to approach climate action, given the party’s regional heartland has tended to be sceptical of anything smacking of environmentalism.

Arguing that climate change isn’t happening or is insignificant is no longer viable, given farmers are on the front line in adapting to new climate regimes.

Littleproud has staked a claim to the middle ground. That’s understandable, given the north-south divide sometimes apparent in the parliamentary party room over personalities, differences in state party priorities and regional development strategies, including coal and gas.

Over the next three years, we can expect the Labor government to accelerate the shift to renewables and electric vehicles. Littleproud will have his work cut out for him in getting his party to accept the idea of an energy transition.

But it could be possible. The Nationals could reset and focus on new regional jobs in renewables and energy independence for farmers to avoid soaring diesel costs. Or they could keep preaching the word of coal. While electorally successful in central Queensland in 2019, this may have limited resonance come 2025.

new leader of nationals David Littleproud
Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie with newly elected Nationals leader David Littleproud and newly elected Nationals deputy leader Perin Davey. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Pro-coal Nationals may have to change tack

The Coalition won in 2019 in an upset, with the Nationals focusing on resources seats in Queensland and New South Wales. While the same rhetoric probably helped the Nationals keep such seats, it did not resonate more widely even in the coal electorate of Hunter they hoped to win from Labor.

Within the party, the coal crowd is vocal, but doesn’t represent all views. In Queensland, the Nationals tend to be pro-coal and support the big-personality style of former leader Barnaby Joyce. But southern MPs such as Victoria’s Darren Chester follow the Victorian party’s lead in focusing on agricultural and rural community development through infrastructure and business development – even though Chester lives in coal territory in Gippsland. Some NSW Nationals MPs are little affected by coal, while some further north have to deal with constituents who are angry over gas exploration on farmland.

Read more: New Nationals leader Littleproud says 'sensible centre' is where elections are won

The pro-coal push is also about ideological positioning, signalling that the Nationals stand for “traditional” nation-building industries and oppose the “impractical” ideas of the Greens.

It’s not just signalling though. Given the lack of broad plans for regional development in Australia, long-term coal jobs can be appealing. Modest business grants, road repairs and toilet blocks at election time are no substitute for major investment. It’s no wonder regional politicians want to secure these big investments.

So could we see the Nationals change course? Littleproud may have sniffed the winds of change, perhaps aided by some retirements from Queensland at this recent election. The Coalition has finally endorsed the concept of net-zero greenhouse emissions, with National support secured through major concessions from the Liberals.

Plenty of rural residents have no great love for extractive industries. Three years of Labor government will likely shift climate and energy policy signficantly. Private investment in coal-fired power stations will also fall.

It will be tricky to change course. If the Nationals move away from traditional resources and fossil fuels, what will they focus on? Could they pivot to focusing on renewables and directing cheap, clean energy into agricultural and rural communities? They would have support from the changing demographics of the bush, given so many city-dwellers have fled the city during COVID. But it would be a painful shift for party traditionalists.

We don’t have to talk about climate change to take action

One answer might be to avoid talking about climate change, and focus on energy transitions to cut soaring electricity and fuel costs. Diesel at A$2 a litre is hitting farmers hard. High fuel costs also make fertiliser more expensive.

If Littleproud is up for it, he could focus on energy independence for farmers, backing rural renewable co-operatives as a form of country self-reliance, and promote hydrogen and electric tractors and solar/battery-powered farms to save money and protect farmers from forces the Nationals cannot control, such as war in Europe.

Solar and cows on farm
Energy independence for farmers could be one way for the Nationals to refocus. Shutterstock

Some farmers are already powering pumps with solar energy and switching smaller vehicles to battery-electric. There’s a pathway emerging, but accelerating the rural transition requires sustained effort.

Read more: From field to store to plate, farmers are worried about climate change

When you live in a regional area, as I do, you come across three responses to climate change. One is outright scepticism. This has dropped over time, as the older generations have retired and climate events have intensified.

Most people fall into the second group, who know the climate has changed but don’t focus much on the cause. And then you have the front-foot brigade such as Farmers for Climate Action, who are researching and trialling different methods of plant breeding, changing water collection to catch what water is now available, and finding new ways to keep moisture in the soil and manage irrigation more smartly.

In short, many farmers are already adapting to climate change, whether they use that name or not. They have to. They’re cropping more flexibly. Wine growers are moving around the country, chasing specific climatic conditions. No matter what they say publicly, they’re adapting.

Even if Littleproud is forced to double down on support for coal, change will soon be forced on him. Environmental tariffs from major trading partners such as the European Union could put in place a carbon “tax” on our exports and those of other nations where carbon pollution is not priced.

That will hurt farmers, who will see their exports cost more and sell less. This poses a real predicament for the Nationals. How will they balance coal, agriculture and the cost of living and farming in rural Australia?

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