Nationals’ senator Matt Canavan is one of Australia’s most impressive younger parliamentarians. Born on the Queensland Gold Coast in December 1980, he grew up in the low socio-economic Brisbane suburb of Logan.
After a career in the Productivity Commission, Canavan worked as Barnaby Joyce’s chief of staff and was elected to the Senate in 2013, with his term beginning the following July.
He is one of the few senators who lives outside of the capital cities; his base is Rockhampton in central Queensland.
Most Australian elections are close, with the winning party getting a percentage point or two over its competitor after the distribution of preferences. This was the case in May last year when the Coalition received 51.53 per cent of the total vote to the Labor Party’s 48.47 per cent.
The performance of the major parties’ leaders is the most important factor in an election campaign. However, both the government and opposition parties have several key figures who play an important role in the campaign.
Last year many journalists — particularly at the ABC, Nine Entertainment newspapers and Network Ten — failed to recognise that Scott Morrison had a path to victory.
This should have been obvious to anyone who examined his itinerary and looked at the time the Prime Minister was spending in northern Tasmania, Queensland and western Sydney. That went hand-in-hand with a campaign to minimise possible losses in Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.
Election successes are never attributable to one or more individuals. However, in late 2018 and early last year several Coalition members and senators made a special impact in presenting the Morrison government’s agenda to the electorate.
Early on, important contributions were made by Liberal backbencher Tim Wilson (on Labor’s policy on franking credits), Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton plus the Prime Minister himself. Then there was Canavan.
In the 2016 election, the Malcolm Turnbull-led Liberal Party ran a disastrous campaign in which the Coalition lost 14 seats. At that election, the Nationals led by Joyce effectively saved the Turnbull government and made it possible for the Coalition to attain a narrow majority of one.
Morrison’s task last year was to hold as many of its existing seats as possible (two were lost to Labor in Victoria following an unfavourable redistribution of boundaries) and win back some of the seats that had been gained by Tony Abbott in 2013 and lost on Turnbull’s watch three years later.
In the event, the Morrison government won back from Labor the seats of Bass and Braddon in northern Tasmania, Lindsay in western Sydney along with Longman and Herbert in Queensland. It also won back Chisholm in Melbourne which had become independent.
Dutton’s strong stance on border security helped the Coalition in Queensland. He retained his own seat comfortably, despite an intense attempt to defeat him by a leftist GetUp operation. In Queensland the Liberal National Party is a combined entity whose members sit as Liberals or Nationals in the federal parliament.
It was Canavan who saw that the Nationals’ part of the Coalition should be doing more for its base. Hence his support for the coal industry in general and the proposed Adani Carmichael mine in particular. The Coalition received substantial swings to it in central and northern Queensland, making some of its once marginal seats seem safe now.
The Coalition’s victory could not have been achieved without its strong showing north of the Tweed River. In this state, the key players were Morrison, Dutton and Canavan — all of whom demonstrated an ability to get through to workers and their families in primary and manufacturing industries outside the capital cities.
In this sense, Canavan took up the role in the Coalition once undertaken by Joyce, even though he was not the leader.
Recently Fox News in the US interviewed a conservative Christian female voter who had once been a Democrat but had become a Donald Trump-supporting Republican. Asked about claims concerning the US President’s personal behaviour, she replied along these lines: “I didn’t vote for Trump to be my pastor.”
As Joyce has admitted as recently as this week, he has made some mistakes in his private life. Yet he remains one of the Nationals who is most able to distinguish his party from the Liberals and Labor and, as such, capable of holding off the challenge to the Nationals by groups on the right such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party along with organisations such as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in NSW.
This week a majority of members of the Nationals in Canberra rejected Joyce’s attempt to replace his leader, Michael McCormack. Canavan’s decision to step down from the cabinet in support of Joyce is a blow to his party and the Morrison government. McCormack and his new deputy, David Littleproud, do not have the charisma of a Joyce or a Canavan.
In an address to his colleagues after Joyce’s defeat, Canavan is reported to have said that the Nationals are the party of workers in coalmines, shipyards, factories and farms.
His aim is to protect jobs in rural and regional Australia. This tactic is effective against Labor, the Greens and parties to the right of the Nationals.
Canavan’s rapid promotion in politics is not all that different from former prime minister John Howard. Howard became a minister at 36 and treasurer at 38. Canavan became a minister and soon after a cabinet minister at 36. It is likely that he will return to a senior position in the Nationals.
Since the formation of the Nationals — initially termed the Country Party — the Coalition has done best when a strong Liberal Party leader (Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard) enjoyed the support of strong Nationals’ leaders (Arthur Fadden, Doug Anthony, Tim Fischer and John Anderson).
Currently, because Joyce and Canavan are not in the cabinet, the Nationals do not have as much clout as previously.
But Canavan’s approach, which succeeded in last year’s election, demonstrates that the party is still relevant.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.