Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Demystifying the Coalition

  • 02 March 2018


The downfall of Barnaby Joyce and his replacement by Michael McCormack from Wagga Wagga as Nationals leader shows once again that maintaining the Liberal-National coalition has a considerable impact on the nation, and thus it deserves greater attention and transparency. Instead it is clouded in secrecy and often taken for granted.

The two parties are usually described as senior and junior partners, though the arrangement is sometimes described as a marriage, even if it is a marriage of convenience in which there are no alternative suitors.

But the term marriage has never fully captured the flavour of the relationship between the Liberals and the Nationals. The Coalition is a strictly business relationship struck between two exceptionally hard-headed organisations whose business is politics and whose aim is election victory and then government.

On both sides there is suspicion and condescension. Heaven knows how the Liberal National Party works harmoniously in Queensland.

What brings the parties together is the same thing as in any business deal. Each side has something that the other wants and which can only be achieved by working together. The Liberals need the Nationals to form a parliamentary majority. There are no other realistic options. The Nationals need the Liberals to gain entrée to government. The Liberals won't risk minority government by standing alone, while the Nationals won't risk losing the perquisites of office. They want to be inside the tent.

This Coalition is only maintained by stringent non-competition rules for sitting members for the House of Representatives and joint tickets for the Senate.

Even then the precise governing contract is negotiated in private between the two leaders whenever a government is formed or whenever a party leader changes. This happened when Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in 2015 and again in 2016 after the federal election. The Nationals have always driven a hard bargain. It is unclear though whether any alterations have been made on this occasion or whether discussions between Turnbull and McCormack have been restricted to personalities and the distribution of ministerial portfolios.


"Turnbull will be eager to swap a turbulent relationship with the hard-driving, media-hungry and unpredictable Joyce for an easier one with McCormack."


The public aspects of the bargain are the division of portfolios according to the number of seats each party holds and the gift of the deputy prime minister's position to the Nationals leader.

McCormack's election and subsequent promotion reminds us what a tremendous gift that is. A virtual non-entity is