John Clarke is wielding an enormous knife over a leg of lamb when we ask whether the butcher can name his federal MP.
After a pause and a think, Clarke is stumped. “Better ask Google,” he replies.
The answer is Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader who has held the New South Wales seat of Riverina for nine years.
“Never seen him around,” Clarke says. “Never see any Nats around here.”
Friend and business partner Mick Cormican stops trimming fat from lamb shanks to chime in.
“I’ve been voting Nats for 22 years and have never seen a National Party MP!”
The duo’s Flint Street Butchery is a small shop on the outskirts of the NSW town of Forbes, at the northern end of McCormack’s regional electorate. McCormack does visit sometimes – every month or so some Nationals branch members come to town, sit out the back of the Vandenberg Hotel and talk politics – but some locals accuse the Deputy Prime Minister of doing little more than that.
“He does come up this way a bit but he just flash-visits,” Vandenberg Hotel publican Grant Clifton says. “He’ll come up for a particular thing and he’ll be gone. Whereas Phil Donato, he’s just around.”
Over the past few years, Forbes has been at the epicentre of an extraordinary shift in country politics. At the 2015 state election, the 8000-strong town favoured The Nationals on a two-party-preferred basis by more than 70 per cent. But at last week’s state poll, two-thirds chose Donato – a straight-talking Shooters, Fishers and Farmers MP who turned to politics after a career as a police prosecutor.
Five weeks out from the federal election, the combination of a prolonged drought, chaos and mass fish kills in the Murray-Darling basin, leadership infighting and the remarkable insurgency by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers has left some in The Nationals wondering whether this is the beginning of the end. For the first time in a long time, the party is facing the threat of genuine competition.
Donato, who last Saturday easily retained the state seat of Orange – a former Nationals stronghold – says the Nationals’ woes may have started with the drought but have morphed into a broader debate on whether the old guard has regional Australia’s best interests at heart.
“The government were very slow to respond to the drought and farmers were saying it was too little, too late,” Donato says.
“But I was door-knocking out in Forbes a couple of months ago and people were just, whether it was state or federal, saying the National Party brand is damaged.”
For the Nationals, 2018 started with Barnaby Joyce having an affair and then a child with staffer Vikki Campion, and ended with an equally damaging scandal involving former frontbencher Andrew Broad, who met an online “sugar baby” during a fateful trip to Hong Kong and was forced to resign.
Since his demise, Joyce has issued regular public and private reminders that he wishes to one day return as party leader but stresses he wouldn’t launch the challenge himself.
“Barnaby: just close your mouth,” Donato says. “Sit down quietly on the backbench. We don’t need your distractions.”
Many of Joyce’s Canberra colleagues agree.
“Barnaby’s been less than helpful,” says Mark Coulton, the federal Nationals MP who represents Parkes, a vast electorate covering more than half of NSW.
“We’re portrayed as a bit of a soap opera. I think that’ll have an impact. People want to be able to trust their MPs, they want to feel confident that whoever we vote for is there for us. It’s not about doing interviews on Sky News.
“I think the potential is there for us to lose some seats.”
McCormack is eager to spend as little time as possible on the Joyce problem.
“I don’t really care what’s read between the lines at the [Nine] papers,” he bristles when asked about Joyce’s comeback campaign. “It’s up to other MPs to decide how their actions are going to affect voter actions. If they want to stir the pot that’s entirely a matter for them.”
The highly respected former Nationals leader, Tim Fischer, stopped short of criticising Joyce.
“I’ll give Barnaby the benefit of the doubt that at the end of the day he wants to retain his seat and he wants to see the Coalition back in government,” Fischer says.
“I enjoyed reading his book he put out last year … he should do more writing.”
As things stand, The Nationals have a comfortable head start ahead of the May election. Of their 15 lower house seats, six sit on margins greater than 10 points and six have never been lost by the party. And while the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers claimed three state seats from The Nationals at Saturday’s election, other parts of the state recorded small swings towards Nationals candidates.
“Country seats are always horses for courses,” Fischer says. “And the drought caused a great brittleness in the support of the National Party – people were lashing out in all directions.”
The Nationals must navigate a “complex tapestry” of constituent concerns over the next five weeks, and to do so, Fischer says, they must have a near- perfect week when Parliament resumes on Tuesday for the federal budget.
“The situation can be recovered,” the former leader insists. “What we will need now is a disciplined budget week and good campaign launch.”
Budget and campaign launch pending, The Nationals face battles on several key fronts going into the make-or-break election.
Firstly, in the north: as polls stand, three Nationals members in Queensland’s Liberal National Party – Michelle Landry, Ken O’Dowd and George Christensen – are on track to be swept from their seats.
Secondly, in the south there are three federal Nationals whose electorates cover areas which were lost by their state counterparts last weekend. Those three – McCormack, Coulton and Andrew Gee – will face federal Shooters, Fishers and Farmers challengers come May.
And while the threat against The Nationals is far from universal – most with seats in northern NSW and regional Victoria are all but certain to keep them – the pushback has particular strength in McCormack’s heartland.
But can the Shooters leverage their state popularity to win a federal seat?
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Donato says. “People are looking for that alternative, for someone who doesn’t have to toe the Liberal Party line and who can stand up and speak out freely.”
However a win remains the most unlikely scenario. The Shooters are yet to preselect candidates for federal contests, their bank account is all but empty in the wake of the state election, and nobody is sure how many voters who vented their anger at the ballot box last Saturday will get out their baseball bats again when the nation goes to the polls in May.
Independents present another electoral threat to The Nationals. The MP who once propped up the Gillard minority government, Rob Oakeshott, will take advantage of sitting member Luke Hartsuyker’s retirement to likely claim Cowper on the NSW north coast. And while it looks like Tony Windsor will not challenge Joyce in New England next month, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers are preparing to run a candidate against the former Nationals leader.
The Nationals worst-case election scenario is losing half a dozen seats, which would consign them to a rump of fewer than 10 members of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1943.
Worryingly for McCormack, there are rumours an independent candidate is set to challenge him in Riverina, backed by wealthy Australian businessman Dick Smith.
“I’ve always been happy to face the music,” McCormack says. “We live in a democracy and if people want to put their hand up for Parliament then that’s good.
“But I don’t give in. I get up at five o’clock every morning and go to bed at midnight every day. No one fights fiercer for regional Australia than I do.”
Joyce reckons it’s not a matter of giving in, but changing tack. In the wake of the loss of Nationals seats in NSW, he was quick to frame the outcome as the consequence of lazy, city-oriented messaging.
“It’s the heartland that has come out and said we’ve got some issues that we need to address,” he explained. “We’ve got to stop taking our political advice from the ABC, that will take you nowhere but to opposition.
“[We have to] make sure that we go and reconnect with the people of Barwon and reconnect with the people of Murray and take our medicine and win them back.”
Donato thinks that’s not good enough and believes the drought excuse doesn’t wash: “The bush has been crying out for a viable alternative for a long time.”
For those in The Nationals’ heartland, this federal election is a chance to vent their anger. McCormack knows the first step is acknowledging that regional voters are hurting. What he disagrees with is how culpable the party is.
“In some areas for seven or eight years it hasn’t rained, and when you have these prolonged dry spells people look to apportion blame,” he says. “At the end of the day, we can’t make it rain.”
Max is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.