Ryan exit a blow, but Nats’ recruitment shows Libs the way

The surprise decision by Steph Ryan, deputy leader of the Victorian Nationals, to prematurely end her political career has turned the spotlight on the party and its role within the Victorian Coalition.

As the side dish to the Liberal Party main course, the Coalition’s faint ambition to win November’s state election in large part depends on the Nats securing key regional electorates.

Victorian Nationals deputy leader Steph Ryan has announced she is quitting politics.Credit:Luis Ascui

“Residual regional resentment” over COVID-19 restrictions has left the premier and his ALP government vulnerable in those parts of the state that despite seeing very little COVID, experienced massive disruption and economic loss.

There is little evidence that the Liberals can capitalise on the “triple R” surge, but the Nationals may do so. The grassroots reality is that they are better connected to their communities, and punch above their weight on policy and influence. They have also recruited some high-powered local talent as candidates.

The great unknown is what political impact, if any, will result from the significant population shifts triggered by the pandemic. What will it mean in those electorates where significant urban drift has shaken up the demography? Nobody knows.

We will soon see if the Nationals have learnt the lessons from the orange and teal independent movements, which, in case a reminder is needed, started in regional Victoria with Cathy McGowan.

Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie.Credit:James Brickwood

Ryan entered politics through the typical path of serving an apprenticeship as media adviser to the highly effective former deputy premier Peter Ryan (no relation). She has been the counterpoint to perceptions that the Nationals were just relics, made up of stale pale males with no interests other than pork barrels and road and bridge building.

Learning the ropes through the years of the Baillieu and Napthine governments, she successfully morphed from spin doctor to parliamentarian.

While firm in her pursuit of her party’s agenda, she has eschewed the aggression of some Nats during the Barnaby Joyce era. Contrast and compare Steph Ryan with her more strident and combative colleague Senator Bridget McKenzie – while emerging from the same party, the two could not be more different in substance and style.

Ryan was set to become Nationals leader if the Coalition lost the November state election. In the unlikely (but not impossible) event the Coalition were to win power later this year, she would have become a senior minister in a Guy government and then party leader and deputy premier before the 2026 election. Instead, she has made the perfectly sensible decision to elevate her children and family interests ahead of her ambition.

“It is not unreasonable to want to be able to tuck your child into bed at night and to be home sometimes on weekends, but politics is relentless,” said retiring Nationals MP Steph Ryan.Credit:Illustration: Matt Davidson

It is extremely rare for someone schooled in the bear pit of politics to choose to walk away so young. On the ALP side, former health minister Jill Hennessy has done the same thing.

Both have openly admitted the toll politics took on their families was unsustainable. As Ryan said: “It is not unreasonable to want to be able to tuck your child into bed at night and to be home sometimes on weekends, but politics is relentless.”

The opposition can ill afford to lose any women, scarce on their frontbench as they are, let alone someone with Ryan’s work ethic and cut-through. The family pressures – shrugged off as the price to pay by most male politicians – are compounded by the challenges for rural parliamentarians with the inevitable long travel times and distances to cover.

For those reasons, rural voters and their electorates are heavily weighted. At the 2018 election, only 167,000 votes, or less than 5 per cent, won the Nationals six seats in the lower house of state parliament.

With more than twice as many votes – 376,000 votes or 10 per cent – the Greens won only three seats in the lower house. Every vote is equal, but some votes are more equal than others.

The Nationals now confront a succession void. There were approaches last year to Gippsland federal politician Darren Chester to switch to Victorian politics. His frustration with the party’s direction under now deposed federal leader Barnaby Joyce was palpable, but he has recommitted to the national parliament despite the grim outlook his team is facing.

Danny O’Brien, not even a shadow minister, is mentioned as a possible new state deputy leader. He will have his work cut out for him to establish a profile beyond the bush.

The Nationals have recruited some formidable talent for winnable seats in the state election. Ryan’s example has inspired other rural women to throw their Akubra’s into the ring.

Watch out for former Shepparton mayor Kim O’Keeffe, a successful local businesswoman. The convention that the Coalition partners do not challenge each other does not apply if there is a vacancy, so Shepparton may see a four-cornered contest if the Voices group of local independents decide to contest as well.

Jade Benham, the former mayor of Swan Hill, will be the National candidate running in Mildura, while Gail Broad is another woman emerging from the Nationals’ talent search to contest for the Northern Region in the upper house.

As well as lifting female representation, the Nationals were also instrumental in bringing a bipartisan approach to the Andrews government’s groundbreaking treaty process.

Those recalcitrants in the Liberal ranks were told in no uncertain terms that the Nationals – who unlike Liberals actually represent significant numbers of Victorian First Nations voters – required their support and would not tolerate wedge politics on this sensitive issue. Nationals leader Peter Walsh deserves full credit for removing the Liberal roadblock from this nation-leading initiative.

The Nationals have shown the Liberals that it is possible to be a capital-C conservative party but still recruit and mentor high-profile women and support a treaty. Will Peter Dutton notice?

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