This is not news to anyone, but the rolling crises of this long anxious summer have highlighted the problem, and the push for a publicly funded, coal-fired power station is a neat illustration of Nationals’ dedication to self-interest.

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Canavan and fellow Queensland MP George Christensen want their power station despite the fact that North Queensland is already awash with power, despite the fact that power from new renewables is already cheaper than that generated by new coal-fired power plants, despite the fact that the main focus of the rest of the industry is on how to close down such plants rather than on building new ones, despite the fact that no bank will fund such a project and no insurer will insure one.

Were all this not enough reason for the two men to abandon their campaign – and it should be – there is also the fact that if Australia is going to join the rest of the world in seriously tackling climate change the last thing we should be doing is building new coal-fired power stations as tools with which to lever open vast new coal basins.

Yet as the east coast sweltered and burned the two men have hammered away. “Those politicking off the bushfires disgust me,” wrote Christensen on January 10. “The rot being spewed by the left and many in the media is wrong and it’s disrespectful to those who’ve lost everything.”

He attached a link to a video by the English conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, an associate of the widely reviled American far-right fantasist Alex Jones. In it, Watson declares that the notion that climate change caused or exacerbated Australia’s bushfires to be “total bullshit” and says their “primary cause” was arson.

The Nationals’ interest … Deputy leader Bridget McKenzie, leader Michael McCormack and Resources Minister Matt Canavan. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Nationals rhetoric further south has been similarly inflammatory. “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance – they need help, they need shelter,” the party’s federal leader, Michael McCormack, told the ABC in early November, by which time fires in NSW had already killed three people. “They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”

Pushed on whether or not this was a reasonable description of the people – onlookers and experts alike – who were voicing concern about the hideous scope of the crisis and the role of climate change, McCormack wouldn’t take a backward step, insisting he would stick to “calling out” these “raving inner-city lunatics” for trying to politicise the fires.

You’d think that as Deputy Prime Minister – indeed, as acting PM for that period during which his boss had turtled off to Hawaii – he might speak with a little more respect for those people he was charged to lead in the midst of a natural disaster.

Trudy Beck is a Wagga Wagga general practitioner who is so horrified by the impact of the drought and fires on the mental and respiratory health of her patients that she is one of a group of locals who spend every Friday afternoon outside McCormack’s electoral office in peaceful protest to support climate change action. She says many found his language that day insulting.

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McCormack made his comments back in early November, before summer had even technically begun, though two months after the season’s first fires had hit the state’s north coast. By then the fires burned a thousand-odd homes. When I started writing this column, 29 people were dead. Now the toll is 32.

So far the Nationals’ line on carbon and climate has hardly changed, echoed by the right of the Liberal Party and by the Prime Minister himself – if you care to parse his language and note how often he speaks of hazard-reduction burning.

In the days that followed McCormack’s remarks, Barnaby Joyce said he would not criticise two of the dead even though he imagined they voted for the Greens. On Christmas Eve he followed up with a baffling video posted on Twitter in which he showed himself bathed in sweat as he fed his cows, pausing only to scowl at the sky and mutter darkly about the higher power that controlled the weather.

Cracks have begun to show between the Nats’ hard line and parts of the Coalition. On Thursday the Victorian Liberal Opposition Leader called for the federal government to adopt long-term emissions reduction targets, while the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, said earlier in the week that several figures in federal cabinet wanted more action. This earned him an ugly rebuke from the PM, who said: “Matt Kean doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he doesn’t know what’s going on in the federal cabinet [and] most of the federal cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.”

The response by Kean’s NSW Nationals’ colleagues was even more furious. Michael Johnsen, the NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture and Resources, told The Australian that Kean’s portfolio should be given to a “country MP” who isn’t interested in trying to “shore up city votes”.

“Matt Kean is trying to play the climate change hero when all he does is make political decisions based on city left voters opinions. If we are to address climate change issues, let’s manage the land properly and have energy sources that are reliable and affordable that won’t send families and businesses broke.”

John Barilaro, the NSW Nats leader and Deputy Premier – he appears to have forgotten his plan to abandon that title – also piled on, declaring Kean to be playing politics.

There is a bit to unpack here. Firstly, most Australians would be pretty chuffed to discover that they had a “climate change hero” in their midst. An Ipsos poll published this week showed the environment has leapt to the top of the list of our biggest concerns, leapfrogging cost of living, healthcare and the economy. Secondly, it makes perfect sense that Kean is considering the politics of the crisis. Bushfires and climate change are political problems and Kean is a politician.

In fact, the Nationals fully understand the politics of the situation, and this explains their incendiary rhetoric. In NSW the party is spilling votes to Greens on the north coast and Pauline Hanson and the Shooters elsewhere. Formerly die-hard Nats voters are growing suspicious that the party now represents big corporate interests rather than family farmers and are appalled at its perceived mishandling of drought and water policy.

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This perception was reinforced in an awkward interview with Waleed Aly in March last year, during which McCormack was unable to name a single issue on which his party had sided with farmers over miners.

“I have voted Nationals all my life,” Chris Brooks, chairman of the Southern Riverina Irrigators group which represents 1800 irrigators in the region, told me around the same time. “But even lifetime supporters need water to stay rusted on, and they took all our f—ing water.”

Barilaro, McCormack and Joyce are well aware of the growing electoral threat and have become adept at deploying angry rhetoric to shore up their personal brands in its face. This is the same reason the FNQ Nats indulge in performative coal-fondling.

Morrison is happy to indulge them because he can’t govern without them.

For a time there was a hope that Bridget McKenzie – at the time of writing still a federal minister – might be able to show a more modern face of the National Party, one less angry, more accepting of science, more willing to advocate for industries other than coal.

Hewson believes the sports rorts affair that is now undoing her career is just another version of the Nationals’ general malaise – its demand for power and influence and treasure out of step with its electoral clout. She viewed the $100 million sports grant program she oversaw as a slush fund to be used in her party’s political interest. She could not distinguish between the Nationals’ interest and the national interest.

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