A former federal president of the Nationals, Christine Ferguson, has issued a call to arms to young women in the party, saying they need to speak up about their bad experiences to drive cultural change, while also criticising the party for losing touch with its grassroots members.
Ferguson, a widely respected figure in the party who has served as both federal and New South Wales president, also raised concern that the Nationals were not doing enough to foster young talent, saying she was worried the party was not always choosing its “brightest and best” for public office.
The intervention comes amid heated discussion within the Nationals about the future direction of the party after the reinstatement of Barnaby Joyce as leader, the preselection of former state director Ross Cadell for a plum Senate position in NSW, and after the Queensland senator Matt Canavan said farmers were no longer a core constituency of the Nationals.
Ferguson, one of six Nationals trustees who rarely comments publicly on party matters, said she was speaking out because of concern the party was “losing its way” after representing regional communities for more than 100 years.
She said she particularly wanted young rural women to feel valued by the party and said cultural change would only be achieved if they spoke up about their bad experiences.
“There are a lot of really good young women who have had bad experiences within the party organisation and I have tried to encourage them to stay within the party, but you can only get knocked down so often. If you get knocked down once or twice you can pop back up again, but it’s not easy,” Ferguson said.
“Things have changed from 40 years ago, no one really worried about it then and we put up with it, but times have changed and women do now have the opportunity to make a statement and I think they should, and I would encourage them to do so.
“If you don’t speak out then no one knows what is going on and you can’t help. We won’t be able to fix it if we don’t know about it.
“We have to encourage these smart, good, young women who are really keen to get involved in a political party, and there are some good men as well, we must encourage the young ones. We need to be nurturing all of these young people and I am not sure we are doing that and that is very disappointing to me.”
She also said that the “recycling” of Joyce as leader, which sparked criticism from senior Nationals and rural women across the country, may lead to more women leaving the party, with some polling showing that would be the case.
“That is the decision the federal party made, which I can’t change, and only time will tell, but I am not sure about recycling leaders in any position.”
While not commenting directly on the controversial preselection of the party’s former NSW director Ross Cadell, who won the coveted second spot on the joint Coalition Senate ticket despite an application of an apprehended violence order made against him, Ferguson said the party also needed to choose its parliamentary representatives carefully.
“I don’t think we are considering the future of the party as much as we should with the people we are preselecting for positions, and I mean that across the board,” Ferguson said.
“Our history has always been that our local people nine times out of 10 get the preselections right, and I think sometimes we are tending to stray from that a little bit, and that worries me.
“And I really do believe that if we don’t embrace those smart and talented people in our party, we are going to lose them.”
Cadell, who as state director oversaw the investigation into a sexual harassment claim made against Joyce, narrowly beat former leader John Anderson to take out the Nationals top Senate spot, guaranteeing him at least six years in the upper house.
The AVO application was withdrawn and Cadell has denied any wrongdoing, telling Guardian Australia: “I was subject to an application that was withdrawn. I am not going to relive any part of that. A separation is painful for everyone, it is over, nothing came from that, and that is all I can say.”
Joyce has consistently denied the sexual harassment allegation against him. It resulted in an inconclusive investigation by the NSW division.
While a small group of party figures was made aware of the AVO application in Cadell’s past, the Nationals members who voted on the Senate ticket were not.
Ferguson said she was concerned about the crossover of the party’s parliamentary and administrative wings in NSW, saying the relationship had become “murky”, and should remain clearly demarcated.
“In NSW that is merging and I am very unhappy about that. I am not saying the executive is not doing the right thing, but it is getting very murky.
“I don’t think the politicians should have too much say in the administration of the party, and I am very sad about what is happening in NSW. I think it is getting too close, and it is dangerous.”
Ferguson also took a veiled swipe at Canavan, one of Joyce’s key allies, for focusing on the mining sector and suggesting that farmers were no longer the party’s core constituency.
“Matt is representing Queensland, but we are a big party, we represent everyone across Australia, and to me that is straying a little bit away from our core principles,” she said.
“I tend to feel that our party as a whole is losing its way a bit. It’s not focusing on policies which represent the people that have put us there for a 100 years – people from regional and rural communities – and they have different things that concern them.
“I think we are straying a little bit from the areas where we should be concentrated on and tend to be a little bit too populist.”