The former head of the New South Wales Young Nationals and chair of its women’s council has resigned from the party joining a growing list of high-profile members to quit in the wake of the koala policy saga.
Jess Price-Purnell, an almost decade-long member of the Nationals, has left, describing the threat by John Barilaro to blow up the Coalition government over the koala policy saga “despicable”.
It comes as the NSW Coalition held its first joint party room meeting since Barilaro was forced to back down over his threat to pull the Nationals out of the Coalition after the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, issued an ultimatum to either support the policy or resign from the ministry.
Barilaro went on mental health leave on Friday following a torrid fortnight, and senior Liberal Party MPs who have been furious at his handling of the issue told Guardian Australia there was a sense of relief that he was not present at the meeting.
The koala policy saga has also triggered deep divisions within the Nationals.
On Sunday north-coast MP Leslie Williams announced she had left to join the Liberals, while former party leader and deputy premier Troy Grant has also resigned. The party’s former deputy leader and NSW upper house MP Niall Blair has also not renewed his membership.
Price-Purnell, who previously led a push from its youth wing to adopt a national emissions trading scheme, told Guardian Australia she was effectively “pushed” from the party after the Nationals’ powerful central committee threatened to expel her for writing an opinion piece in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph criticising Barilaro for his handling of the issue.
She told Guardian Australia that after writing the opinion piece the committee passed a motion calling for her to show cause for why she shouldn’t be expelled. Instead, she resigned.
“I joined the party a decade ago basically because of its lack of ideology: it was a party of geography not ideology and it didn’t really matter if you had a supposedly conservative idea or a supposedly progressive one, as long as the outcome was the right thing for regional Australia,” she said.
“But over the past few years there does seem to have been more of a swing to being a conservative party and I didn’t think that was what we should be standing for.”
She told Guardian Australia the beginning of her disillusionment with the party’s direction dated back to 2018, when the Nationals membership was infamously infiltrated by members of Australia’s alt-right.
“That was really the beginning,” she said. “It was the tip of the iceberg for me.”
Price-Purnell was the chair of a party conference where some of those members moved policy motions pushing for strict controls on migrants who were not from “culturally appropriate nations” and made arguments against extra funding for sexual assault counsellors.
She spoke out against the infiltration at the time, publicly saying the party was “going down a path that we shouldn’t have been in a business going down”.
The Nationals formally dismissed a number of members associated with the far-right after the revelations, but Price-Purnell told Guardian Australia she did not feel the party had adequately grappled with the significance of the infiltration.
She said she was privately chastised by members of the party’s leadership for speaking publicly at the time, and accused the Nationals of failing to properly deal with the issue.
“Some of the motions that were discussed at that conference in particular were downright disgusting,” she said.
“Most of the members who were part of the branch stacking were part of quite well- known alt-right organisations [and] I don’t think the significance of it was ever really properly acknowledged.
“The alt-right are scary and we’ve seen the outcome of what membership of those sorts of groups can do and what can happen when they gain influence. It was a frightening time. In particular at that conference. I’ve always taken my kids to Nats events and felt welcome [but] even I as the chair felt uncomfortable having my children there. I did not feel safe, and I don’t think those issues were dealt with properly.”
Like Williams, Price-Purnell is from the NSW north coast, an area where the Nationals have faced increased competition for votes from the Greens. In the opinion piece published last Saturday, she said claims by the party’s leadership that the new koala policy would cost jobs was “almost laughable”.
“As a Nat, I was under the impression that delivering local solutions for local problems was our imprimatur, not crying wolf every time there is disagreement with the Liberal party and threatening to throw our toys out of the cot,” she wrote in the piece.
“This is all starting to feel like fabricated drama … I didn’t vote for public spats and I doubt many other people did either.”
While she said she couldn’t speak for other members, Price-Purnell described Barilaro’s antics as “quite frankly despicable”.
“In a Westminster system you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” she said.
“I found it really disappointing to hear them saying we’re not going to support the government but we’re going to keep our jobs as ministers. It seems there have been these constant hollow threats of ‘I’m going to quit if I don’t get my way’. When the world is so topsy turvy right now we need leaders to lead.”