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It's goodbye to the Nationals unless they become a genuine country party

20 February 2017

To win back its dwindling constituency, the Nationals would need to adopt some of the social justice policies espoused by Labor, writes Associate Professor Michael Hogan in The Guardian.

Cows in a paddock

One of the features of modern politics in the age of Brexit and Trump is the collapse of popular support for major political parties. The Liberals and Labor both know they are in trouble but are unwilling to face some of the issues. Meanwhile, the National party is idly standing by while its support base disappears.

The first modern shock for the Nationals was the annihilation of the party in the Northern Territory elections last year. After winning 16 seats and a clear majority at the 2012 election, the Country Liberal Party collapsed to not only lose government but to retain only two seats (in a legislative assembly of 25 members) at the 2016 election. In future elections the way back will be extremely difficult, as independents, the Shooters and Fishers Party, and One Nation will almost certainly be competing for the votes of traditional CLP supporters.

The rise of One Nation

In Queensland, where the Nationals are also the dominant party in an alliance with the Liberals, the LNP is currently in opposition, but is looking at a potentially disastrous result in elections due within the next 12 months – probably this year. The reason is the popularity of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. A number of current and past LNP members have announced that they will be standing as candidates for One Nation, rather than the LNP.

Currently 15 members of the parliament are present or former members of One Nation, or its brief incarnation as the City Country Alliance, although many now sit as independents. With Steve Dickson, a former minister in the Campbell Newman government, defecting to One Nation in January this year the LNP already fears copycat defections. The Nationals face complete collapse.

In New South Wales the National party is still reeling from the Orange by-election defeat in November last year. In one of their safest seats a swing of nearly 22% saw the Nationals candidate defeated by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, which thus added a lower house member to its upper house representation.

That caused a leadership change for the NSW Nationals, and the promise of a tougher stand on rural issues within the Coalition. Once One Nation gains official recognition as a political party in NSW, it will choose candidates with a local base and wage war against the sitting Nationals. There are no safe seats for the Nationals.

In other states, and at a federal level, One Nation is sending shivers of fear among Nationals MPs looking towards coming elections. However, One Nation is more a symptom than a long term challenge to the Nationals. One would not want to bet on the likelihood of Pauline Hanson’s party surviving at strength even in the medium term, considering the fractious nature of right wing parties as evidenced by Pauline’s previous tilt at politics – or, more recently, the complete implosion of the Clive Palmer party.

The party has survived this long almost entirely on the myth that the Nationals are the only ones defending the countryside against all those nasty people in the city.
Associate Professor Michael Hogan

City versus Country

The real problem is that the National Party no longer provides adequate representation for rural interests, and its electorate is beginning to realise that.

The decline of the Nationals is not new. The capture of their seats by strong independents such as Tony Windsor (Tamworth, NSW, and New England, federal) and the defection of people like Rob Oakeshott (Lyne, federal) and Bob Katter (Flinders, Qld, and Kennedy, federal) have indicated serious problems in the country. These are only a few among many at state and federal level.

Although emerging from the conservative side of politics after the Great War, the Country Party was quite ambivalent about its relationship with the Nationals/United Australia Party/Liberals. In South Australia they reunited into one party, called the Liberal Country League – a pattern followed much later in Queensland and the Northern Territory. Otherwise the Country Party was usually in a testy relationship with the other conservative party – sometimes in coalition, but often rebelling against their allies. In Victoria, for example, from 1935 until 1943 a Country Party ministry survived in minority government with the support of the ALP, and opposed by the UAP.

The period of Country Party insistence on its independence declined after the Second World War, and came to a full stop when the UK joined Europe and threatened the traditional market for rural produce. The Country Party effectively became the rural branch of the Liberal Party. The change of status was reflected a few years later with a change of name; in the 1970s the federal party and most state branches became the National Party. Many old Country Party members were appalled at the change – largely engineered by Queensland’s Joh Bjelke Petersen to help his 1980s tilt at federal political leadership.

The constituency for the new National Party is agribusiness and mining. The interests of family farmers, along with small and large country towns, are rarely considered except for symbolic issues such as defence of gun ownership and resistance to liberalisation of marriage laws.

The party has survived this long almost entirely on the myth that the Nationals are the only ones defending the countryside against all those nasty people in the city. It is now becoming clear to a large proportion of rural voters that this is a myth.

Successive Coalition governments at federal and state level have presided over policies that have seen small country towns lose their banks and post offices, their cottage hospitals, their trains, their secondary schools and supermarkets, along with a sense of community and pride. Nothing has been done to tackle youth unemployment in rural districts, or the high rate of suicides, or drug use.

Nationals MPs have done little to resist this trend, nor to provide some compensation, because to do so might offend their Coalition partners. The buzz word for the old Country Party – decentralisation – has virtually disappeared from its vocabulary.

Is it goodbye?

A return to a genuine country party is possible, but to win back its constituency it would need to adopt some of the social justice policies espoused by Labor, (for people in country towns) as well as some environmental policies championed by the Greens (for the farmers).

Neither trend would please the Liberals, especially the modern version in thrall to the economic rationalists of its right wing. And with a lightweight as leader of the federal Nationals that is not going to happen any time soon.

Otherwise, it is goodbye to the Nationals. If the Liberals make preference deals with One Nation instead of the Nationals, as in Western Australia, it will be sooner rather than later.

Dr Michael Hogan is an honorary associate professor in the Department of Government and International Relations. This article originally appeared on The Guardian.

Annika Dean

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)