CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
National Party and the Anderson legacy
, August 9, 2003
It seems that sooner or later there will be a changing of the guard at the top of the federal National Party with rising speculation that John Anderson will call it quits.
Standing in his way at the moment is the Prime Minister himself who has reportedly worked overtime to convince Mr Anderson to hang in there just a little longer.
Not standing in his way is Mr Anderson's ambitious deputy and Trade Minister Mark Vaile who has already declared that he is ready and willing to step into the Deputy Prime Minister's shoes.Factors
Mr Howard's good working relationship with his deputy, a desire for ministerial continuity, combined with a fear of a precipitative exit of able senior and experienced ministers, coupled with an aversion to by-elections, were all factors in the PM's plea for Mr Anderson to stay.
There has been talk for some time that, after seven gruelling years of government - and disappointing results in the recent NSW state elections - Mr Anderson has wanted to quit federal politics to pursue a real life.
Most reports have suggested he wants to return to his Narrabri farm and family, while one indicated that Mr Anderson, who is known for his strong Christian faith, wanted to become an Anglican minister.
There are even some critics who say Mr Anderson has never wanted to be in politics in the first place.
This may be going too far, but it is true that Mr Anderson is a politician who has perservered in politics out of a sense of public duty and necessity for the common good rather than a love of power for power's sake or for the cut-and-thrust of "the game".
This is not to say Mr Anderson has no ideology, far from it. His ideology has been to follow the Treasury line carefully, assiduously and, most of all, without question.
In doing so, Mr Anderson has pursued a free-market, economic rationalist, pro-national competition policy harder than most of his Liberal coalition colleagues would have dared to.
But Mr Anderson appears to have done all this without understanding the consequences to his party which includes the blurring of its identity with the Liberal Party, making the Nationals vulnerable to independents, and forcing many former supporters to question the party's place in contemporary Australian politics.
In brutal political terms, the National Party has marked time, possibly going backwards under Mr Anderson's leadership as he has used up the its political capital to run the Treasury agenda.
Victoria is all but gone, Queensland is in serious trouble, which leaves only New South Wales as the last bastion of National Party strength where conservative instincts still prevail.
Even there Tim Fischer's old seat of Farrer has tipped over to the Liberals under Mr Anderson's stewardship, while Ian Sinclair's once impregnable seat of New England has gone to independent Tony Windsor.Bolder approach
In his defence, since the last election Mr Anderson has been bolder and less constrained, speaking his mind on key social issues including opposition to embryonic stem cell research and to same sex marriage as is now law in Canada.
More recently, he has tipped over the boss of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority - a body which has been a constant source of strife for the Howard Government and the aviation industry at large.
Ironically, Telstra has been a saviour for Mr Anderson's party.
While the bush has been virulently opposed to the privatisation of Telstra, the selling off of the first half of the telecommunications giant has given the party a war chest to assuage its rural constituency.
The problem for the National Party is that there is only one Telstra - after this the cupboard is bare.
Mr Anderson's legacy in politics will be universal respect for his integrity, sense of duty and competence, but a party that, in spite of seven years in government, is still very much in the wilderness.