Canberra Observed: National Party caravan still hitched to Coalitionby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, July 1, 2000
Nothing symbolises the current plight of the National Party than the controversy over the charging of a GST for caravan park residents.
Caravans are the perfect metaphor for dire problems of a party wrestling with massive changes to its demographics, the exodus of families from farms and rural communities, and the general impoverishment of the bush.
Australian politics has been so turned on its head over the past couple of decades that National Party MPs have found themselves fighting for their political survival, not over wool or beef or sugar, but to protect the interests of a group of people Americans cruelly call “trailer trash”.
But the truth is that many National Party seats are among the poorest electorates in Australia, and the general population is increasingly congregating along the coastal fringe.
At the same time the Nationals seem incapable of fighting on the issues which actually matter to their old constituency, let alone new ex-city folk.
The fracas over caravan parks blew up because young National Minister Larry Anthony’s northern New South Wales seat of Richmond now has as many as 6,500 caravan park residents living within its boundaries.
Other National MPs also have high proportions of van park residents. And despite a promise not to make rent subject to the GST, the Howard Government for some reason decided to allow GST costs to be passed on to van park and boarding house residents who will be paying a GST of as much as 5.5 per cent.
The Government claims tax relief will more than compensate for the new tax, and Federal Cabinet has refused to back down over the issue because it fears opening a floodgate of other special interest groups.
Unless there is another spectacular backdown, the Government appears prepared to sacrifice the seat of Richmond and a potential future National Party leader in the process.
Richmond typifies many of the National’s problems. It has been Anthony country for decades. Larry Anthony Snr. held the seat from 1937-57, passing it on to former Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, who held it from 1957-84.
But the old dairying and beef cattle industry electorate has been transformed by the spreading coastal sprawl and the influx of young people attracted to beaches and sunshine, and to the hippy and feral colonies of Mullumbimby and Byron Bay.
Labor captured the seat in 1990 until Larry won back the family’s heritage in the Howard landslide of 1996.
But after the recent redistribution Anthony holds the seat by less than 1 per cent, and 6,500 angry park residents will not help his re-election chances in the poll due late next year.
The party’s national conference at Tweed Heads voted unanimously to demand that the Howard Government overturn its tax on van park residents.
But Mr Anthony was resisting calls for him to resign in protest from the ministry, and all National Party leader John Anderson could offer was consultative committees, and price monitoring from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
In fact, the party’s Tweed Heads conference appeared to be a re-run of state conferences in Victoria and Queensland where motions were passed by grassroots members only to be ignored by the parliamentary wing of the party.
If the Benalla by-election was supposed to be the wake up call for the National Party, the only conclusion now is that most of its federal MPs have slept through the alarm.
Not all federal MPs are oblivious to the problems facing the party. Bob Katter and De-Anne Kelly have been trying to warn their colleagues for the best past of four years just how serious the situation has become.
During the first term of the Howard Government, the Liberals had such a majority the National Party did not matter.
But this term, the Nationals could use their numbers to demand much more from the Liberals because they could control the balance of power in the House of Representatives if they chose.
Instead, they have continued to be pulled along like a bull by the nose at a country show, agreeing to the same disastrous open market, privatisation and deregulation policies that the Labor Party pushed when it was in office.