CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Merger no answer to declining Nationals vote
, June 10, 2006
The long-term future of the National Party is becoming starkly apparent. Its vote has declined election after election as its identity is swallowed up by the Liberal Party. The proposed merger of the Queensland Nationals and Liberal Party into the New Liberals has managed a rare trifecta in Australian politics.
It has given Queensland Premier Peter Beattie fresh hopes of maintaining a solid majority at the state election; it has created serious Coalition division at the federal level; and, long-term, it has reinforced the inevitability of a regional-based Queensland conservative party.
The merger was brilliant in its execution. Such was the level of secrecy that everyone, including Nationals federal leader Mark Vaile, was taken completely by surprise.
But the proposed merger also severely embarrassed the Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile, and he has subsequently demanded the resignation of party president David Russell.
The merger proposal attempts to resolve what has been a long-term headache in Queensland - the problem of the quarrelling Nationals and Liberals over who should be the dominant Coalition partner and how the safe seats should be divvied up.Lightning ambush
But in one lightning ambush the party hierarchies and respective machine-men ambushed the respective state and federal MPs and delivered the new party, to be known as the New Liberals.
This was the only way it could be done, because past experience had shown that the more people involved in the process the more objections would be raised.
Oddly, the merger is, in effect, a friendly takeover of the Lawrence Springborg-led Queensland National Party by its junior coalition partner, the Queensland state Liberal Party.
But the creation of a new state-based conservative party poses a serious dilemma for the Liberal Party, because another separate Liberal Party to cater for the federal arena would have to be created.
Prime Minister John Howard is vehemently opposed to it, and displayed his feelings in the most passionate terms.
"There is one thing that I will fight for to my last political breath - to preserve the nationwide unity of the Liberal Party," Mr Howard said.
Mr Howard has painful memories of the ill-fated Joh-for-Canberra campaign in 1987 which he believes cost him an early chance of being Prime Minister.
The Queensland federal Liberal and Nationals MPs are split right down the middle - on both sides.
For example, Bruce Scott and Deanne Kelly, who both are strongly connected to the Queensland Nationals party machine, are in favour, while Senators Ron Boswell and Barnaby Joyce are opposed.
Similarly, Liberal MPs such as Alex Somlyay and Warren Entsch are in favour, while Senators George Brandis and Santo Santoro - usually mortal enemies - are opposed.
A meeting of Queensland Liberal MPs in the Federal Parliament, which was attended by Prime Minister John Howard and Peter Costello, revealed that the "Queensland solution" will be no help at the federal level.
How the merger proposal plays out is still uncertain, but it is clear the long-term future of the Nationals has reached a critical point.
While most Nationals consider the Labor Party to be the enemy, it must be now dawning on even the dimmest National supporter that the real challenge comes from the Liberal Party.
Each election, the Liberals increase their ground in regional Australia, taking seats from the Nationals when they become vacant.
The Nationals vote has been declining election after election as its identity at a federal level is swallowed up by the Liberal Party.
Mark Vaile continues to maintain the argument that the party is "effective" and "delivering" for regional Australia, but it is often difficult to see what the Nationals actually do that is different from the Liberals.
The warning signs for the long-term future of the National Party as a separate entity are becoming starkly apparent.