CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Whither the Nationals?
, June 21, 2008
In 1975, the party had 23 MPs in the House of Representatives or just 18 per cent of the Parliament. Today it has just nine, representing just 6 per cent of all MPs.The June 28 by-election for the Victorian federal seat of Gippsland is shaping up as a watershed for the Nationals which are grappling with a decision whether to exit the Australian political stage after a proud 88-year history.
The by-election was created by the retirement of Peter McGauran who had held the seat since 1983, but it is taking place in the middle of serious talk about folding the party in with the Liberals.
The Liberals want the Nationals to amalgamate. The Nationals aren't sure what they want, but know that doing nothing is a slow road to oblivion.
The idea of amalgamation is not new. A review undertaken by Peter Nixon in 1986 recommended the same thing, and former Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony has been an advocate of amalgamation for a long time.
Federal Nationals leader Warren Truss has conceded the path for the future is unclear. "We're looking at all the options, not just a merger," Mr Truss told Channel Ten's Meet the Press
"We're looking at the potential to go it alone, or have a stronger role or a different role within the Coalition.
"All the options are on the table, as they ought to be following election defeats and following our determination to try and make sure we have in place the best structures to represent those who want to support non-Labor politics in Australia."Root-and-branch review
If the Nationals do badly in the Gippsland by-election, it could give encouragement to a root-and-branch review of the party at the federal level being conducted by former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and political and corporate operative Michael Priebe.
Mr Priebe was a senior staffer to former trade minister Mark Vaile and also a former state director of the National Party in NSW. In addition, he has had experience on the hustings with the Republican Party in the US.
But both men were part of the problem the Nationals now find themselves in - they were part of the overly cosy relationship with the Liberals in government.
This was true when Tim Fischer was leader, although he at least tried to establish an outwardly different profile.
The party has been going backwards for three decades despite attempts to broaden its base, to rebadge itself, and blur its "country" roots.
It has had multiple name changes turning from the Country Party to the National Country Party to the National Party and finally, to the Nationals in 2003. Each step has been an attempt to broaden its base and modernise its image, but instead has taken the party further away from its rural roots.
In 1975, the party had 23 MPs in the House of Representatives or 18 per cent of the Parliament. Today it has just nine, representing just 6 per cent of all MPs. Most rural and regional seats are now held by Liberal or Labor MPs.
The glory days of the party at the federal level coincided with the leadership of John McEwen who declined the Treasuryship because he believed primary producers would be better served if he took responsibility for trade. Such principles appear to be non-existent among today's ambitious MPs.
McEwan demanded tariff protection to develop industries which would "value add" Australia's primary produce. "McEwanism", as it became known, is now anathema to the powers that run Canberra.
However, the winding back of McEwanism has coincided with the steady decline in farm incomes, a seemingly suicidal goal of unilateral free trade and deregulation at any price, the disappearance of tens of thousands of people from the land, and the emptying of rural communities.
Seats held by Nationals MPs are generally now the poorest in the country, in terms of per capita income.
No one is suggesting a return to McEwanism; but Nationals MPs, with the notable exception of Barnaby Joyce, have preferred short-term political "fixes" to holding on to rural services like Telstra.
The party's website asks the following question: "Why the Nationals?" Nowhere in the three answers is there any mention of the rural sector.
Instead, the website boasts that Nationals believes in "positive outcomes" for local communities; security of communities through the preservation of decent health, safety, social, and economic welfare standards; and individual achievement and equity investment.
It is a vague and woolly mission statement which might fit the Liberal Party and, in parts, even the Labor Party.
The problem for the Nationals in embracing a merger are many, but two stand out.
First, the vast majority of Nationals MPs, apart from a couple of recent notable exceptions, are socially conservative. These MPs would be culturally and philosophically at odds with a large proportion of Liberal Party MPs - even with the conscience vote.
Second, the Nationals fear that amalgamation won't actually solve the problem because it will actually encourage the rise of another rural-based party or more independents like Bob Katter and Tony Windsor into the Parliament.
It is a huge dilemma for the party and is unlikely to be solved by the Anderson review.