Canberra Observed: Nationals looking down the barrelby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, November 3, 2001
Whatever the outcome of the election on November 10 the National Party is the party most likely to end up with fewer seats than it holds in the current Parliament. Even with John Howard brilliantly exploiting international events to expose Labor's soft underbelly in this extraordinary election, several sitting National MPs are still fighting for their political lives.
In fact, if it were not for the Tampa
and terror issues galvanising conservative voters back to the government, together with a dose of good luck in a few seats, the Nationals could well have faced a bloodbath this election.
The Nationals are fighting bushfires on so many fronts it is impossible to pinpoint which one will damage them most. Apart from the Labor Party, the Nationals are battling against Independents, the seemingly indestructible One Nation party, and their own Coalition partners, the Liberals.
There are almost two certain losses for the Nationals this election. Stuart St Clair is in grave danger of losing the seat of New England, held by the Country/National Parties since 1922, to popular NSW Independent Tony Windsor. And the National Party will lose Kennedy to new Independent Bob Katter. After that predictions are more difficult, but at least half a dozen seats are vulnerable.
The Nationals have suffered from a serious identity crisis for several years, and the problem appears to have deepened over the period of the Howard Government. With Party Leader John Anderson at the helm, homage to the economic rationalist agenda has prevailed, and the party has not been able to differentiate itself on economic and rural issues.
At the 1998 election, the Nationals won 16 seats, but are already down one, following the defection of Katter to the cross-benches. As recently as 1984, the Nationals held 21 seats - a high-water-mark of the era - but each successive election has seen its number whittled away, with a few occasional good results.
Back in the 1970s, the old Country Party held a similar number of seats in each Parliament (an average of 20) but that was in a much smaller Parliament of 122-127 seats, compared to the 148 seats in the House of Representatives just past.
In other words, the Nationals' influence has been diminishing, not only in hard numbers, but also proportionately.
The long-term difficulties for the Nationals becomes most apparent every time a sitting National member retires, and the Coalition rule which permits three-cornered contests comes into play.
In recent elections, the Liberals have been the victors in these contests. In Hume in New South Wales and Murray in Victoria the Nationals were trounced and the incoming Liberal members have turned the seats into Liberal strongholds. And once a seat is lost to conservative Liberal allies, National branches wither and structural party support disappears, as party members either lose interest or switch their allegiances to the Liberals. In contrast, when a Liberal in a regional seat retires, the Nationals for some reason are unable to make any headway.
At this election, several sitting National members are retiring, including Tim Fischer in Farrer, Tony Lawler in Parkes, and Garry Nehl in Cowper - all in NSW. In Cowper there will be a three-cornered contest, but the danger there is Labor, which has put up a strong candidate in Coffs Harbour Mayor, Jenny Blomfield.
No Liberal is standing in the seat of Parkes, but Labor has also put up a strong candidate - Dubbo Chamber of Commerce President Joe Knagge.
On the other hand, reports in Tim Fischer's seat of Farrer indicate that the Liberal candidate, Albury tax specialist Sussan Ley, is campaigning strongly and is posing a serious threat.
Compare this to Indi. By any measure the Nationals should have been able to regain this northern Victorian seat where Liberal Lou Lieberman has retired after two terms.
The Nationals hold an abysmal two federal seats in Victoria at opposite ends of the state - Peter McGauran in Gippsland and John Forrest in Mallee - and should have used all their organisational armoury to add another member, if only for respectability.
The old Country Party held Indi from 1958-77, but the likely result this time is another Liberal win. The Liberal candidate is high-profile monarchist campaigner Sophie Panopoulos, and the Nationals appeared unable to make a dent in Indi despite Panopoulos' handicap of being an outsider from Melbourne.
Other Nationals facing a battle include Larry Anthony in Page, and Queenslanders De-Anne Kelly in Dawson and Paul Neville in Hinkler. Anthony should hold on, after an absurd internal Labor factional battle saw the party install a candidate local Labor supporters did not want. Before that fracas, Anthony was looking at the second loss of his career.
In Queensland, Kelly has resorted to trying to cut a deal with One Nation, against the wishes of John Anderson. One Nation polled 16 per cent in Dawson last time and Kelly knows she could lose if One Nation preferenced Labor.
Neville would almost certainly be out of a job on November 10 if not for recent international events, and still has a tough fight on his hands.
Overall the picture is not pretty for the Nationals, and if they manage to scrape back to Canberra intact this time, it will be nothing short of a miracle.