January 26th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: The magic of Middle Earth

Editorial: Argentina - from role model to basket case

Al Qaeda network must be destroyed

Policy not structure the problem for National Party

Industry policy behind Celtic Tiger's success

Straws in the Wind: Great Helmsmen: past and present / A tale of two branches

Anti-war protests leave Melbourne cold

Media: When the Left calls for time-out

Letter: Exports and imports

Letter: Alcohol abuse

Trade: APEC’s demise paves the way for China’s free trade pact

United States: Year of the Right?

Japan: a nation in search of a role

History: Roosevelt’s timeless wisdom

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Policy not structure the problem for National Party

by Brian Handley

News Weekly, January 26, 2002

Brian Handley examines moves by the National Party leadership to centralise decision-making. Such restructuring would eliminate the party’s grassroots character and isolate further the leadership from its members. Moreover, it would be totally futile because the problems facing the Nationals are policy-based and not structural.

After every federal election, there is the inevitable party political post mortems, in which the winners (who are grinners) evaluate why they are so ‘popular’ with the electorate, and the losers, why they are "on the nose".

Now that the electorate has "held its nose" and voted once more on November 9, the winners (Coalition) are still grinning, while the losers (ALP) have set up their "eminent persons" committee of Messrs Hawke and Wran to evaluate what went wrong and what has to be done to again become ‘grinners’! Good luck boys ... don’t forget to consult the disgruntled Joan Kirner and her feminist faction!

Meanwhile, now that the dust has settled, media reports are emerging that the (increasingly) Junior Coalition National Party leader, John Anderson, has put himself on a collision course with rank-and-file members, by calling for a radical overhaul of the party (Australian Financial Review, January 11, 2002).

According to the AFR, Mr Anderson "wants to centralise the party’s organisational structure and reduce the role of state divisions and the rank-and-file members, in the selection of parliamentary candidates".

He went on to warn that the "party would pay a high price politically if members resisted change". "We have to operate as a focused co-ordinated federal team ... crunch time has come", he said.

Mr Anderson is proposing significant organisational changes at its federal council next month, which, federal president Mrs Helen Dickie has signalled, was likely to face resistance from its membership base. Mrs Dickie stated, "I’d have to say that I don’t think all our problems are in our processes" (AFR, January 11, 2002).

Meanwhile, One Nation dragon-slayer, the Nationals Senator Ron Boswell from Queensland, is backing the Anderson move, saying, "We can’t continue to run as little independent fief-doms".

Senator Boswell’s support will carry some political weight, as he is basking in the glory of having defeated Pauline Hanson for the Queensland Senate position, by swamping her on preference deals with other political parties.

Ignoring the fact that he actually received, 20,000 plus fewer votes than Hanson, Boswell called his win the "greatest victory of his 18-year political career".

Notwithstanding this "sweetest victory of all" (he’s not pretty, but pretty effective), Ron Boswell and the National Party still has to face up to the reality of now only having 12 MPs in the Lower House. In the previous parliament they had 15 MPs, but on November 9, lost the seats of Kennedy to Independent Bob Katter, New England to Independent Tony Windsor, and Tim Fisher’s seat of Farrer to the Liberals, while Paul Neville just fell across the line in Hinkler by the barest of margins.

It is against this political backdrop that Anderson and Boswell are demanding reform from within. However, the question remains, that even if the members accept this bullying reform agenda, will it deliver the place in the political sun they are seeking, or will it simply equate to shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Federal president Helen Dickie’s perceptive media comment about problems and processes deserves to be at the core of any party debate about reform. Mr Anderson’s party structures are no substitute for party substance, while age and the "good-looks" of candidates are no substitute for the party policy platform. This has always been true.

Over the decades, all major parties have had very forgettable MPs who were carried to victory, time and again, on the coat tails of their party and popular leaders. The opposite is also true, with some very capable MPs getting swept from office, due to their party being on the nose with the electorate.

For the Nationals to focus on its structures in isolation would be delusional and self-defeating. The focus should be on why country electorates feel betrayed and disenfranchised, in which previously rusted-on supporters have been jumping ship en masse to One Nation, Independents, the Liberals and even Labor. We have seen this in Victorian state seats like East and West Gippsland, Benalla, and New England (NSW) at the federal level.

What the National Party leadership needs to ask itself are some probing political questions. What is its philosophical platform, what meaningful policy distinctions can it identify to distinguish the Nationals from the Liberals? How can they better identify and represent the aspirations of people living in rural communities?

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