COVER STORY: Nationals: the last hurrah?
by Thomas Bradley
News Weekly, March 10, 2001
Thomas Bradley believes the Queensland Nationals had surrendered to One Nation before an electoral shot was fired. Their equivocation weakened their position and helped to create a bridge over which a large number of Coalition voters moved - not to One Nation, but to the ALP.
The recent Queensland State Election involved a number of interesting messages. It's time for the National Party to show it's been listening.
When Naomi Wilson announced that she would be doing a deal on preferences with One Nation, she sent a simple message: a serious candidate, a former Minister, had lost confidence in the Coalition's campaign strategy and had been panicked into cutting a deal.
There was a second, even stronger message, when 16 colleagues joined her, suing for a separate peace with Pauline Hanson.
In the 1998 State Election the Coalition had sent the same half-hearted message: "If you can't vote for us, we understand. Vote for One Nation and give us your second preference." In 1998 many voters took that advice and voted for One Nation. Peter Beattie was elected on one of the lowest Labor primary votes.
Of course, voters sent the most important message on polling day. In great numbers, traditional conservative voters said: "We're not cornered; we don't have to vote for the Coalition or for One Nation; it's OK to vote Labor."
The Cold War is long over and the demons that were Whitlam and Evatt are long forgotten. Few voters returned to the Coalition from One Nation. Given the Coalition's message, why should they? Peter Beattie was re-elected with the highest Labor vote since Vince Gair's in the 1950s.
Whatever might have been said before the State election about the National Party's strategy towards One Nation, it is clear after the election that the strategy failed.
One Nation's strategic objective is to destroy the National Party. The National Party seems reluctant to acknowledge this. If any clearer illustration is needed, it will be the Senate contest in the forthcoming Federal Election. That's when One Nation plans to knock out the Nationals' last remaining Queensland Senator, Ron Boswell.
Strangely, among the Queensland Nationals, only Senator Boswell seems to appreciate this reality. This is surprising, when the Nationals have such a highly developed ability to detect and respond to attacks on their voter base by the Liberal Party.
Labor understands One Nation's game plan only too well. The State Labor campaign didn't lay a finger on One Nation. Some have unkindly suggested that the Premier delayed the election until One Nation had successfully re-registered as a party.
With Labor silent and the Coalition being understanding or supportive, One Nation had a rails run.
One Nation concedes the inadequacy of its policies, saying it hardly matters because it will never be in power.
Together with millions of dollars of free publicity from a salivating media, the silence of the Coalition lambs gave One Nation a huge tactical advantage in the Queensland election. Even so, the National Party out-polled One Nation on every measure.
State-wide the National Party, campaigning with one hand tied behind its back, polled 14.17% of the vote to One Nation's 8.71%. Of the 44 seats they contested, the Nationals won 12, polling 29.55% of the vote; One Nation managed only three, with 20.17% of the vote in the 39 seats it contested. In the 25 head-to-head contests between the two parties, the Nationals polled 25.65% (winning 8 seats) to One Nation's 22.72% (winning 3). What could the results have been if the Nationals had actively campaigned to win votes away from One Nation?
One Nation had a simple message for conservative voters: "Voting for the Coalition doesn't make any difference." The message rang some bells, because the economic agenda put in place under Paul Keating seemed to be faithfully pursued under John Howard and John Anderson.
The unholy trinity of economic rationalism (globalisation, deregulation, national competition policy) challenges our traditional institutions and economic base, and even our cultural identity. It's an agenda that seeks out the means by which people were able to make a decent, comfortable life, and destroys those means. It appears to assume that any occupation (outside the financial markets) where people make a reasonable living, involves some anti-competitive practice that must be extinguished.
When family, work, community and property are threatened, it is civilisation that is under threat. We need to be occupied and to have some degree of independence for civil society to prosper. Family, work and community obligations keep us occupied. A little property ensures our independence.
The gladiators of global capitalism (and their local vassals and wannabes) see Australia as part of an international arena where they battle to make the world safe for the international capital markets.
The casualties are ordinary families. For working people, the real value of their wages has been in steady decline. For small business people, the unequal regulatory burden has squeezed the margin between success and failure. For primary producers, orderly marketing arrangements have been replaced by the cold steel of a few dominant purchasers.
This policy madness is the latest manifestation of liberalism. The traditional liberal (the "small 'l' liberal") is a progressive, believing the present is better than the past and the future will always be better than the present.
Today, many Australians consider the present to be worse than the past. Still more fear that the future may be worse than the present.
The high tide of liberalism has receded. We hear only the long withdrawing roar. I doubt that most Australians believe in progress. In that sense we are more conservative than liberal.
Interests not ideologies
The major political parties in Australia have always represented social and economic interests, rather than ideologies. Somehow the ideology of economic rationalism seems to have penetrated both the Liberal and Labor parties.
The casualties of economic rationalism include most of the traditional base of the conservative parties. When the process began, the Coalition was in opposition, unable to assist. Once in government, the Coalition appeared unwilling to protect their traditional supporters.
Appearances and reality can be quite different things. In reality the National Party in the Federal Coalition Government has delivered benefits to their rural and regional constituencies but such compensation doesn't make up for the losses from 15 years of economic rationalist policies.
The expectation gap is now so large that the recent investment of billions of dollars seems to have made little impression in those electorates.
Everything the Nationals have been able to extract from the Federal Coalition Government is not enough. Suspicious of any good news, the electorate lets it fall on barren ground.
Conversely, bad news spreads like weeds. It is difficult for the electorate to accept that, within the one governing Coalition, liberal deregulationists can coexist with people concerned about the human impact of policies.
This debate is cloaked in economic language, but the problem is deeper. It is cultural and even spiritual. Michael Leunig has called it a loss of personal and cultural identity. He says we have "a sense that something strange is happening, something we don't understand".
In the absence of a clear and worthy Coalition program, the depressed, the disillusioned, the angry and the dispossessed embrace any alternative.
One Nation cannot be the answer. Its program would only complete the destruction of what it means to be Australian. Our identity is as speakers of an easy, playful language, marked by humour, homespun philosophy and genuineness. It's about being fair dinkum. It's an openness and a generosity of spirit, partly knowing, partly innocent. It's littered with nicknames, odd expressions and long lost mysteries. It's so highly contagious migrants and even tourists pick it up quickly.
You can see it in The Castle and feel it in The Dish. Hard to describe in words, it is instantly recognisable, anywhere in the world. A dry, lively, sparkling something that recharges our run-down batteries, makes us feel comfortable and rekindles a sense of belonging.
Openness and generosity of spirit cannot prosper in an atmosphere that One Nation's leadership promotes and feeds upon.
Some things are worth fighting for. Now is the time for the Nationals to take up that fight to win back support from both One Nation and Labor.
It's now or never.