The forgotten Nationals

Split frame. Left: thoughtful politician speaks to firefighters. Right: smiling politician talks to womenThe Nationals are the forgotten party. After a successful federal election they are nestled in a comfortable governing relationship as the junior partner of the Liberals. They can laugh at all those critics who for so long have predicted their demise. But they are out of sight.

Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, in New England and Lyne, are gone and they can even see the light at the end of the tunnel in their battle with renegade Bob Katter in Kennedy. They regained Page, on the NSW north coast, despite the growing presence of retirees and greenies as part of wider demographic change.

Clive Palmer's insurgency, despite his Nationals roots, is more urban than rural. Moreover where there was rural insurgency it was Independent Cathy McGowan beating the Liberal Sophie Mirabella in Indi. The Nationals quietly fed that upset.

But they remain diminished. Permanent Coalition arrangements once led political scientists to describe the Australian party system as comprising two-and-a-half parties rather than a full three party system.

Today political scientists could class the Nationals as a quarter party rather than a half. Right across northern Australia the Nationals do not exist as a separate entity. In Queensland the two Coalition parties exist as an integrated Liberal National Party (LNP), the party of Nationals leader Warren Truss. In the Northern Territory the two Coalition parties exist as a single integrated Country Liberal Party (CLP), the party of Nationals Senate Leader, Nigel Scullion. Even where the Nationals exist as a separate party, joint Senate tickets prevail.

The old Country party was quite distinct in policies and identity from the Liberals who denigrated them as rural socialists capturing government to protect rural interests from the vagaries of the market and/or the climate. It was also socially distinct, reflecting class distinctions between pastoralists and battling farmers.

Thirty years ago the Country party wrestled with many of the same questions about identity, strategy and tactics that the Greens face now. The strategic questions are about how close to snuggle up to your bigger partner, Liberal or Labor. The tactical questions are about competition within the partnership. Where do you draw the line? Is opposing coal seam gas mining the equivalent for the Nationals to carbon pricing for the Greens?

The Nationals resolved these bigger questions for themselves. There is no going back. The party's future is more likely to be even greater integration into the Coalition/Liberals than re-emergence as a more independent party.

Consequently the Nationals must extract what they can from the new Abbott Government by influence within the Cabinet and the ministry and/or influence within the Parliament. In both arenas the Nationals have made an uncertain start.

The party now holds the three Cabinet positions of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development (Truss), Minister for Agriculture (Barnaby Joyce) and Minister for Indigenous Affairs (Scullion).

This gives them a weaker hand around the table than when they formerly held portfolios like Treasury and Trade. This may reflect changing rural priorities but it also about both a critical self-assessment and Tony Abbott's adverse conclusions about their capacity. The Nationals are largely inexperienced and untested. It is unclear how they could ever impose their priorities on Cabinet.

Under John Howard, Nationals senators like Ron Boswell and then-senator Joyce exercised some independence. Joyce threatened to cross the floor but has already said that he won't do that as a minister.

Michael McCormack, a Nationals parliamentary secretary, has spoken up defending compulsory student fees to support facilities and amenities at regional universities. Coal seam gas policy under Liberal Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane might also lead some Nationals to speak up for their rural constituency.

The Nationals are one model for a minor party. They can make an important contribution to the diversity of the Australian party system. The surface picture looks rosy but it is at the cost of greatly diminished independence.


 

John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Nationals, Coalition, Tony Windsor, Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott

 

 

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