Country character

One of the set-piece questions asked of would-be cadet journalists at The Canberra Times in the early 1970s was about the future of the Country Party. Out of sheer sentiment, but also because the answers told one something about the applicant, I always asked the same question when I was interviewing and appointing 20 or 30 years later. The party had by now become the National Party and was a very different creature from that of Jack McEwen; its popular vote had fallen by nearly 70 per cent, and its numerical representation in the federal parliament had halved—and that in a bigger parliament. But the sort of speculation that gave one a sensible answer in 1970—about changing rural demography, about changing rural and regional economics, about differentiating the National product from that of senior Liberal coalition partners, and about the contradictions between pretending to be for free enterprise and believing in ‘orderly markets’—held through all the while.

My grandfather was a founding member of the party nearly 90 years ago, and, although he stayed in until his death, he never ceased to say how much it had disappointed him. The party he had thought he had joined at Casino was to be something of a Peasant Party—an alliance of cockies, townspeople and rural labour with conservative morals, a vaguely socialist small-enterprise perspective and a deep suspicion of big business, manufacturers, big cities and domination by powerful interest groups. Instead, he said, the NSW branch of the party was fairly promptly seized by large squatting interests, particularly from the New England area, and had never effectively promoted the interests of rural people, as opposed to those of big farmers. Moreover, it was heavily anti-Catholic in northern NSW, with, as he said, the right of Catholic members such as himself restricted to a veto over which wealthy Protestant was going to misrepresent him.

But the character of the party varied around the nation. The Victorian branch was more strongly dominated by small farmers, the Queensland branch far more market interventionist. Branches in most of the other states had declined to next to nothing by the late 1970s: the West Australian branch was never much more than a tiny rump. As various leaders faced the fact of rural population decline, and the increasing lack of efficacy of state-subsidised marketing schemes for wool, wheat, milk and other produce, efforts were made to broaden the party’s appeal.

There were, in doing this, inherent economic contradictions that accentuated the fact that the party’s competition for votes has always been primarily with the Liberal Party, not Labor. And that has been a competition which, at federal level in particular, the National Party has been losing: the Liberals have always held more rural seats than the Nationals, and continue to take seats away from them whenever they are allowed to compete in an open market. The contest between the two parties is particularly fierce in Queensland and Victoria; at state level there is scarcely the pretence of coalition. The defection of Julian McGauran from the Nationals to the Victorian Liberals—and his declaration that there is scarcely any difference between the ideological approaches of the coalition parties—has spurred fresh discussion about the party’s future, and about whether the Nationals would be better merging with the Liberals.

It will not happen. But the Nationals will continue to decline, even if their capacity to concentrate votes continues to give them seats in parliament. It will not happen because any merger would promptly create a new party that would continue to take votes away from the merged entity. That’s quite apart from the capacity of new breeds of independents, such as Peter Andren, Tony Windsor or Bob Katter, to take seats from complacent Nationals. It will not happen because the party’s leadership could not maintain their power, influence or capacity to acquire perks for themselves in a merged body. Not one current National Party minister would be in Cabinet or the ministry on intellectual merit, political skill or worthwhile ideas or ideals. It will not happen because some concentrated rural interests, such as the sugar lobby, could never achieve, particularly from a Liberal Party of open-market orientation, the boondoggles taken for granted in parts of rural Australia.

Indeed, the big problem can be seen in two ways. A dedicated National, for example, fears that the party is too much submerged inside the coalition, is seen by voters as being no different from the Liberals and not successful in achieving special benefits for rural constituencies. McGauran has aided this perception, but so have any number of Queensland Nationals, not least the Barnaby Joyce push who think the best way the party can maintain its vote is by loudly clamouring for attention and being seen to achieve particular outcomes. This outrages rural Liberals and more dedicated National coalitionists. But the anger of many Liberals is also about fundamental economic differences, and about the National Party’s continuing fondness for intervening in markets, ambivalence about economic liberalism, and shamelessness about feathering nests, including its own.

Indeed it might all come together in the inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board’s dealings with the Iraqi oil-for-food program. One can be fairly sure, given the flatness of the denials, that no one will ever prove that John Howard and Alexander Downer knew anything about kickbacks or corruption. With FAQ Nationals, however, intimate knowledge of murky deals is pretty much SOP. 

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times.



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