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The forgotten Nationals

  • 08 October 2013

The 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