Nelly National, who joined the Nats back when they were still the Country Party, has grave fears for the future of the party, especially if they merge with the Libs.

In spite of Minchin’s considerable experience in organisational and factional politics, his lack of experience in dealing with a rural based political party in South Australia caused him to blunder into the naive assumption that such an amalgamation would strengthen the position of the Coalition. Nothing could be further from the truth as John Howard well knows.

The joining of the two parties offers the Liberal Party few benefits and a great many disadvantages. It would result in the immediate formation of another rural based political party.

There is a strongly held view by country Australians that they are the forgotten people and this perception has been reinforced in more recent years by the government’s perceived obsession with privatisation, rationalisation and centralisation. This mantra has resulted in the reduction in country towns of infrastructure, services and facilities.

Amongst these people there is a sense of alienation and despair as they helplessly watch as their banks, schools, hospitals, police stations and other critical facilities close. These losses are invariably followed by the reduction in local private facilities.

There are still many people in country Australia who believe their best interests are served by a political party whose exclusive raison d’etre is to protect and preserve their interests.

The National Party is viewed by and large as having failed its constituents. It is seen as having allowed the apparent inevitable march from these towns and districts, of the facilities which glue the very fabric which has bound the community together. It is this perception of the National Party which made it so vulnerable to One nation which while not promising solutions, at least listened, claimed to understand and empathised with the voters.

In spite of the National Party’s failings, its voters see an amalgamation as the Liberal Party absorbing the National Party which could in their minds only exacerbate their circumstances. Rather than National Party voters supporting an amalgamated party, they would turn to a new country party which would most certainly follow.

This new party would inevitably espouse the same populist policies which many country people found attractive in One Nation.

These circumstances offer absolutely nothing to Howard. His present circumstances provide the best of both worlds. These voters are locked into a party which is prepared to coalesce with the Liberal Party while offering no resistance to Howard’s reforming policies. For the price of the irrelevant position of Deputy Prime Minister and a hand full of Ministries, Howard is able to get on with governing without interference or impediment from the National Party.

The extent to which Anderson and his predecessor Tim Fischer, have acquiesced to Howard’s economic reforms is highlighted by their agreement to privatise Telstra, particularly given that telecommunication services in the bush at the time of the sale of the first tranche were in a wretched state and are still substantially below those available to metropolitan Australia.

In recent days, Senator Ron Boswell, who in past years refused a parliamentary promotion because he would not agree to be bound by Cabinet decisions nor restrict his right to speak across portfolios, has shown how far the collective membership of the National Party has wondered, lost and confused, from its core support.

Boswell, for many years the archetypal National Party hard-head, who put party and survival ahead of every other consideration, nowadays supports the immediate privatisation of the balance of Telstra, a position which is an anathema to his party’s constituents.

There is great doubt as to whether Howard really cares what the future holds for the National Party given the control he has over it, however it is inevitable that it will continue to lose seats to the Liberal Party as its sitting members retire. The collapse of the National Party’s vote in Farrer upon the retirement of Tim Fischer gives some idea of the dimension of the difficulty it faces. Were it not for a bizarre pact between the Liberal Party and the National Party in Victoria, Senator Julian McGauran would not hold his Senate place.

Nick Minchin’s proposal would most certainly disturb this march of rural voters to the Liberal Party. His call has no merit and certainly no reward for the Liberal Party.

The National Party has not always had meek and pliant leaders. Howard has been extraordinarily lucky. Prior to Charles Blunt, Fischer and Anderson, the National Party had a series of strong willed and astute leaders whose first priority was to maintain the National Party’s parliamentary representation at all costs which often meant exerting a disproportionate influence on Cabinet decisions, corrupting policy matters and debasing good government.

That having been said, Fraser in the Lodge was more comfortable with the policies of the agrarian socialists than with those of his own party. Fraser supported a fixed exchange rate and continued to do so years after Keating swept it away; he maintained high tariff barriers over which McEwan had earlier presided and in 1981, he triggered the wages explosion by capitulating to the Transport Workers Union wage demands which flowed on to other industries and significantly damaged the economy. At one point the TWU strike looked like preventing Fraser attending Prince Charles’ wedding however his capitulation allowed he and Tammy to bolt for London in time for the big event.

During Fraser’s period as Prime Minister, Doug Anthony and Peter Nixon, the recently retired chairman of Southern Cross Broadcasting, were much closer confidants of Fraser’s than were most of his own Party. It was to these two men that he invariably turned for consultation and advice. It was Peter Nixon whom Fraser sent to visit the hapless Phillip Lynch in hospital to demand that he step down as Treasurer.

In spite of the fact that following the 1977 election, the Liberal Party had the numbers to govern in its own right, Fraser did nothing to reduce the National Party’s representation in the Ministry nor to remove any of their plumb portfolios.

While Fraser went about standing down and sacking Ministers for the most trivial of offences by today’s standards, National Party Ministers were immune to such scrutiny and discipline. Reg Withers, Phillip Lynch, John Moore, Michael MacKellar and Vic Garland were all forced head down on the block. The sacking of Reginald Greive Withers was unquestionably Fraser’s most obscene act of pompous nonsense. Withers did more than any other member of the Liberal Party to deliver the Prime Ministership to Fraser through his management and control of the Liberal Senators at the time of the blocking of Supply.

Withers sin was to have been found by a Royal Commission to have influenced the Electoral Commission for which as Minister for Administrative Services, he had Ministerial responsibility, in the choosing of the name of the electorate of Gold Coast which was created following the 1977 Queensland federal redistribution.

Peter Nixon, the National Party Minister for Primary Industries, was found by a Royal Commission to have been culpable for a major meat export industry substitution scandal in 1981 in which kangaroo meat was substituted for beef. The scandal which devastated Australia’s Japanese export market, cost Australian producers and exporters, hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only did Fraser do nothing, he attacked the Commissioner and his findings. Nixon of course remained in the Ministry. Keating was not the first Prime Minister to attack a Royal Commissioner who had made adverse findings against a federal Minister.

The extent to which the National Party leadership of the time was prepared to go, to preserve its share of seats in the coalition was graphically illustrated in 1984. One of the very last acts of Doug Anthony as Leader of the National Party in opposition, was to collaborate with the Labor Party over changes to the Electoral Act which forever changed the face of the Senate. It was done for the sole purpose of defending the National Party’s representation in the House of Representatives.

In 1984 the Hawke government realised that the impending federal redistribution was likely to disadvantage the Labor Party. It judged that this could be overcome by increasing the number of House of House of representative seats from 125 to 148, which it believed would favour Labor in the subsequent redistribution.

The National Party calculated that the proposal would also preserve a number of its seats and crossed the floor to vote with the Labor Party. This decision not only guaranteed a labor win at the next federal election, it also dramatically and irreversibly altered the composition of the Senate.

Under the constitution, the Senate must be as near as possible, no less than half the size of the House of Representatives and accordingly the number of Senators was increased from sixty four to seventy six.

The increase in the size of the Senate reduced the quota required to elect each Senator. The way was paved for the minor parties to obtain a quota and subsequently win seats. No major party has controlled the Senate since.

Those days of National Party feral self survival are long past. All the evidence is that the National Party no longer understands the constituency upon which it must rely for survival and that portraying itself as a pale imitation of the Liberal Party, as it has done for the past eight years, will only continue its inexorable decline.

For the term of this government at least, the National Party will continue to be led by the nose, in a state of disorientation and bewilderment, having lost its identity and raison d’etre. It invariably requires defeat for the National Party to understand the price it has paid for coalition government at which time the new leadership blames the Liberal Party for its demise and breaks the coalition in opposition.

Nick Minchin need not dally with an amalgamation of the coalition parties. The Liberal Party is loving the National Party to death.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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