With the departure yesterday of Julian McGauran, it is no longer
possible to deny that the National Party is in long-term decline – a
decline that could well prove to be terminal. From its 1975 peak of 23
seats in the House of Representatives, it is now down to 12 (in a
larger parliament). Since 1972, nine of its seats have been won by the
Liberals – Damien Murphy lists them in this morning’s SMH.

But the tally of seats probably understates how bad things are. Most of
the Nationals’ seats are protected from Liberal challenge – by joint
tickets in the Senate, and agreements not to oppose sitting members in
the House of Reps. The exceptions, however, are revealing. The average
National Party share of the Coalition vote in three-cornered Reps
contests has fallen from a little under 50% in 1972 to less than 30% –
in 2001 it actually went below 20%.

Similarly for the Senate: in Queensland, the only state where the
Nationals win Senate seats in their own right, their share of the
Coalition vote has fallen from 66% in 1983 to just 14.7% in 2004. In
Western Australia, where once they also held Senate seats, their vote
is now below 1%.

These numbers underline the key fact about the Coalition dynamic: the
real threat to the National Party is from its own partner. As Katharine
West remarked 40 years ago, the Country Party (as it then was) “has
more to fear from the Liberal than from the Labor Party which can
defeat it but never render it superfluous.” The Nationals have always
understood this, and have always fought much harder in Coalition
negotiations as a result.

So if the Liberals decide to go in for the kill, there will be very
little to stop them. And as the McGauran defection shows, National
Party MPs have an escape route. It has always been possible to move
from one party to the other with relative ease; McGauran himself
started out in the Liberal Party, while Liberal prime minister John
Gorton started out in the Country Party. As the task of holding seats
as Nationals becomes more challenging, further defections are likely.

For over time there has been change in the Liberal Party as well. Where
once there might have been ideological scruples, the fact that the
National MPs tend to come from the hard right is less of an obstacle
than ever. In a party that accommodates Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews,
the likes of Julian McGauran will feel right at home.