Senator Julian McGauran’s decision to desert the Nationals may mean a
lot of hate mail for the new Liberal to wade through, but what
does it mean for the future of the party he’s left behind? Does
McGauran’s defection spell the beginning of the end for the Nationals?

Peter Brent, publisher of the Australian political website, Mumble, says it’s unlikely that any one person could
spark the beginning of the end – “especially someone so insignificant
as McGauran.” Perhaps, he says, a better question to consider is whether McGauran’s decision is indicative of the
decline of the Nats – or whether it’s “just one person looking after their own career.”

It’s worth remembering that the Nationals have always been an
“electoral plus for the conservative side of politics, mopping up
voters who might otherwise vote Labor from time to time – because to
them, privatisation, flogging off Telstra etc, is almost as bad as
Labor’s social progressiveness.”

Dean Jaensch, Political Scientist at Flinders
University, told Crikey, “I don’t think this means the demise of the
party, the National Party’s electorate is absolutely
loyal to it.”

“Out bush, the voters are absolutely committed and
have
been for four or five generations. The proportion of their vote has
been very stable over time.” The defection “will put strains” on the
National Party internally, “but by no means does this herald the
demise of the party.”

Brian Costar, Professor of the Institute for Social Research at
Swinburne
University, agreed that it was a bit dramatic to say that
McGauran’s desertion has heralded the end of the Nationals: people have
been anticipating the demise of the party “since 1920,” Costar told
Crikey.

Certainly, he said, smaller parties can do without this, but the
ramifications of the defection should be minimal. “(McGauran) is not
the party’s most dominant politician,” he said. The Nationals have
always maintained a consistent level of support, said Costar. And while
they might look impotent in the Coalition, “they can look like a
feather duster today and be a rooster tomorrow,” especially if the
Victorian Labor Party were to lose its majority.

The
major ramifications of McGauran’s move, said Costar, would be that it
stirs
trouble in the “torrid cauldron of Liberal Party factional politics.”
The small l liberals in the Victorian party have always been hostile to
the Nationals because they consider them to be socially conservative,
said Costar. “McGauran is socially conservative… I would’ve thought
that the feminist group in the Liberal Party would not take too kindly”
to his selection.

It’s not
over for the party by a long shot, political scientist Malcolm Mackerras told Crikey. “The National Party will improve its
position when Costello
becomes PM,” he said. “Howard appeals to rural and
regional voters. That’s why the
Liberals got three Senators elected in Queensland in the last election.”

“Costello, when he
takes over from Howard, will be perceived as starting a direct attack on the
Nationals. But the National Party will be better off under him than being hugged to death by Howard.” Costello will be
perceived as a “city slicker Liberal leader whereas Howard connects remarkably
well with rural voters.”

And in terms of the
Victorian State Nationals’ position, “the National Party has quite markedly improved
its status… In the upcoming
state election the National Party will retain all their seats. They’ll lose one
seat because of a change in the electoral system, but they will gain Morwell.”

As for McGauran – his
“decision is a disgrace.” He’s obviously a “complete sh*t.”

“But very often the
party against which the defection occurs ultimately benefits. McGauran will be
described by the Nationals as a traitor” and will increasingly be seen as one by
the public. “He owes his seat
to the Nationals.”

“The big error is
that the Liberal Party has been allowed to get away with the trick of using the
term coalition as if it meant one party, but it means two different parties.”

This morning,
Costello basically suggested that the defection didn’t really matter, said Mackerras, implying
that it was one big party, “but that’s useful spin by the Liberal camp which
denies any claims that the Nationals have ever made.”

Peter Fray

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