The National Party might be short on votes and MPs, but one thing it’s
never short on is chutzpah. One has to admire the sheer nerve of
federal leader Mark Vaile yesterday, demanding that Julian McGauran give up his Senate seat so it could be filled by a National Party member.

The plain fact is that for many years now Victoria’s National Party
representation in Canberra has been entirely at the sufferance of the
Liberals. McGauran was first elected in the double dissolution election
of 1987, when the quota was only one-thirteenth of the vote instead of
the normal one-seventh. Even so, the Nationals only had 5.67% and he
just scraped in on preferences.

Since then, the Nationals’ vote has declined further – in the 2002
state election it was down to 4.3% – so their chance of winning a
Senate seat on their own would be approximately zero. But McGauran was
put back in the Senate in 1993 (and re-elected in 1998 and 2004) on a
joint ticket with the Liberals. Of the four safe Coalition Senate
spots, the Nationals were granted one: number two on the ticket every
second election.

Moreover, by 2004 that privilege had become specific to McGauran. In
the face of internal pressure to revise or abandon the deal, which had
already broken down at state level, the ruling group in the Liberal
Party made it clear to the Nationals that if McGauran was dropped then
the joint ticket would no longer be guaranteed. That saved his
preselection – but if the Liberals wouldn’t wear a different National
Party senator then, why on earth would they be expected to now?

There seems little doubt that when McGauran comes up for re-election in
2010 (if the Victorian National Party still exists then) the Liberals
will scrap the agreement – the fact that the Nationals are kicking up
so much fuss suggests that they know this perfectly well, and therefore
feel they have nothing to lose.

Even the cries of “treachery” ring somewhat hollow, since McGauran
actually started out in the Liberal Party – he was a Young Liberal
branch president in the early 1980s. Anyone who takes on a defector
always does so at their own risk, since having switched sides once,
there is always a chance they may do so again.

Peter Fray

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