The McGauran affair, much like the National Party itself, refuses to
just go away and die. Victorian Nationals leader Peter Ryan has been
assiduously stirring the pot, yesterday warning that the issue was “not finished”: “There is chicanery at least, treachery maybe, that’s gone on around us.”

Then this morning, The Australian leads with a Newspoll result that shows the Nationals gaining ground at the expense of the Liberals, and a story
by Steve Lewis and Samantha Maiden reporting that the Nats “are
determined to adopt a more aggressive stance in dealings with their
senior Coalition partner.”

The Newspoll is interesting but not really meaningful. As Dennis
Shanahan points out, “Coalition tensions undoubtedly have a ‘headline
effect’ on the polling” – in other words, prospective voters don’t
even think about the National Party unless its been in the news
lately.

Since there’s nothing else happening in the poll – two-party-preferred
figures are stable – the Coalition issue provides a nice headline. But
as with minor parties in general, the numbers are inherently unreliable
because the samples are so small. ACNielsen, also out this morning, doesn’t even give a breakdown of the Coalition vote.

The larger question of National Party tactics is more interesting. It
will be very surprising, however, if the Nationals decide after
reflection that they have more to gain than to lose from open war with
the Liberals. They have only once won a federal seat from the Liberals
in about 30 years – Hume, in 1993, which the Liberals promptly won
back two elections later.

Also in The Oz, Paul Williams gives some historical context
to the Liberal-National dispute. But his conclusion that the Nationals
are indispensable to the Liberals seems to me untenable. The truth is,
the Nationals have nowhere else to go. In the worst case scenario the
Liberals could evict them from the Coalition and dare them to vote with
the ALP to bring down the government; if they did, they would be wiped
out, because their conservative rural voters do not want a Labor
government.

Once upon a time that was not the case; the Country Party (as it was)
started out as a genuine centre party. By shifting to the right it has
given up its freedom of movement. But the Liberals have not yet made it
pay the price.

Peter Fray

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