Christian Kerr writes:

So the Nats will get assertive at their meeting today. Threaten critics with mulesing. Or something.

The issue of a merger between the coalition parties has come up over the past week. It even gets covered in today’s ACNielsen poll.

But
one aspect of a merger – an aspect that was very prominent in debate on
the subject in the eighties and nineties – is being overlooked, even
though it adds considerably to the Nationals’ clout.

The Age ran a profile on the newly promoted Sharman Stone on Saturday that contained this innocuous looking par:

When Stone won Murray, the NSW border seat with Shepparton
as its epicentre, she ended nearly half a century’s domination by the
Nationals. “There were over 4500 National Party members in the
electorate and only six paid-up members of the Liberal Party and not
one single branch,” she says. Murray is now the Liberals’ safest
Victorian seat.

Murray, of course, was Jack McEwen’s
seat. But Stone won it in 1996, a quarter of a century after Black Jack
retired. That’s a long time for a personal following to hang about.

The
issue doesn’t get canvassed in the discussion of merger proposals in
Brian Costar’s 1994 work on the federal coalition, For Better or Worse.
However, one of the great arguments cited against a merger – at least
amongst Liberal moderates – was the supposed numerical superiority of
National Party members. We believed that they would swamp and dominate
the forums of any merged party.

Political parties are reluctant to detail their memberships. Sally Young’s though-provoking Age feature last year on political participation, “Power without people,” cited membership figures for the Labor and the Liberal Parties, but omitted to mention the Nats.

While
their parliamentary numbers may be plunging, how do they measure up on
the ground? Has the loss of seats to Liberals and country independents
been too much for the rank and file – or have they hung around, like
Black Jack’s very own tribe?

Peter Fray

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