The Nats have got assertive. They’ve
decided to get their own back for losing the talents of Julian McGauran by, er,
not standing candidates against sitting Liberal members.
They still plan to gain more seats at next year’s federal election, though.

Nothing like making it clear that you’re an
irrelevance.

The Australian‘s leader spells it out very
clearly today:

Anybody old enough to remember the 1980s
may be surprised by the Nationals’ plan to build a bastion in the bush by
winning rural seats from the Liberals and generally asserting an independent
identity. Because they tried to do the same back then, and it was a disaster.
In 1987, some Nationals thought they could make Queensland premier
Joh Bjelke-Petersen prime minister. But the politician they helped into The
Lodge was Bob Hawke. And now the Nationals, fearing they are finished, are
again talking tough. And demonstrating that, Bourbon-like, they have forgotten
nothing, but learned nothing, the push is coming from Queensland, where Senator
Barnaby Joyce carries on as if the state party were an independent political
principality. That the Nationals are in trouble is demonstrated by the defection
of Victorian senator Julian McGauran to the Liberals. Nor are their problems
all home-made. Across rural Australia,
small settlements are in decline while the big regional centres boom. And for
people in such cities, the preferred conservatives are more often than not the
Liberals. But for the Nationals to target Liberal seats will not delay the
demise they fear. Certainly, the Nationals’ recent tough talk has increased
their support in Newspoll to a five-year high of 7%. Yet this only has
them level-pegging with the Greens. A return to the Nationals’ 1996 glory days,
when they won 19 lower house seats on John Howard’s very long coat tails, looks
improbable, especially if the party rolls out the old populist bandwagon from
the 1980s.

The problem for the Nationals is that what
plays at party branch meetings and among disaffected farmers and their friends
will not work in regional electorates with diversifying economies…

That bit about Newspoll is superfluous self
promotion that demeans The Oz. The jump in the Nats’ primary vote in
yesterday’s Newspoll is virtually within margin of error territory.

The Oz is on much sounder ground with these
criticisms:

It does not require a very long memory to
recall the days when the sugar and pork industries demanded protection from the
public purse. But pork prices rose 20% last year and sugar is at a
generational high, neither of which has anything to do with the generous
support schemes provided by Canberra. Nationals leader Mark Vaile appears to understand this. As Trade
Minister, he has worked hard to increase markets for agricultural exports,
something that will do more than any subsidy to secure a prosperous future for
farmers…

The problem the Nationals now face is how
to reconcile the competing and contradictory calls they think will make them
popular. Yesterday, there was talk about more infrastructure spending, which
inevitably means less money for tax cuts. But they want them as well. Except
they can’t agree on what sort…

That second point might be all a bit too
much for the Nats. “Reconcile the competing and contradictory calls they think
will make them popular”?

The first step would be to have the honesty to
admit that they’re contradictory – that the party’s whole raison d’etre is
contradictory. Free markets deliver prosperity. Pork doesn’t. And you can’t
have both.

Peter Fray

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