These are dark days for the National Party. But give its leaders credit: they have never lost sight of the main game. They know that the survival of the Nationals depends not on how they perform against the ALP, but on how they perform against the Liberals. Witness the Coalition agreement to fight next year’s state election in NSW, which has finally been settled after more than a year of negotiations.

The last sticking point, apparently, was the joint ticket for the Legislative Council. The first seven places on the ticket are safe, so the order within them matters only for prestige – the Nationals will get second and fifth, the Liberals the other five. The problem was the number eight spot. In 2003 the Coalition only won seven, but they had more than 7.3 quotas (33.3% of the vote), so they can be reasonably confident of getting the eighth this time – they will need a swing of 2 to 3%, and the polls have been showing twice that.

So the Nationals held out for the eighth position, and eventually the Liberals gave in. That means in addition to the only two lower house seats in dispute (Monaro and Tweed), the Nationals will get three out of a likely eight upper house seats. A ninth, which would be a Liberal, is not impossible, but it would be a very long shot; as Imre Salusinszky explained in this morning’s Australian: “Liberal negotiators tried to convince the Nationals side that, given the unpopularity of the NSW Labor Government, ninth spot was winnable – which brought the immediate riposte that, if that was the case, they were welcome to it themselves.”

NSW has always been the most harmonious state for Liberal-National relations. Because three-cornered contests have been largely avoided for so long, it is hard to tell just how out of touch with public opinion the current arrangements are. At the last election the Liberals outvoted the Nationals 24.7% to 9.6%, but since voters were nowhere given a choice between those numbers are largely meaningless.

Having the Liberals out of the running, though, hasn’t prevented the Nationals from losing seats; there are now five independents who sit for would should be safe Coalition seats in National Party territory. But faced with the alternative of conceding ground to the Liberal Party, the Nationals obviously regard Labor and independents as the lesser evil.

Peter Fray

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