The Liberals in Victoria vehemently deny that they have done a deal with the Labor Party, but the Nationals don’t believe them. Nor, it seems, do most of the commentators.

But the frenzy over Labor preferences in National Party seats – which, if Labor sticks to the current version of its how-to-vote card, will go to the Liberals – just demonstrates why a deal isn’t necessary.

Labor doesn’t need any quid pro quo for throwing an apple of discord among the opposition parties; the reaction it’s been getting is plenty reward enough.

According to this morning’s Age, the Nationals are “planning an anti-Liberal advertising assault throughout country Victoria.” Back in 2002, the Nationals attacked the Liberals in return for getting Labor preferences; this year, they’re attacking them in retaliation for not getting them. Le plus ça change

Also in The Age, Tim Colebatch reviews the plight of the Nationals, with a short history lesson. Although the National (formerly Country) Party “between 1924 and 1952 … was the dominant force in Victorian politics”, he points out that “since 1952 it has been the party on the cross-benches, except for seven years as a very junior coalition partner in the Kennett government.

This may come as a surprise to readers in other states. John Howard, who last weekend called for the return of the Victorian Coalition, is used to New South Wales politics, where it’s a longstanding truism that the Liberals can never win without the National Party.

But in Victoria, the National Party hasn’t held the balance of power in the 50 years since fair electoral boundaries were introduced. Jeff Kennett allowed it back into government, but he never had to: the Liberals had a clear majority in their own right.

Apart from that, the last Coalition government in Victoria took office in 1947. It collapsed after a year, and the two parties have been more often than not at each other’s throats since.

I think Colebatch overstates his case a little; it’s not true that the Country Party once commanded 25% of the vote (its peak was 18.7% in 1945), and its collapse this year is not foreordained either: large shifts do happen in country seats, where sitting MPs command large personal votes, and even without Labor preferences I wouldn’t write off any of the lower house Nationals.

But the days when the Nationals were the kingmakers of Victorian politics seem to be well and truly over.

Peter Fray

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