Counting of postal and absentee votes yesterday put the seat of Dubbo out of reach for the National Party, with independent Dawn Fardell enjoying a lead of 675 votes and only a handful remaining to be counted.

That means the New South Wales Nationals, who had hopes of winning an additional four seats (two from Labor and two from independents), have gained only one – Tweed, taken from Labor with an 8% swing – for a total of 13. Their total vote improved by a modest 0.6%.

But Nationals leader Andrew Stoner is bullish about the result, reportedly issuing a threat on Tuesday to “[take] on the Liberals in a bid to become the state’s leading conservative party.”

Yesterday federal leader Mark Vaile tried to hose down the idea. But according to the ABC, Stoner “is concerned the problems within the Liberal Party are causing it to self-destruct and that the ugly preselection contests cost the Coalition the election.”

Superficially, this strategy has its attractions. There’s no doubt the NSW Liberals are dysfunctional, so association with them is hardly likely to be an electoral plus. And in the two states where the Nationals have actively dissociated themselves from the Liberals, South Australia and Victoria, they recorded significant swings in their favor in last year’s elections.

But those swings were coming off a very low base – much lower than in NSW. The Victorian Nationals, even after winning two extra seats last November, have only nine seats and about half the vote of their NSW counterparts.

And unlike his colleagues in Victoria and SA, Stoner shows no sign of actually wanting to manoeuvre between the two major parties; he’s competing for the same turf as the Liberals. But that’s a very risky strategy.

The NSW Nationals’ seats are all guaranteed, under current Coalition arrangements, against any Liberal challenge. Without that guarantee, many of them would be vulnerable: coastal seats like Ballina, Coffs Harbour and Myall Lakes are not in any meaningful sense “rural”, and would be prime targets for the Liberals.

This has been the dilemma faced by the Nationals for many years now. Getting close to the Liberals leaves their rural seats open to challenge from independents (and sometimes from Labor), but moving away from them tempts the Liberals to move in on former Nationals territory.

Victoria and South Australia suggest that it’s possible for the Nationals to establish their own niche as an independent force. But it’s a much smaller niche than what the NSW Nationals are used to.