The last of the post-election leadership issues was settled yesterday, with Warren Truss elected unopposed as leader of the Nationals, and Senator Nigel Scullion as his deputy.

This was a horrendous election for the Nationals: their support fell to all-time lows in both votes (5.6%) and seats (ten, or 6.7%). For the second time running, the Greens beat them into fourth place, although with 7.6% the Greens won no lower house seats at all. (It’s a measure of how little Australians care about politics that there is no public outcry against this and other vagaries of our electoral system.)

The Nationals lost two seats (Page and Dawson) to Labor, and failed to win the new seat of Flynn. For the Nationals, however, performance against Labor is always something of a sideshow; the real problem is their failure to make up ground against the Liberals.

There were eight three-cornered contests (the fewest since 1969), and once again the Nationals failed to win any of them: Labor and the Liberals won four each. The Nationals’ share of the Coalition vote remained generally flat; it improved significantly only in Wilson Tuckey’s O’Connor, and it dropped precipitously in Leichhardt and Capricornia.

The Nationals have now not won a seat from the Liberals since 1993. In their most serious attempt to do so this time, Forde, the Liberals outvoted them by almost three to one.

In general, Coalition defeats are associated with greater relative strength for the Nationals, because its seats tend to be safer. But that’s no longer so clear. Of the ten remaining, two (Cowper and

Hinkler) only held off the ALP by tiny margins this time, while another two (Calare and Parkes) were close to being lost to independents. The rest would at least be given a fright if the Liberals ever decided to challenge.

Don’t expect much of a change in strategy from Warren Truss. At age 59 and an MP for 17 years, he clearly represents business as usual for the Nationals.

But that’s exactly what isn’t working for them. If they don’t try something different pretty quickly, then Australia’s oldest minor party may soon reach the end of its road.

Peter Fray

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