While most Australians were thinking about anything other than politics over the Easter long weekend, that doesn’t apply to various groups within the Nats, who were busily leaking to the papers on the ever more confusing “United Conservative Party” push in Queensland.

Laurie Oakes, as is often the case, had the pick of the leaks, revealing in his column that Ron Boswell was gearing himself up for one last fight against what has been dubbed the “Pineapple Party” — the stand alone Springborg/Joyce version which would swallow up not just the Libs, but also corral everyone on the right wing fringes from Family First through the Fishing Party to the remnants of One Nation. This was unconvincingly denied by Nats state president Bruce McIvor, but the timing of the leak is significant — the Liberals’ state council meets next weekend to deliberate on the UCP concept.

Unsurprisingly, Boswell prefers to push a straight Libs/Nats amalgamation, while leading moderate Libs such as George Brandis still oppose any sort of amalgamated or reformed party. According to Oakes, Nelson’s amalgmation gambit has to be seen in this context — as a pre-emptive maneouvre to slow the Borg’s momentum.

Oakes observes that the Federal Nats are more or less dead in the water. What he overlooks is that — at state level — the Queensland Nats are finally coming to realise that they are too.

Crikey can reveal that senior Nats privately admit that the “United Conservative Party” push is born of weakness, rather than being touted from a position of strength. Sources point out that their state vote hasn’t topped 20% in the last three elections, and that a group within the party — closely tied to Barnaby Joyce — sees the elimination of parties further to the right as the only chance the Nats have of shoring up their support.

A far right vote became evident shortly after Joh Bjelke-Petersen was overthrown, with the League of Rights linked Citizens’ Electoral Council winning his seat of Barambah at a by-election. Although the CEC member, Trevor Perrett, defected to the Nats, he was swept away by One Nation in 1998. The One Nation wave subsided relatively quickly, but the Nats vote collapsed further in 2001, when Labor began picking up the discontented rural demographic and the Nats slumped to 12 seats in the 89 seat legislative assembly. Two elections down the track, the Nationals vote has only recovered by 3.2% and only 5 seats have been won back.

At federal level, the Nats are left with three seats, and these electorates, like those that have already fallen, are vulnerable not just to Labor but also to independents and the Liberals. Barnaby Joyce’s own election to the Senate, according to his critics, represented his ability to appeal to fundies and crazies and the bedrock populist rural vote, with mainstream conservatives largely flowing to the Libs. There is no doubt that Joyce’s campaign played heavily to “social issues”, particularly abortion, and sought to appeal to disgruntled rural voters with his (subsequently broken) promise to vote against the sale of Telstra.

Nationals such as Boswell recognise that their state vote remains open to fragmentation and Labor’s renewed ability to win rural as well as regional seats, and that any conservative win in Queensland would by necessity rely on urban Liberal strength, and likely see the Nats relegated to junior Coalition partner in government. Lawrence Springborg knows this too, but his conclusions point in an opposite direction – the need to bring back the stray sheep to the Nationals’ flock. The sticking point for Boswell is that this would see far right forces whom he’s long fought legitimised within the conservative mainstream. Meanwhile, it hasn’t escaped the attention of moderate Liberals that their own urban vote suffered badly in 1998 when city voters reacted against the Nats’ preferencing One Nation, and that most of the voters lost to Labor have yet to return to the Liberal fold.

What is being played out in Queensland has little to do with unity — it’s rather the fruits of a conservative decline whose roots go back to the collapse of the Joh regime. None of the options on the table appear likely to reverse this decline, particularly if Queensland Labor leaders like Bligh and Rudd continue to display the ability to capitalise on its effects on both populist former Nationals voters and moderate Liberal voters. What is becoming clearer are the real stakes and shape of this struggle.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off