The proposals for a Liberal-National Party merger, already being doggedly pursued by Queensland Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg, were given a fresh twist yesterday by Senator Bill Heffernan. But the ongoing drama reveals a great deal about the relationship between the two parties and the fundamental nature of the Nationals.
For the Liberals, the Nationals are fundamentally a side issue: sometimes an asset, sometimes an irritant, in neither case the chief focus of interest. The main game is beating Labor, and the places that matter for that task are mostly well away from Nationals territory.
But for the Nationals, being beaten by Labor is much less serious than being beaten by the Liberals. In the language that has become familiar from “war on terror”, the Liberals represent an “existential threat”: they, and only they, can potentially render the Nationals irrelevant. So the relationship with the Liberals dominates the Nats’ world in a way that can never be reciprocated.
Broadly speaking, the Nationals have always had a choice. They could be, as they started out, a sectional party that represented rural interests and balanced between the two major parties. Or they could be a more explicitly right-wing party, aiming to broaden their base by attracting like-minded voters in more urban areas.
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Unwilling to commit themselves fully to either strategy, the Nationals have ended up with the worst of both worlds. They moved to the right far enough to lose their freedom of manoeuvre, but failed to gain any ground in the suburbs. They remain stranded in the declining demographic of rural Australia, and saddled with an unpopular ideology to boot. Only the tiny South Australian branch has been able to hold a balancing role between Liberals and ALP.
Springborg’s plan is to commit fully to the broad-based, ideological path. The Nationals’ last attempt to pursue that strategy seriously was the “Joh for PM” campaign of 1987. If it failed then, with a proven winner at the helm and most of the country’s right-wing intellectuals behind it, how on earth is it supposed to succeed now?
Heffernan’s vision for the Nationals is quite different: like most rural Liberals, he wants them to disappear, swallowed up in a merger that would really be a takeover. Things have become so bad for the Nationals that some of them are considering that option, but the majority are unlikely to go down without a fight.