I think it was in 1970 that I first predicted the demise of the National Party, then the Australian Country Party.
The 1969 Federal Election had reduced its parliamentary numbers, and demography, I pontificated, was moving inexorably against it. Australians were deserting the bush for the cities in ever increasing numbers, and the trend could not be reversed.
While the ACP remained part of a ruling coalition, it could maintain the gerrymander by which rural electorates need to have a far smaller number of voters than their city counterparts, and continue subsidising this declining constituency to the extent that even in those far off days every adult resident of the bush received the equivalent of nearly $20,000 a year in taxpayer support.
But the 1969 election had shown that the coalition was on its last legs; a cloud no bigger than Gough Whitlam was looming across the political landscape and the capacity of the Country Party to deliver the spoils of victory appeared certain to come to an end the next time the voters went to the polls.
Moreover, the said E G Whitlam, had already shown an unexpected ability to win over the notoriously conservative rural electorate. In a ground-breaking by-election he had won the Queensland heartland seat of Capricornia for Labor, and had repeated the feat in Dawson in the general election.
Obviously in the early days of Federation a party to represent the special interests of the outback made sense and it could not be denied that the Country Party, under the formidable leadership of such men as Sir Earle Page, Sir Arthur Fadden and Sir John McEwen had been an important force in Australian politics, at times vital in keeping the mainstream conservative party – Liberals, Nationals, United Australia, now Liberals again — in power. But now its support was eroding on all sides, and its days were clearly numbered.
Well, they were, and they still are, even if the number is now approaching 14,000.
It is true that the party isn’t what it was in 1970. Its parliamentary strength has declined, and it has changed its name to the Nationals, although the only perceptible benefit is that its youth branch can now line up with the Young Libs and the Young Labs without embarrassment. “I’m a Young Nat” sounds much better than the previous version.
But the rural rump remains the great survivor of Australian politics, and like Mark Twain, can declare triumphantly that reports of its imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. Still, here comes another one: the weekend merger with the Liberals in Queensland is the real, honest to goodness, fair dinkum beginning of the end.
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The first thing to note about the National Party of Australia is that its name, like that of its fellow coalitionists the Liberal Party, is a lie. The Nationals are not, and never have been, national. And these days they are restricted to the eastern mainland. Whatever tenuous grasp they held in Western Australia and South Australia has long since been slipped away, they were never a presence in Tasmania and in the Northern Territory the conservatives have always been united in a single Country Liberal Party.
Only in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria do the Nationals exist as a separate entity, and even here they have sometimes appeared confused about their identity. In Victoria, for instance, they actually spent some time in coalition with Labor. In New South Wales they have been in and out of coalition with the Libs, but in Queensland they have often treated the Libs as just as much an enemy as Labor.
Queensland, however, has always been their real power base, the only place where they have ever held government in their own right or even as senior partner, albeit with the aid of a truly ferocious gerrymander. And even after Labor governments have imposed a form of democracy on the state the Nationals remain a far more powerful force than the Libs, so from a National point of view a merger makes a certain amount of sense.
Anywhere else, a merger would constitute something close to a Liberal takeover, with the Nats simply absorbed into their more widespread partner. Even the prospect leads serious Nats to threaten the formation of a new Country Party to look after the sectional interests which are still, theoretically at least, their raison d’etre. The Queensland Nats figured they were strong enough to call the tune, although some of more conspiratorial Libs under the leadership of disgraced former minister Santo Santoro are already plotting to subvert the newly formed Liberal National Party to their own purposes.
They may or may not succeed, but whatever happens one thing is clear: the old Queensland National Party is dead, and this has serious and potentially fatal implications for the remnants of the Party in its other footholds. For the moment, Queensland’s federal members will retain their identities, the Libs as Libs and the Nats as Nats. But what happens after future elections? Are the newly elected NLP members Nats or Libs? If it becomes their choice, they would be mad not to go with the strength. The pressure for a merger at the federal level, if only to tidy up such anomalies, can only increase.
Similarly the Queensland precedent can hardly be ignored in New South Wales and especially Victoria, where one federal member, Julian McGaurran, saw no difficulty in deserting the Nats for the Libs less than two years ago. Where McGaurran has gone, others will be tempted to follow. The Queensland Nats have scrambled the eggs and in the long term there is no real alternative for their colleagues but to join the omelet.
It must be galling to the feds and their leader Warren Truss, who are still celebrating a big win in the Gippsland by-election and anticipating more of the same in Lyne. But the long-awaited reckoning is finally upon them. They are in their last days, and this time we’re not talking about 14,000 of them.