In a particularly quiet week in politics, you can always rely on Barnaby Joyce for a juicy quote. Out came Barnaby today to declare that the Nationals should run a separate campaign from the Liberals to maximise their vote.
The Nationals, it is clear, are not going gently into that good night. They’re going with a racket, kicking and screaming, clawing at everyone and everything around them. But they’re going anyway. They have little choice. The only possible future the Nationals have is as a rump of a Coalition with the Liberals. A small, not particularly relevant and faintly embarrassing rump.
That’s the least worst option they face.
The alternatives are to merge with the Liberals, which would amount to the end of the party outside Queensland, or to separate, as Barnaby Joyce is now proposing, which would mean a relatively quick death at the hands of the electorate. What they have at the moment is, dismal as it seems, as good as it gets.
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As Antony Green explained in an excellent piece on the decline of the Nats, the Nationals are not merely up against demography and the decline of rural populations, they’re up against everyone else in politics. Of the 16 House of Representatives seats they’ve lost since 1977 to other parties, eight went to the Liberals, five to the ALP and three to Independents. The Nationals’ greatest political enemy is their Coalition partner.
What the Nationals have never been able to explain is why, when candidates leave the National Party and set up as independents, their vote skyrockets and they become invulnerable in what were once safe National seats. Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter all have margins that most MPs can only dream about. There is clearly something toxic about the Nationals brand that makes this keep happening. Only Oakeshott occupies a regional seat of the type that the Nationals have struggled to hold in recent years against Labor. Windsor and Katter hold traditional National seats — Windsor’s was Ian Sinclair’s fiefdom for a generation; Katter’s father held Kennedy for 24 years.
Despite what Joyce believes, the Nationals’ problem has nothing to do with how close they are to the Liberals. They’ve been separate from the Liberals in Queensland for most of the past two decades and longer, and it did them no good whatsoever. Voters don’t reject Nationals candidates because of the Liberals, they reject them because they’re Nationals. The problem is that the Nationals are unique in Australian politics in being sectorally based. They are the representatives of a specific industry, agriculture, and are thus hostage to structural changes in that industry. Agriculture has become far more efficient, corporatised and capital-intensive over the past 100 years, leaving the Nationals to represent a backwards-looking vision of Australia.
Moreover, the traditional electoral strategy of the Nationals, to funnel public money to bush electorates as a demonstration of the benefits of voting for what would otherwise be a minor party, doesn’t work as well electorally when there’s fewer voters to pork barrel, other parties and independents can do exactly the same and regional communities, particularly along the coast, are becoming as diverse and as dependent on the state of the wider Australian economy as urban Australians.
While the Nationals remain a party structured around a specific industry, they’ll be stranded, protecting an ever-smaller base against their Coalition partners, Labor and independents, fighting to hold a seat every time a member retires, unable to think about growing even back to the levels of support of a decade ago.
You might have noticed Nats-hater Alby Schultz is in full agreement with Joyce: he wants them to go their own way. Schultz understands that once that happens, all deals will be off and the Liberals will be able to take on the Nats wherever they want. As Green’s figures show, the Liberals are the biggest threat to the Nationals — an existential threat in a way Labor can never be. Once the Nats leave the protection of the Coalition, they’ll be on their way to oblivion.
The only problem for the Schultz strategy is that until that oblivion comes, the conservative side of politics will be stuck looking disunited and internally focused, and that virtually guarantees continuing defeat. That’s why the status quo is the best option for both sides, regardless of how bad it seems now.