Election season is almost upon us, and as usual all the attention is on Liberals versus ALP, with this year a bit of extra coverage for the Greens. No one much ever talks about the National Party.

Michelle Grattan tries to redress that with a long piece in this morning’s Age. Her argument, briefly, is that the Nationals’ success at imposing their policies on the opposition makes for electoral trouble by compromising their ability to differentiate themselves from the Liberals.

There’s a good reason why election coverage doesn’t usually focus on the Nationals. The main game at the election is who will win government, but for the Nationals that’s usually a side issue. Their existential contest is with the Liberals, not with Labor. Gaining or losing the occasional seat vis-a-vis the ALP doesn’t make much difference to them, but losing seats to the Liberals — as they have been steadily doing in recent times — threatens their very survival.

This year, however, is a bit different. If the election is close (as the polls presently suggest, although I’m deeply sceptical about this), National Party seats could play a big part. Three of its own seats are very marginal — Cowper (1.2%), Hinkler (1.5%) and Calare (3.5%) — and it is contesting another three very marginal Labor seats: Flynn (2.2%), Page (2.4%) and Dawson (2.6%). Contrary to the usual pattern, its chances of returning to government could depend a lot on its own efforts.

Even so, expect a big part of the Nationals’ efforts to go into Riverina — a safe coalition seat, but one that the Liberals will be trying to win following the retirement of the Nationals’ Kay Hull. When neighboring Farrer was in this position nine years ago, the Liberals outvoted the Nationals by more than 14%, although the Nationals almost held the seat on Labor preferences.

In Victoria, by contrast, there’s unlikely to be much Nationals activity at all. Neither of their two Reps seats there is threatened, and a Senate seat has kindly been gifted to them by the Liberals. Most probably they will husband their resources ready for November’s state election, where they are hoping to win the balance of power for the first time since 1952.

I think Grattan is right to say that the very success of the Nationals in coalition infighting has complicated their task. But whether it will make a difference electorally is hard to say. Certainly the polls have been bad: the last two Newspolls have had them on 3%, compared to 5.5% at the 2007 election.

But it would be wrong to put much weight on those numbers; first because they are so small that they are subject to significant sampling error, and more importantly because the large majority of voters never have the opportunity to choose between Liberals and Nationals, so what they tell pollsters when asked to do so is largely meaningless. AC Nielsen, for example, doesn’t even bother to report separate Liberal and National figures.

If the coalition as a whole does well, the Nationals will probably ride to success on its back. But if they fail to hold ground against the Liberals, their long-term prospects will remain bleak.

Peter Fray

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