There’s a regular living for commentators in predicting the impending death of the National Party — I fear I’ve done it a few times myself.

Josh Gordon is onto it in today’s Age saying the party in Victoria faces “the loss of party status … denying the rural party hundreds of thousands of dollars for staff, offices, vehicles and other resources”.

Nonetheless, for all the obituaries, the beast stubbornly refuses to die. In fact, on the most recent figures, the Nationals are exactly where they were 35 years ago, in 1979, with 5.6% of the vote and eight seats.

From their peak of 18.7% of the vote in 1945, Victoria’s Nationals (then called the Country Party) declined fairly rapidly, dropping to 7.1% by 1961. (The University of Western Australia database has all the figures.) Since then, however, the picture is not so much one of decline but rather a steady bobbing up and down. Here are the party’s lower house results since 1979:

 

Interestingly, its performance seems pretty much independent of whether or not it’s in coalition with the Liberals. In the coalition years (1992-99 and 2010-14) it contests fewer seats, but its vote there is higher because it’s not competing with the Liberals. The non-coalition years have a lower vote per seat but a similar aggregate.

The coalition may be a matter of indifference for the Nationals, but for the Liberals it’s become a necessity. While it’s rare for them to actually need the Nationals’ votes (among its other historic properties, the 2010-2014 Parliament will be remembered as the only time since 1952 that the Nationals have held the balance of power), and even if they do, the Nationals have nowhere else to go, the public perception of Liberal-National warfare is blamed for poor electoral showings in 1988 and 2006.

Hence the need for the Nationals to be bought off with ever-more-generous terms, including joint tickets in the Senate and the Legislative Council.

The other constant for the National Party is its disproportionate representation. Since the 1950s it has more often than not been in fourth place in terms of votes — behind the Electoral Reform League (1952), the Democratic Labour Party (1955-73), the Australian Democrats (1982) or, since 2002, the Greens. But its concentrated vote delivers it a solid bloc of seats that other minor parties can only dream of.

On Saturday the Greens won almost exactly twice as many votes as the Nationals, at 11.2%, a total that will rise slightly with absentee votes. But whereas the Nationals at worst (if they lose Morwell) will collect seven seats, the Greens at best have managed three: reasonably secure in Melbourne, a strong chance in Prahran and a very rough outside chance in Brunswick.

No one has produced a sensible defence of why we should tolerate an electoral system with this sort of unfairness, and it’s unlikely that anyone ever will. But we seem to be stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

The Greens, however, have at least answered the critics who said that their vote was bound to decline from its recent peak. Perhaps more importantly, by at least coming very close to snatching Prahran from the Liberals, they have answered those who said that they would only ever be a threat to Labor.

At the last Victorian election I pointed out that, in the wake of the Liberals’ decision to preference against them, the Greens were making gains against Labor but stagnant in Liberal seats. That trend has now reversed itself; in addition to Prahran, the Greens have advanced in Kew, Hawthorn, Malvern, Burwood, Bulleen and others.

Nonetheless, with a general swing to the Left, the Greens could reasonably have hoped to do better. Progress for them looks like being less of an unstoppable tide and more a slow seat-by-seat grind. Perhaps a Labor leader from the Socialist Left running on an anti-freeway platform stole some of their thunder.

The big question for the future is whether an increased Greens contingent (on the latest figures they look like winning an extra two upper house seats as well) will force the major parties to take them more seriously. The Liberals in particular, staring at another long period in opposition, need all the friends that they can get. This wouldn’t be a bad time to try building some bridges to the Greens.

Peter Fray

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