The view from Billinudgel

Instability again threatens the Nationals
What can history tell us about the party’s current strife?


I think it was in 1969 I first predicted that the Country Party (as the Nationals were then called) would wither away.

It seemed to me that the iron laws of demography meant that their shrinking rural base would shortly reach the point of no return – neither its numbers nor the resources needed to sustain them would be sufficient to keep the party of rural socialists in the style to which they had been accustomed in their long coalition with the increasingly impatient Liberals.

And when the Coalition finally went into Opposition three years later and lost its ability to deliver the goodies its greedy voters demanded, many believed its very reason for being would disappear. But in fact the Nats survived the tumultuous three Whitlam years, and under new and ferocious leadership unquestioningly backed by Malcolm Fraser, a Liberal who often had more in common with the Nationals rump than the majority in his own party, it actually made something of a comeback.

And in spite of regular reports of their impending demise, the Nats have hung on – indeed, in 2016 they were credited with saving the Coalition’s bacon. Thus it may well be that the latest reports of its demise have been exaggerated.

But in the absence of any compelling leadership – the giants Earle Page, Arthur Fadden and Black Jack McEwen, as well as the trio of headkickers Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and Peter Nixon – the situation is not good.

It was McEwen who wrested the party from its rustic roots to try and broaden its appeal to the regions, and even into the suburbs of the cities. To an extent he succeeded, but in the process he set up tensions that that have only increased over time.

Arguably the merger of the Nats and the Libs in Queensland – always regarded as the heartland – was the final straw for many, and the party’s unquestioning support for the mining industry – often at the expense of the farmers – left more traditional voters looking for alternatives.

The Shooters Party, as it was known in 1992, became a direct competitor within NSW state politics, and was at least strong enough to present a challenge – if only through its preferences – to federal seats as well. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was the next obvious alternative for traditional Nationals voters, and the Nationals’ leadership was slow to respond to the threat. But initially it was largely confined to the deep north, meaning the infection could be at least partially contained.

The grass roots, who had long complained that they had been ignored by their leadership in Canberra, finally had an alternative – and at the same time both Labor and even the Liberals were devising rural policies (and pork barrels) of their own.

And it is in this context that the earnest but colourless leadership of Michael McCormack is now struggling. He is not the first nonentity to lead the Nats – Charles Blunt, Mark Vaile and Warren Truss, to name but three, were hardly shining lights, and this is perhaps why the wildly erratic but charismatic Barnaby Joyce got the job, and why he may get it again.

The mood for change will accelerate if the Nats lose a seat or two in New South Wales; if they lose any federally it will become irresistible. Whether the party can save these seats in the longer term we do not know. But given my record, I’m not making any predictions.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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