Features Australia

Bye bye Nats?

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

Some could use the Barnaby Joyce Affair as an opportunity to kick the National party while it’s down… so let’s get underway.

The National party is Australia’s greatest hindrance to good government.

The banner on the Nationals’ website declares ‘A Strong Voice for Regional Australia.’ But the Nationals do not represent ‘regional Australia’ – the Liberal party does by a 2-1 margin in the House of Representatives. Unlike regional Liberals the Nationals are frequently under threat from independents. Nationals are more vulnerable to independents because their voters perceive they are voting for the B Team. Strength is an important part of political appeal and the Nationals lack it.

The House of Representatives today has no Nationals from WA, SA, Tasmania, the ACT or even Qld. The constitution of the Liberal National party in Qld is clear – the LNP is a ‘division’ (i.e. family) of the Liberal party and an ‘affiliate’ (i.e. friend) of the Nationals.  In the 2016 election Nationals received 4.61 per cent of the popular vote which delivered ten MPs in the 148 seat House of Representatives (in 1984 the Nationals received more than double the votes and seats.) These ten Nationals in the House today comprise seven from NSW and three from Victoria. This shrinking rump is principally a northern NSW party because factions in the NSW Liberals don’t want conservative minded non-metro members and is relieved to hive them off. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship… for insiders.

For the little they bring to the table the Nats get the Deputy Prime Ministership and five members of the 23 member cabinet on a platter.

The political crime of the Nationals is when it comes to the all-important federal parliamentary leadership election of the Liberal party. Once a week when parliament sits the Liberals hold a party room meeting in which all parliamentary Liberals gather. At the same time the Nationals do the same thing… but these meetings are brief and inconsequential. 30 minutes later the Nationals head down the hallway to the ‘Joint Party Room Meeting’… which is the real meeting. These meetings can go for hours and are often heated as policy is thrashed out.

In the Joint Party Room, Nationals typically argue for more conservative policies (good) but when it comes around to a leadership ballot these right-wing votes walk out (bad). When you add the National MPs and the Senators plus the LNPer’s who wear a Nationals badge in Canberra we are talking about 21 votes. When conservative Liberals are counting numbers for a leadership ballot they’re starting 21 votes unnecessarily down – around a quarter of the number who actually vote. Of course the Liberal party membership (not the parliamentarians) should elect parliamentary leaders (i.e. the Westminster norm) but we won’t achieve that unless we have a conservative Liberal parliamentary leader first.

Bill Shorten’s is aping Jeremy Corbyn; therefore wise citizens are pro- Malcolm Turnbull. Over the long term however Australia is better served by conservative Liberal leadership. The historical record is clear. Right-wing Liberal leaders over-perform in federal elections – Menzies, Holt, Fraser Mark I, Howard, and Abbott. Left-wingers underperform – Gorton, Fraser Mark II, Peacock and Turnbull so far. The only two exceptions to the ‘right is right’ rule are when John Hewson underperformed in 1993 and  Billy Snedden overperformed in 1974. So if we want conservative Liberal leaders we need that bloc that today identifies as Nationals fully inside the party room.

The Nationals’ website explains the purpose of the party: ‘the party stands for all regional Australians – families, the retired, small business operators, sea changers and tree changers, students and anyone who wants to see a fair go for all.’ So it’s no longer a ‘farmers’ party’; its marketing sounds identical to the Liberal party’s except we don’t divide Australians by geography. Other Anglosphere nations do not have rural and urban-based conservative parties, and regional interests are strengthened by being inside the tent.

A takeover of the Nationals hasn’t been on the Liberal radar because our two giants – Robert Menzies and John Howard – were seared by disputes with the Country/National Party during their ill-fated first periods of parliamentary leadership. In 1939 Prime Minister Joe Lyons died in office and Menzies was elected leader of the UAP (the immediate predecessor of the Liberal Party). But the leader of the Country Party, Earle Page, refused to serve in government with Menzies, ripped up the coalition agreement and crippled Menzies’ authority. Howard believed he was robbed of the prime ministership in 1987 by ‘Joh for PM.’ As a result both our giants went on to become hyper-coalitionists and consistently deferential to the junior party. This generation will correct this dysfunction.

But wouldn’t the disappearance of the Nationals fuel One Nation? No. One Nation does well when the Liberals are led by a lefty… so if today’s Nationals help elect a conservative Liberal there won’t be enough energy on the right for One Nation.

Nationals fear three cornered contests when they have to compete against a Liberal, because the voters usually express a preference for the A team. The coalition agreement has been that Liberals won’t contest National seats unless the sitting member retires… plus we gift them one in three of our senators in NSW and Victoria. The Liberals can knock off the Nationals by simply insisting the Nationals stop bludging off the Liberals and win their seats on merit and not a protection racket. The NSW and Victorian Liberals need to contest every National held seat and to run our own Nat-free senate ticket. The Nationals will be crippled by losing half their seats in one election and fold before the subsequent election. The few Nationals that do get re-elected in that first election wouldn’t dare vote with Labor in parliament. In the 2010 election, the WA Nationals elected their first member to the House in years – Tony Crook – who vacillated about supporting Abbott or Gillard… and as payback his constituents voted for a reliable Liberal at the next election.

The NSW National party has a large membership, several times that of the Libs. Good! The Liberal party needs rejuvenation and has recently taken its first step towards democratic reform so the National membership won’t be swamped by Liberals. They can however look forward to increased policy clout and MPs who can aspire to be prime minister.

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