Come every election, the commentariat have been only too keen to proclaim the imminent demise of the National Party as seemingly a victim of alleged irrelevance and changing demographics. Election after election, however, the National Party has defied the odds, survived and sent the predictable cavalcade of dismissive journalists into hiding for the next three years before they once again emerge to regurgitate the same negative rhetoric about our electoral fortunes.
Similar apocalyptic comments were, foolishly, applied to the Gippsland by-election. Not only did Darren Chester prevail for the Nationals, he more than doubled the margin over Labor to about 12 per cent. In the context of Rudd Labor riding high in the nationwide polls, with some approximating a two-party-preferred figure as high as 61 per cent (Morgan Poll, June 27), the loss of Peter McGauran’s personal vote and voter frustration at having to vote again just six months after the general election, the result on June 28 was nothing short of outstanding.
In obtaining about 62 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, the Nationals in Gippsland achieved a 23-point turnaround from the published nationwide opinion polls. All parts of the electorate recorded swings to the Nationals; the traditional heartlands of Maffra and Lakes Entrance both swung in excess of 8 per cent. Crucially though, it was in the industrial zone of the La Trobe Valley where Labor suffered double-digit losses. All Traralgon booths were carried convincingly, and more surprisingly, the Nationals won the Morwell Central booth after preferences - this in an area where conservatives would normally be satisfied to receive in the mid thirties after the distribution of preferences.
More significant than defeating Labor is the concurrent defeat of a Liberal challenger. The fate of longstanding Nationals safe seats such as Murray and Farrer after the retirement of long-serving members in turning blue was constantly talked up by the media as likely in Gippsland as part of their intransigent narrative of the Nationals inevitably facing oblivion at Liberal hands. Despite a credible candidate and a campaign war chest at least as large as the Nationals’, the Liberal Party actually received a lower primary vote than they did in 1983 when Peter McGauran succeeded Peter Nixon.
Gippsland is far from anomalous in the overall political environment. At recent state elections, the National Party has often outperformed the larger and better-financed Liberals in winning seats where they did not.
In New South Wales, the Nationals won the two crucial Labor seats of Tweed and Murray-Darling off established incumbents; double the number of seats that their New South Wales Liberal colleagues managed to wrest off the reviled NSW Labor Government.
The Victorian Nationals achieved the previously unthinkable in defeating an independent in Mildura and winning Morwell for the first time, along with two seats in the new and unfavourable upper house system while the Liberals failed to regain traditional eastern suburbs seats.
Even the debacle of Peter Beattie’s re-election in Queensland in 2006 saw the Nationals win additional seats while the Liberals had to beg Lawrence Springborg to salvage their campaign in the south-east after their own leadership jeopardised their entire parliamentary presence.
One could also examine the demolition of the Liberals in South Australia in 2006. There, the tiny National Party division managed to increase their vote and go close to winning extra seats, all on the smell of an oily rag and with little historical precedent of there being a Nationals vote.
The Western Australian Nationals also held their ground in 2005 and look set to maintain that in 2009.
The lessons of June 28 are clear: pre-select young, credible candidates that can articulate the core conservative principles of the National Party, support he or she with a professional campaign and the electorate will rally to the cause. Success in Gippsland was accordingly built around the principles of free enterprise, decentralisation and family values.
Labor abysmally failed in attempting to wedge the Coalition parties by attacking the Nationals for tough but correct decisions made in government last century. Privatising the Victorian power industry was controversial at the time but it was right and necessary in enhancing productivity and rescuing Victoria from the position of near-bankruptcy inflicted by Labor.
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