The predictable loss of the key New South Wales National Party federal seat of Lyne to popular local independent Rob Oakeshott is a classic example of the malaise confronting the National Party.
In the past 20 years, the Nationals’ share of the primary vote in the House of Representatives has dropped from a high of 11.5 per cent in 1987 down to a low of 5.3 per cent in 1998. Although its share rose 5.9 per cent in the 2004 election, the number of seats the Nationals won was at its lowest at 12, since 1949.
During the Howard government, the number of National seats won dropped with every election from 18, to 16, to 13, to 12 in 2004.
More recently, the 2007 federal election saw the number of seats drop to 10 and with the loss of Lyne, compounded this devastating downwards trend to just nine (including one provincial) National Party seats.
An analysis by Clive Bean of federal election results from 1983 to 1993 has shown that support for the National Party from farmers who make up its core constituency, fell from 55 per cent of the House of Representatives first preference vote in 1984, following the National Party’s decision to vote with the Labor Party on the Representation Bill 1983 which increased the number of MPs in Parliament, to just 43 per cent in 1993. With support for the Liberal Party from this constituency at 44 per cent, these figures show support for the National Party is below that.
The National Party has also lost support from the self employed and as people move from the country to metropolitan areas, their traditional support base is haemorrhaging.
Migration from the cities into coastal areas, most notably northern NSW, is diluting previous National Party strongholds. To compound the problem, farmers are moving off the land and the percentage of people (particularly young people) involved in farming activity has significantly decreased in all rural areas, particularly in Queensland and the north coast of NSW.
Given these compelling factors which are placing significant pressure on the National Party’s ability to survive as a creditable and influential rural-based political party, it is not surprising that former respected leaders of the National Party such as Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair, Peter Nixon and John Anderson have called for a merger of the Liberal and National Parties.
Doug Anthony made the following poignant comment in his article “Better to Merge than Fade Away” on March 13, 2008:
Realistically the most important thing that the members of the Nationals can do is to have a political force that can attend to the interests of rural and regional people. It is our belief that if all the rural representatives of the parties could speak with one voice, then more positive action would occur and be a greater challenge to the Labor Party which is infiltrating territory that it is not traditionally dedicated to.
The sensible recognition of the need for a strong conservative force of rural based MPs vigorously representing rural and regional conservative interests, is much more relevant now than it was when Doug Anthony voiced concerns in the March 2008 opinion piece.
The National Party loss of the federal seat of Lyne to an independent has highlighted the perilous state of their rural representation at the federal level and has emphasised how dramatically their rural presence has declined in the House of Representatives.
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