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The Nationals need to review their place in Australian politics, too

By Brian Costar - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

Not surprisingly most political attention has focused on the Hawke/Wran committee of inquiry established by new leader Simon Crean to recommend changes to the ALP’s federal organisation with the aim of enhancing its electoral appeal.

Less newsworthy have been remarks by the National Party leader , John Anderson, that a similar review may be needed of his own party. Details remain sketchy but Anderson has intimated that the party may need to run more coordinated election campaigns in the future and that there may be a role for the federal party organisation in candidate preselection.

Anderson would be wise to tread cautiously as his comments would have been described as ‘courageous’ by the late Sir Humphrey.


This is because the National Party is a very federalist party and the state branches (notably Queensland) are fiercely protective of their substantial autonomy from the Federal Council or Federal Management Committee. Within the states, branch members similarly will not accept dictation from local executives or Management Committees.

It was forever thus: for almost two decades from the mid-1920s the Victorian branch of the then Country Party waged unremitting war on the Australian Federal Farmers Organisation (the forerunner of the current federal party organisation) even expelling Jack McEwen from the party in 1937 for the crime of accepting a portfolio in a federal coalition ministry without its permission.

The culture of the National Party places great stress on the influence of ordinary branch members’ rights and the autonomy of the state branches. No better example can be found than in the way the party preselects its federal candidates. The state branches run the preselections and the federal party cannot interfere and in most states the decision to preselect rests exclusively with branch delegates. Any attempt by party hierarchs to openly promote a preferred candidate can be the kiss of death.( The only exception was in the Queensland branch in the 1970s and 1980s where the state executive played an interventionist role in preselections until the downfall of Bjelke Petersen)

Why then is Anderson prepared to stir up this potential hornets’ nest? The answer lies in the National Party’s poor performance at the 2001 federal election where it lost three House of Representative seats leaving it with a total of just 13 which , having regard for a much smaller parliament before 1949, is the worst result since the party entered the federal arena in 1919 and cost the party a ministerial post. Its 2001 primary vote share was the second worst on record , up only 0.3 % on the dismal 1998 5.3 per cent result.

Certainly there were some bright spots in 2001, of which the defeat of Pauline Hanson by Ron Boswell for a Queensland Senate place was the most significant and contributed to Ms Hanson’s recent (permanent?) withdrawal from electoral politics. Yet before the Tampa sailed away with Labor’s expected election victory , there was a real possibility that the Nationals could have lost six or even nine House seats.

What has gone wrong for Australia’s second oldest party and the oldest continuous agrarian party in the world? In the 25 years since the great Coalition landslide of 1975 the number of National members of the House of Representatives has declined from 23 to 13 and the proportion of seats from 18.1 per cent to 8.6 per cent. Its share of the primary vote has halved from 11.3 per cent to 5.6 per cent.


What has caused this electoral decline and will it prove terminal? The old argument that as people left the countryside for the capital cities so the National Party would wither is not plausible since the drift from the country to the metropoli ceased in 1981. If the related decline in the number of farms and farmers were so important then the National Party would have disappeared decades ago.

This is not to say that demograhic changes have not impacted on the party. Over the past twenty years our most important internal population movement has been from the cities to the coastal regions of New South Wales and Queensland,once home to safe National Party electorates. Of the five house seats the Nationals lost between 1984 and 1993 four were in coastal regions. While two of these have since been regained, the National Party leadership must be concerned at the 2001 loss of the usually much safer inland seats of Kennedy and New England to Independents.

Political explanations are as important as demographic ones. There remains no shortage of rural and regional electorates for the Nationals to win, but they confront multiple opponents in the Labor and Liberal Parties, One Nation and Independents. Between 1975 and 1993 the National party lost five seats to Labor, three to the Liberal Party and, contrary to popular mythology, only one (Wimmera) to electoral redistribution.

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An edited version of this article was published in The Australian Financial Review on January 21, 2002.

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About the Author

Brian Costar is professor of Victorian state parliamentary democracy at the institute.

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