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The Nationals may be heading into the wilderness, forever

By Geoff Robinson - posted Monday, 17 September 2007

In recent decades, the Nationals have defied predictions of their demise. They have weathered the passing of agrarian socialism and the rapid decline in the farm population and - after the debacle of the "Joh for PM" campaign two decades ago - the party has successfully rallied around more limited goals of political survival and influence in the Coalition.

Their parliamentary representation has fallen, but they retain the deputy prime ministership and significant influence on the policy agenda of the Federal Government.

Once it was predicted that the rapid urbanisation of the Australian population would destroy the Nationals, but much of the urban growth of recent decades has been in coastal regions rather than in capital cities.


On paper after the recent redistribution, the party stands to increase its representation at the election even if there is a uniform swing against the Coalition sufficient to elect Labor. But electoral disaster for the party could underpin renewed Labor rule nationally.

Country and National party electorates have always had a high representation of low-income earners. Once this reflected the presence of battling small farmers, but now it reflects the presence of a large working-class population, particularly in service industries such as tourism. Traditionally, Labor has found the rural working class to be an electoral challenge. Low levels of unionisation and employment in small business made rural workers susceptible to conservative appeals.

Today the number of farm labourers has collapsed, but working-class voters in provincial and rural electorates remain resistant to Labor's appeals. The Nationals long record of success in appealing to these voters has been a model for John Howard's appeal to working-class voters.

Australian society may be highly urbanised but its political culture has taken on a rural tinge and union membership in the cities has also plunged.

Many more city workers are employed in small business, and Howard's rhetoric of an Australian mainstream echoes old Country Party themes of a unified countryside under attack from outsiders. Even the Commonwealth's recent initiatives in Indigenous policy reflect the common sense of white rural conservatism.

Australian politics has come to resemble that of the United States, where the urbanisation and modernisation of the South actually strengthened Southern conservatism. John Howard has little time for the liberal traditions of the Liberal Party, and the Liberals now resemble the Nationals or the American Republicans - they are a "big-government conservative party" with a strong appeal to working-class voters.


But if George Bush's dream of a natural conservative majority has come crashing down, so may that of John Howard and it is the Nationals who stand to lose the most.

Opinion polls suggest a large swing to Labor in safe Coalition seats. The July 2007 Newspoll found that, since the 2004 election, Labor support in safe Coalition electorates had risen from 28 to 44 per cent and Coalition support had fallen from 56 to 43 per cent. If this swing reflects an alienation of traditionally conservative working-class voters on the coast, then the Nationals - and the Coalition overall - are in dire trouble.

At the 1998 federal election, One Nation ate deeply into the Nationals' support among working-class conservatives, but this revolt was short-lived and in 2001 and 2004 the Nationals reconsolidated their grip on the coastal regions. But times change and for many provincial city voters, their ties to traditions of rural conservatism are now generations back. The children of Pauline Hanson's 1998 voters may now vote Labor.

In the past, Labor has been divided on whether to appeal to low-income conservative rural and provincial voters or to middle-income suburban voters, but WorkChoices may do Labor's work. Conservative working-class voters have relied on the award system rather than unions to protect them. Kevin Rudd's industrial appeal is not to militant unionists but to conservative working-class non-union members. These are voters well represented in nominally safe National electorates such as Cowper and Page in New South Wales and Hinkler and Flynn in Queensland. If Labor can break through in these electorates, then the decades-old predictions of terminal Nationals may finally be realised and Queensland would have ended its long career as the federal Coalition's heartland state.

The Nationals would be reduced to a rump party of the inland wheat belt and it is implausible that the Liberals would offer the deputy prime ministership or much in the way of policy concessions to a party with fewer than 10 MPs.

It is 84 years since the federal Coalition was formed, but on current trends it is unlikely to make its centenary.

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First published in The Age on September 5, 2007.

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About the Author

Geoff Robinson teaches at Deakin University, Warrnambool and blogs on Australian and international politics and policy from a historical perspective at His book on former NSW Labor premier Jack Lang will be published later this year.

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