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Coalition killing the Nats

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Friday, 24 October 2008

The Nationals are bleeding to death and it is hard to know how to stop it. At the 1975 federal election they won 23 of 127 House of Representatives seats, an 18 per cent share. As far back as 1931 they held 16 of 75 seats.

Today the Nationals hold only nine of 150 House of Representatives seats, a paltry 6 per cent share of the chamber.

Last weekend the New South Wales Nationals failed to win the seat of Port Macquarie, losing it to a rural independent. That result came on the back of a rural independent also winning the federal seat of Lyne vacated by former Nationals leader Mark Vaile.


In both cases locals were persuaded to support an independent prepared to stand up to the major parties rather than a Nationals candidate forced to acquiesce to the Liberal Party as the junior Coalition partner.

Both campaigns were professionally run and error free. But it mattered not.

The problem for the Nationals in modern Australian politics is that country voters are increasingly coming to see themselves as poor cousins on the conservative side of politics.

It is hard to know what represents the greatest threat to the Nationals' survival: the movement by Labor into the bush with the invention of the Country Labor brand; the Liberal Party's propensity to contest the seats of retiring Nationals MPs; the rise and rise of rural independents; or the decline in the Australian population living in rural electorates.

Former deputy prime minister John Anderson recognised the decline of country parties internationally, pointing out that the Nationals are the last country party in any Western democracy still alive and kicking.

But for how long?


Electorally, the Nationals took some comfort from the party's strong showing in the West Australian election, where they won the balance of power and survived the threat of one-vote, one-value legislative reforms.

But they still won only four of 59 lower house seats, down on previous years, and early indications are that as the junior partner in government their Royalties for Regions plan is being eroded.

The Nationals are, perhaps ironically given their name, not a national organisation. The state divisions are free to carve out their own approach to the political environment they face. The result is inconsistency. In Queensland, the Nationals have merged with the Liberal Party. In NSW, Victoria and federally, they are in coalition with the Liberals. In WA they stood at the election as an independent party, and even now in government refuse to refer to themselves as in coalition.

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First published in The Australian on October 22, 2008.

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About the Author

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

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