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John Quiggin

The party of no return

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

14 September 2006

In the wake of the Queensland state election, a lot of attention has been focused on the shambolic performance of the Liberal party, and the difficulties facing opposition parties in general. The real losers, though, were the Nationals. The election outcome demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Nationals will never again lead a government in Australia. Moreover, the entire project, led by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Sir Robert Sparkes, that replaced the old Country Party with what aspired to be a new national conservative party, has ended in failure.

The likely election outcome, with the Nationals winning 16 seats and the Liberals only 8, obscures the shift in the electoral balance that has taken place over the past decade. The most important long-term outcome of Saturday’s vote was that, although the One Nation vote finally disappeared (the one remaining MP is effectively an independent), the Nationals picked up almost none of it. Back in 1995, the last pre-Hanson state election, the Nationals got 26.3 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the Liberals on 22.7. In 2006, the Nationals got 17.3 per cent and the Liberals 20.2 per cent.

The only reason the Nationals won so many seats is that their vote is concentrated in a dozen or so rural seats west of the Great Dividing Range. The Nationals used to dominate conservative politics everywhere but Brisbane, controlling the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, and holding seats all the way up the coast to Cairns. They’ve nearly vanished from the Gold and Sunshine Coasts (except for a by-election win in Gaven, lost again on Saturday).

Rapid population growth and migration mean that the vast majority of voters in these electorates today have never voted National and never will. The conservatives among them are no more likely to think of themselves as National Party voters than the residents of Toorak or Double Bay.

Further up the coast, the Nationals suffered a number of big swing. Even in Bundaberg, epicentre of the “Dr Death” scandal, they gained only a small swing, and the seat is too close to call. Seats that were once safe for the Nationals are now marginal, and once-marginal Labor seats are now unwinnable.

If the conservative parties are to regain office in Queensland, it will be with a Liberal majority. That implies that, in the absence of a merger, Labor is safe for another two terms.

The end of the Queensland Nationals as an aspirant to government makes a nonsense of the thinking behind the change of name from Country Party to National Party. The party no longer has any serious prospect of holding urban seats, and is everywhere retreating from the steadily urbanising coastal zone.

The obvious implication is that the Liberals and Nationals should merge. Lawrence Springborg and Bob Quinn had the wit to recognise this and try to present it as a fait accompli. They were promptly slapped down by the beneficiaries of the status quo, who were happy to pass up the chance of presenting a serious alternative to the Beattie government. Quinn’s political career was ended by the move, and it looks as if Springborg will also be pushed out.

Yet there is little evidence that a separate National Party, in its current form, serves any real purpose, except for its incumbent leaders and officeholders. The Nationals have some success in extracting bribes for their rural constituents. An important recent instance has been the subsidies for, and mandated use of, ethanol. This exercise has hit its political targets, but has probably served to delay the development of a genuinely competitive biofuels sector.

Winning favours for your constituents is an unavoidable part of politics, but the Nationals could do this as well or better, operating as a disciplined faction within the Liberal Party.

The final option is to return to the days of a genuinely distinct Country Party, not merely a sectional interest, but a party representing the views of country people, which are distinctly different from those of the urban elites who dominate the Liberal Party (and, to a significant extent, Labor as well).

The most prominent representative of this viewpoint within the National Party for many years was Bob Katter (now an independent) and, more recently, the same independent spirit has been shown by Barnaby Joyce. They haven’t always been right, but on a number of occasions they’ve provided a useful check on ideologically-driven initiatives. And they’ve provided a voice for the views of a substantial segment of the community that would otherwise be unrepresented.

Correction: In the published version of this column, I stated that the National Party had been wiped out on the Sunshine Coast. In fact, the party still holds one seat there.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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