With the Liberal Party in mounting crisis – fraught by poor polling, ongoing speculation about Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, a bitter tussle in Victoria over the party presidency, and the still-raw wound from the electoral drubbing in Western Australia – little attention is being paid to the Nationals, themselves embroiled in turmoil and a steadily worsening relationship with their Coalition partner.
While most of these problems have been apparent for some time, it took the election in the west, and the decision by the Liberals to enter into a preference arrangement with One Nation at the Nationals’ expense, to highlight their seriousness. Federal Nationals were appalled to learn of the deal – and the anger only intensified when it was revealed that two senior Turnbull ministers from the west, Michaelia Cash and Mathias Cormann, were not only in on the plan but were actually part of it.
But worse may yet be to come, with the Queensland election, likely to be held in 2018, looming as another crisis in the making.
The bold decision in 2008 to merge the Queensland divisions of the Nationals and the Liberal Party into a single entity, the Liberal National Party, was supposed to put an end to decades of wrangling between the state’s two conservative parties. Unlike in other states, the Nationals had been the senior party, largely because a majority of the population lived outside the metropolitan area.
Battling each other for seats had cost the parties dearly, and two protracted spells of Labor government forced them into an uneasy and entirely pragmatic union aimed at ousting Labor and retaining government. It took much negotiation, but when finally achieved it was hailed by its proponents as a model other Nationals divisions – especially in New South Wales and Victoria – would ignore at their peril. That idea is now dead in the water.
Initially, though, the state election victory under Campbell Newman in 2012 seemed to vindicate the merger. But the catastrophic and unexpected loss in 2015 brought out the doubters. Now, continuing internal instability and the existential threat from One Nation have sparked a new round of speculation about the future.
Two earlier mergers – in 1925 and 1941 – eventually unravelled; this one could follow. “It’s only talk at this stage, grumbling more than anything, but there’s a lot of it,” a party veteran told me.
The Nationals in Queensland (and elsewhere, to a lesser extent) have long faced a threat from the Australian League of Rights, an extreme and virulently anti-Semitic, right-wing group that was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. When it wasn’t undermining the Country Party (as the Nationals were then called), the League sought to infiltrate and influence the party.
Partly in response, federal Country Party leader Doug Anthony (deputy prime minister 1971–72 and 1975–83) helped organise a massive recruiting drive that made the Queensland division of the party the largest political branch in the land. Key figures, including long-time senator Ron Boswell, kept up the fight against the League and its ideas.
While the League still operates in the shadows, much of its following has shifted to One Nation – a fact not lost on present-day Nationals. They are wary of the vow by the LNP leader, Tim Nicholls, a former Liberal, to keep his options open in dealing with One Nation at the next election. Old-time Nationals sniff betrayal.
Those Liberals with long memories – and they are many – still harbour resentment at National Party premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s dumping his coalition partner in 1983 and enticing two Liberals to join with him to get a slim majority in parliament, which enabled the party to govern alone until its defeat in 1989.
Contemporary tensions were exacerbated when Malcolm Turnbull failed to attend a testimonial dinner last year for former deputy prime minister Warren Truss, a Queenslander. Nationals saw this as payback for the attempted defection of former LNP cabinet minister Ian Macfarlane to the Nationals in 2015, which Truss saw as an opportunity to boost the Nationals’ numbers.
Deep tensions also exist further south. In New South Wales, where the Nationals are in coalition with the Liberals, a grassroots revolt among branch members was sparked by former premier Mike Baird’s decision to ban greyhound racing, a major industry in the regions. The decision, since reversed (and a key factor in Baird’s resignation), came on top of regional anger over local government mergers (also partly reversed in non-urban areas). The fracas cost the Nationals leader, deputy premier Troy Grant, his job.
In Victoria, the history of bad blood between the two non-Labor parties is a long one. The Country Party was in government in that state from 1935 to 1943 (and would return briefly in the early 1950s) as a minority government supported from the crossbenches by Labor. When Robert Menzies sought to amalgamate all non-Labor forces under his new Liberal Party banner in 1944, the sole standout was the Country Party, much to the frustration of the Liberals, particularly in Victoria.
The state Liberal Party sought to wipe out its country cousin in electoral contests and redistributions, but with only limited success. It then added insult to injury by changing its name to the Liberal and Country Party. After the Liberals won the 1955 election under Henry Bolte, they governed in their own right until 1982, with the Country Party sitting on the crossbenches and offering occasional obstruction. It was only after the election of the Kennett government in 1992 that the Nationals (as they had become) entered government; tensions continued to simmer, though, and still do.
Under the coalition agreement in Victoria, seats currently held by members of either party are not contested by the other party until the sitting member loses the seat, resigns or dies. Last year, the prize federal seat of Murray, in northern Victoria, was vacated by the Liberals’ Sharman Stone, opening the way for a three-cornered contest with Labor.
Intent on retaining Murray, the Liberals endorsed Duncan McGauchie, son of the high-profile former National Farmers’ Federation chief, Donald McGauchie. The Nationals responded by anointing a local, state upper house member Damian Drum, well-known as a former AFL player and coach. The waters were quickly muddied when the Liberals toyed with the idea of preferencing the Greens in inner-city seats to hurt Labor. Labor retaliated by threatening to preference the Nationals in Murray.
As it turned out, Labor directed its preferences to the Liberals in Murray, but a storm erupted when the Liberals were accused of helping the Labor Party – the intention being to try to boost the preferences the Libs received. The Nationals complained after Duncan McGauchie was apparently pictured with Labor leaflets outside a polling booth – but, according to a spokesman, he was merely holding them for a constituent who had gone in to vote.
In turn, the McGauchie team accused Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie of handing out how-to-vote cards for the Greens, who had put the Nationals ahead of the Liberals in Murray. Drum eventually won the seat, once held by the redoubtable “Black Jack” McEwen. It had been held by the Liberals for twenty years.
To say that relations between the Liberals and Nationals in Victoria are frosty is to seriously understate the tension, which has been in no way eased by the return to the state presidency of the divisive figure of Michael Kroger. In the event of a defeat of the Labor government in next year’s election, he warned last week, an alliance with the National Party is “not a given.” As a separate party, he said, “we’ve always got to look after our own interests first and the interests of the Coalition second.” •