Inside Story

Rural rebels

National Party infighting has a long but generally subterranean history

Norman Abjorensen 20 February 2020 1487 words

The Nationals’ first coup-maker: Dr Earle Page makes a point to photographer Jack Mildenhall in 1929. National Archives of Australia

Labor had its turn at civil war during the tumultuous Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years, and the Liberals had theirs with the Abbott–Turnbull–Dutton conflict. And now the Nationals, once an island of stability in roiling political seas, are having their very public outbreak of hostilities. This time, though, it’s not just about leadership: the party is agonising over its very identity — what it is, what it stands for, who makes up its base.

For much of its existence the party was known federally as the Country Party. Now in its centenary year, it has defied innumerable predictions of its imminent demise. Demographics have shifted and the economy has undergone structural change, but the party even survived a sharp drop in its primary vote to below 8 per cent in the late 1970s. That decline prompted a change of name designed to appeal to non-rural voters, first to the National Country Party and then, in 1982, to the National Party of Australia. These days it’s simply the Nationals.

Throughout its hundred years, the party has often seemed largely immune to the spats and controversies that erupt periodically in the two main parties. Leaders have come and gone at a leisurely pace that has only accelerated a little in recent decades. And yet, if we peer deeper into the seemingly placid waters of rural politics, we find turbulence and storms ignited by fierce clashes of personality as well as ideological and policy differences.

The federal party was cobbled together from the various state-based rural groups that emerged just before the first world war to counter growing Labor Party influence in the bush. Its first MPs were elected in 1919, and its various strands united the following year under its inaugural leader, the eccentric Tasmanian William McWilliams, a former newspaper editor, whose chaotic and headstrong ways proved too much for his small band of followers.

McWilliams was replaced in a party-room coup by Earle Page, who would dominate the party for almost two decades. The year after winning the balance of power at the 1922 elections, this redoubtable country medico took the party into government in the first conservative coalition under Stanley Melbourne Bruce and his Nationalists.

But even as it was experiencing its first taste of federal power as part of the Bruce–Page government (as it was known at Page’s insistence), a Hobbsean war of all against all had erupted in Victoria.

In 1925, the Victorian Farmers’ Union, which constituted the Country Party in that state, split dramatically when its core base of Mallee wheat farmers broke away to form a new organisation, the Primary Producers’ Union. The rebels cited a lack of political unity within the Farmers’ Union, as well as the failure of the parliamentary party to pursue objectives including compulsory organised marketing of primary products, reduced tariffs, the creation of a rural bank, and a reduction in centralisation.

As a show of strength, the Primary Producers’ Union announced it would contest all electorates in Victoria’s northern wheatbelt under the banner of the Country Progressive Party at the 1927 state election. At its annual conference in that year, the Farmers’ Union responded by changing its name to the Victorian Country Party, or VCP, reaching out to all “bona fide country residents” of any occupation, whereas membership of the Farmers’ Union had been restricted to primary producers only.

In the event, the VCP won ten seats and the Country Progressive Party four. The Progressives and one independent supported Ned Hogan’s minority Labor government, though the following year the Progressives withdrew their support and the conservative Nationalists formed government with the support of the VCP. Later, after Labor won the 1929 state election, the two Country parties reconciled, merging to form the United Country Party the following year.

From 1935 to 1943, the Country Party governed in Victoria under the wily Albert Dunstan, who cut a deal with Labor for its support from the crossbenches. It was the acme of pork-barrelling in Victoria. (The unusual Country–Labor alliance was to return, briefly, in the early 1950s.)

Holding the reins of government in Victoria did not quieten restive elements within the party, however. In 1937 another split followed the expulsion of Victorian federal MP John McEwen for supporting the federal coalition government in defiance of the state party. McEwen’s supporters formed the Liberal Country Party in Victoria and remained loyal to the federal party, while the United Country Party sided with the state party and premier Dunstan. The breach was eventually resolved in 1943.

Earle Page, meanwhile, had been unable to reach agreement on a coalition with the government of the newly formed United Australia Party, or UAP, which succeeded Labor after the 1931 elections. A number of Labor figures had defected to the UAP, and one of them, Joe Lyons, became prime minister.

Page eventually took the party into government under Lyons in 1934. When Lyons died in 1939, just weeks after Robert Menzies had quit cabinet and the deputy leadership after a row, Page was commissioned as prime minister pending a meeting of the UAP to elect a new leader.

In what the Melbourne Argus called “a despicable act,” Page then sought to block Menzies by declaring his party would not serve under him because he had been disloyal to Lyons and behaved in a cowardly way by failing to enlist for overseas service during the first world war. Several of Page’s party, including Arthur Fadden, walked out, dissociating themselves from his attack.

The intemperate outburst cost Page the leadership. He was replaced by the fiery South Australian Archie Cameron, whose tenure lasted just months before the party baulked at his high-handed ways. (Cameron later defected to the Liberal Party, becoming speaker.) Page sought to reclaim his leadership, but after a series of ballots found himself deadlocked with McEwen. As a compromise, the party elected Fadden as acting leader, confirming him in the position several months later. Fadden, who was to serve briefly as prime minister in 1941, led the party until 1958.

In 1944, alone among the major anti-Labor groups, the Country Party’s national organisation rebuffed the invitation from Menzies to join the movement that became the Liberal Party. The anger at this decision was especially strong in Victoria, where the state party’s dalliance with Labor would rankle for decades to come.

The Victorian Liberals declared war, not only standing candidates against the Country Party but provocatively changing their name to the Liberal and Country Party, which they retained into the 1960s. In the twenty-seven years of state Liberal rule that began with Henry Bolte in 1955, the Country Party sat on the crossbenches, not coming back into the government until Jeff Kennett became premier in the 1990s.

At the federal level, meanwhile, the party was a model of stability under Fadden, McEwen and Doug Anthony. But new tensions began to arise under Anthony’s successor, Ian Sinclair. The party’s primary vote continued to shrink, and it found itself out of government after Labor’s win in 1983. Sinclair antagonised many in his own ranks with attacks on the National Farmers’ Federation and his criticism of moderate Liberals.

Eventually his inability to defend himself from attacks within his own ranks — notably from Queensland Nationals’ premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen — cost him his job. Sinclair was ousted in a party-room coup at around the same time the Liberals dumped John Howard after his 1987 election campaign had been fatally derailed by Bjelke-Petersen’s “Joh for PM” push.

Sinclair’s successor, Charles Blunt, was not long in the job, losing his seat at the 1990 elections. The party again tasted the fruits of government after Howard’s win in 1996, and its succession of leaders, until quite recently, has been relatively smooth.

Over the decades, one of the Country/National Party’s key reasons for rejecting calls for a merger with the Liberals has been that any such move would stifle the voice of the bush and inevitably lead to the emergence of rural rump parties that would eat into an already declining vote.

This fear proved prescient after the 2008 decision to merge the two conservative parties in Queensland under the banner of the Liberal National Party. Driven by the peculiar circumstances of Australia’s only decentralised state, the merger aimed to avoid splitting the conservative vote, but at the electoral level all it has produced is a single term of unimpressive government under Campbell Newman.

Challenged on the populist right by One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and Clive Palmer, the party faces a dilemma: should it compete on populist appeal or seek to project a distinctive rural voice?

In the present jostling for federal leadership, the elephant in the party room is the election in Queensland later this year. A national approach to crucial policy issues is being subordinated to parochial attitudes and issues. The centenary year of Australia’s second-oldest party is shaping up as a year of distraction — and in all likelihood a year of ongoing turmoil. •