Wednesday, August 1, 2018
The Nationals are preparing to turn 100 in the era of identity politics. Deputy leader Bridget McKenzie shows the future is bright.
The National Party is the second oldest political party in Australia. It’s longevity throws the fickleness of other minor parties into sharp relief.
Parties like the Democrats and DLP rose to control the balance of power, and sank almost as quickly. Nick Xenophon’s party appears to have suffered the same fate. The life-expectancy of micro-parties and vanity parties - Jackie Lambie Party, Glenn Lazarus Party etc - approaches that of shrew.
Unlike most third parties, the Nationals have never been a party of reaction, nor have they depended for their relevance on their ability to thwart the will of a popularly elected government. Most cross-benchers habitually play that particular attention-grabbing game whichever party is in power. It is one of the few ways to gain space in a crowded media agenda.
The Nationals have been co-operative partners in government in one of the most enduring alliances in democratic history. Yet their identity has never been subsumed by the larger party, even in Queensland, where the jury is still out on the wisdom of the amalgamation of the Liberals and Nationals.
The two-parties-one-government arrangement owes much to the judgement of Robert Menzies. When he was scoping out the ground for a grand coalition of non-Labor parties in the 1940s, he kept the Country Party out of the nest. He thought it better to allow them to pursue their special interests in rural and regional Australia, recognising that their interests were inextricably linked.
The Country Party, as it then was, could have been the prototype party of the forgotten people to whom Menzies appealed in his 1942 radio address. They represented the industrious regional middle class “unorganised and unself-conscious… envied by those whose benefits are largely obtained by taxing them…taken for granted by each political party in turn.
“They are not sufficiently lacking in individualism to be organised for what in these days we call pressure politics. And yet, as I have said, they are the backbone of the nation.”
Today’s political tribalism, and the rise of identity politics, gives rise to a paradox. The Nationals undoubtedly represent a sectional interest, regional Australians who have a distinct identity and values. Yet it is not a sectional interest party, in the manner of the Greens, who’s constituency
largely consists of salaried, urban professionals with university degrees, heavily skewed towards employment in the public sector.
The Nationals represent a constituency with a distinct identity, “proud of who we are, what we stand for and where we come from,” Mckenzie told the Press Club. “The Nationals have never tried to be all things to all people; nor tried to pretend we’re something we’re not. We have the courage of our convictions and will not back down in a fight.”
Yet the Nationals do not extract political mileage from asserting tribal rights. “The Nationals have not been about promoting special interests – we are about the promotion of the national interest,” McKenzie said. “We are Australians first and foremost, and the nation must come first. That is what distinguishes us from the boutique parties that wax and wain, trading on the politics of complaint and fear. We have endured because we have always understood who we represent, and have held firm to the values we uphold.”
The party has a disproportionate connection with agriculture and mining. Roughly 10 per cent of the population live in the 16 federal lower house seats represented by the Nationals. Yet those constituencies include 35 per cent of the nation’s agricultural workers, and 20 percent of Australia’s miners. There is no tension between the promotion of regional industries and the advance of the national economy. What is good for the bush in economic terms, is undoubtedly good for Australia.
“We are the party that believes Australia’s greatest days are ahead of us, and that the regions will do the heavy lifting as we build an even better nation than the one that we inherited. We represent the farmers and miners who lead the world in innovation, reliability and quality. We supply the resources to support the developing Asian economies.
“While the Labor Party seems increasingly intent on taxing wealth, we unashamedly stand for the people who produce it. We stand for the workers and are not abandoning them for green votes in the cities.”
As the Nationals prepare to celebrate their 100th birthday in 2019, it faces some substantial challenges. Its support among the under-35s is low and the policy tensions between a party that embraces free enterprise but demands government intervention in support of rural services and infrastructure are probably irresolvable.
In an era when authenticity is one of the valuable attributes in politics, however, the Nationals look real. The party’s future lies in reinforcing, rather than retreating from its values.