An irrelevant and useful distraction

Wednesday, 26 March 2008 

The National Party is dying.

Some would say commentators have been saying that for years – but those commentators would be right. This has been a long time coming but the unceasing decline in the Nationals’ federal representation during the Howard years has made it impossible to avoid.

It would seem odd then, that with the Nationals now so clearly weak, their larger coalition partner has suddenly discovered such interest in pushing for a merger and with its leader willing to stake his leadership on it.

The formation of two parties on the conservative side of politics historically reflected the difference in interests between two sections of Australian business – manufacturing and rural. While their coalition was based on their opposition to organised labour and its political representation, the ALP, the differences were based on their attitude to the international economy. In a nutshell, Australia’s weak manufacturing base wanted protection, the rural interests, represented by the Country Party, wanted free trade.

However, as the Australian economy started to be opened up, beginning with Whitlam’s cutting of tariffs in 1973, the differences between the two sections of Australian business became less defined and the political need for separate representation for rural business became less pressing. This lessening need was marked by the name change from the Country to the National Party in 1975.

This name change is the typical response in politics to an inability to represent particular tangible interests 1) pretend to represent everyone (i.e. no-one at all) and 2) pretend to discover a new ‘ideological’ constituency out in the electorate. Having lost its real role in society, the Nationals expanded like a hot air balloon neatly personalised in the ego of Joh Bjelke Petersen and his ill-fated push for PM in 1987. Joh’s move to Canberra was prompted by what was seen as the political vacuum in the federal coalition at the time, but his push exposed the reason for that vacuum, there was simply no need for an alternative to Hawke’s accord with the unions. Joh was seen as representing little more than Gold Coast property developers and the attempted putsch collapsed.

By exposing the ideological sham of the Nationals, the ‘Joh for PM’ campaign brought to the surface the party’s decline that was underpinned by the consensus built by Labor to internationalise the economy. Senior Nationals may like to comfort themselves that their decline is down to population movements (as though that was something new in Australia), and it is disappointing to see it repeated by George Megalogenis, but of course it doesn’t explain why those who move to rural areas don’t feel compelled to switch their votes to a party that represents their new circumstances.

It is interesting in the decline of the Nationals to see the role ideology plays in Australian politics. Ideology means nothing if its doesn’t relate to real interests somehow and it has certainly not helped the Nationals make up for a loss of a real role. However, it provides a useful distraction for some in the Liberal Party at the moment.

The Liberals are engaged in an ideological debate between Turnbull’s open abandonment of the Liberals’ platform and those upholding Howard’s faux Thatcherite agenda. It is a politically sterile debate because it doesn’t solve the problem of whose interests the Liberals actually represent. It is why there has been such sensitivity to the debate breaking out within the party, leading to doom-ladened reporting over the sort of back-stabbing faction fighting in NSW that would have been considered normal party life a decade ago.

Nelson’s leadership rests on the irrelevancy of both sides of the political debate but is also undermined by it getting out of control. Because of the Nationals’ ideological baggage, any debate about a merger with them will allow the Liberals to carry on their ideological debate but focussed on the Nationals rather than each other and just in case it is missed, the ideological element of the debate is reinforced with the assumption that any party will be called ‘conservative’.

Pushing a merger allows Nelson to turn the Liberals’ irrelevant ideological debate into an irrelevant organisational debate about whether to merge with a rump party in permanent decline. It may not make much sense in itself but it allows the Liberals to avoid the sort of pointless internal debate in public that will make observers wonder about the Liberals’ future as well.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 26 March 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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