Friday, August 20, 2010

End of the Nats?

The day before the election. It'd very hard not to get sucked into the discussion on just who might win. Reading the commentary including the blogs, confusion abounds. The newspaper's editorial support for either side seems to have split on state lines, reflecting voting patterns in the states in question. A majority favours the coalition.

At a personal level my predictive record has not been especially good. I must say that I am still bemused at the way Labor has apparently managed to turn what I had thought of as a winning position into a cliff-hanger. But will it be that?

The betting numbers, where the money is, still favour Labor, although there might be a last minute plunge on the coalition. The rolling average of predictions also favour Labor. So I still go for a Labor win, although I will be glued (like many Australians) to the election night coverage.

In commenting on elections, I have never made the mistake of confusing my views with that of the majority. I am not representative.

Take two examples. First, I don't actually understand why boat people should be of such importance. To me, it's a second order issue. Then, too, I have a focus of regional issues that is not common to the majority of Australians. So, given my own biases, a few things that I will be looking at on Saturday night as the votes are counted. Here I want to start by referring to two posts on my New England Australia blog.

In Bryan Pape runs for Senate (NSW), I recorded my discovery that Bryan was an independent Senate candidate for NSW. This came about in an odd way.

Nadia Bloom is one our friends. Her daughter was in Clare's class. Clare discovered that Nadia had nominated as an independent for the Senate in NSW. This came as a surprise and led Clare and I to look in detail at the Senate lists. This was quite fun. It also educated Clare on the Senate. This is a bit of a black hole for most young Australians.

That was how I discovered Bryan was running. Now Bryan has been campaigning for constitutional reform for some time, so that gave me a number one vote.

Neither Bryan nor Nadia have a snow-flakes chance of being elected. However, I am now curious to see how many votes they get.

Coalition wipe-out in the North? looks at the possibility that the coalition might end up with no Federal seats at all in Northern NSW. You won't find a focus on this in the general commentary simply because Northern NSW or New England has no formal existence. It's not seen as a region in the same way as, say, Western Sydney. Yet such an outcome would be of considerable significance.

   In purely mathematical terms, it would add two seats to the ALP total, one to the independent total, leaving the coalition with none.That's actually not insignificant.

In historical terms, it would mark the final stage in a demographic transformation of considerable historical significance.

New England politics was dominated by two parties, the ALP in the lower Hunter, the Country Party elsewhere. This was Country Party heartland, providing a disproportionate proportion of CP seats and leadership at both state and national level: Page, Anthony, Sinclair, Hunt, Bruxner, Drummond, Hughes and today Stonier to name just a few. If the Federal lights were to go out for the Nationals here, then it would be not insignificant in historical terms.

This leads into a broader issue, the overall impact on the Nationals of this election campaign. The Nationals went into this campaign with ten lower house seats, well down from their peak. They could well lose Cowper, Parkes (less likely) and Riverina in NSW.

The problem for the Nationals is a simple one.

They compete against Labor, Liberal and (increasingly) ex National independents. Maintenance of their vote depends on their ability to differentiate themselves from those other groups as the defender of country or regional Australia. The more they are seen as simply a rural rump of the Coalition, the greater the risk of extinction.

I am not in a position to judge what has been happening on the ground. It has always been the case that Country or National Party campaigns get limited attention from the metro media. But this time the Nationals and leader Warren Truss have been invisible. Barnaby Joyce has received some coverage, but he has not carved out a distinct position for the Nationals.

Coalition has always been a difficult thing for the Nats. The need to balance unity on one side, to campaign for country interests on the other. That's hard. Yet as someone who has played an active role in the past in Country Party campaigns, I know that you must focus on the distinctly Country or National things. This includes working the metro media as best you can. You also have to be prepared to risk some damage to the combined interest, including media coverage of disunity.

The reality is that the damage that comes from apparent disunity, properly managed, is more than offset by increased votes. And even if the damage from disunity is great, the role of the National or Country Party is not to deliver victory for the coalition, but to focus on and protect the core interests of those whom the Party represents. Lose sight of this, and you die.

The WA Nats showed what was possible at the last state election. They fought and gained. Barnaby Joyce had started to define an independent position before he was effectively emasculated. You may not like Barnaby or his positions, but it is not his job to be liked by metro voters. His and the Party's role is to deliver for regional Australia. This includes espousing causes that are, bluntly, un-popular in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

The rise of the country independents, a group quite close to the old Country Party, is the ultimate condemnation of the modern Nats. While I think it unlikely, there is a chance that this election could leave the Nats and country independents with not dissimilar numbers in the lower house.

How ironic! The Nats sacrificed their independent role in the interests of the "greater good", only to create their successors.    

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