Faced with a challenge in his seat where he and One National are on level pegging in the polls as well as specifically local problems connected (among other things) with the sugar industry, he does need to be able to speak out in ways incompatible with the whip role.
I can see his point. There has been some discussion suggesting that he might join One Nation. That has always struck me as pretty silly, although anything is possible. Mr Christensen has always seemed to me as solidly National. It will be no secret that I do not support some of his views, but I do accept his focus on understanding and looking after his electorate. That is what National Party members are meant to do.
In Queensland, the Liberal National Party has been under some strain. This is the third Liberal-National amalgamation. Previous mergers were 1925-1936 and 1941-1944. The latest amalgam took place in 2008. While the Queensland LNP is affiliated with the Liberal Party, members can under certain conditions choose to join federally with either the Liberal or National Parties.
The traditional argument for merger has been the need to maximise the non-Labor or conservative vote. The idea of a "conservative" vote is, I think, relatively new in Australia. The early Country Parties did not use the term, nor indeed did Robert Menzies when he formed the Liberal Party. He was quite careful to say that the Liberal Party was not a conservative party. Regardless of the wording, from the very early days of the Country Parties they were under pressure to greater or lesser extent to join with the Liberals or their predecessors in opposition to the Labor Party to maximise the non-Labor vote.
The traditional argument against merger challenges the validity of this vote maximisation case. It says that if there is a merger and consequent loss of Country or National Party identity and focus, then new political movements will emerge because the conditions that led to the emergence of the Country Party in the first place still exist. The more radical go further, arguing that the Country or National Party was never a "conservative" party at all, but one concerned with social justice, the preservation of society, protection of the small man and country advancement, This required it to adopt more radical positions that inevitably conflicted with the conservatism within the Liberal Party.
One can argue with these positions. Certainly, many in the National Party in recent years have embraced the "conservative" tag. However, and as we saw with the New England Independents, trouble follows if the Party moves too far away from its base, is seen to be submerged as just the rural wing of the Coalition. To Tony Windsor, the New England Independent who perhaps most clearly articulated the independent position, the National Party had failed because it had become just a branch of the Liberal Party.
I commented previously that I was a little bemused by the rise of One Nation. It's not that I don't understand the causes. I have written about some of these at length. My bemusement comes from the way in which the Party has been able to build strength despite its internal inconsistencies, despite its internal problems such as the disarray among its Western Australian candidates.. More, I am bemused at the political response to One Nation including the attempt on the Liberal side to say that Ms Hanson has changed, that she is now in the mainstream, so to speak.
Ms Hanson has indeed changed in the sense that she has become a highly effective retail politician. You can see this if you watch clips of her working at street level Her longevity, the feeling that she was mistreated before, that she has just kept plugging away, has given her a special place among many. She has also had something of a dream run in the media in terms of coverage.
website you will see:
One Nation is committed to Australian sovereignty, the Constitution and Government of the people by the people for the people.A considerable effort has been made to tone down some of the language, to link policy back to the overriding principles, although you only have to look at the "Islam Policy" or her recent ABC radio interview to see the underlying ratbaggery.
Ms Hanson's immediate objectives are, I think, reasonably clear. She wants to place One Nation in at least the same position on the right that the Greens occupy on the left, one in which the Liberal Party will have to deal with her to stay in Government.
One Nation's present strength appears to lie in some of the outer suburbs and some regional areas that have been most disadvantaged by structural change over recent decades. In this sense, she offers a potential threat to both Liberal and Labor seats, although One Nation's Senate voting record and her recent statements on penalty rates will reduce One Nation's attraction for Labor voters. While One Nation may damage the Liberals and to a lesser extent Labor, both parties hold seats that One Nation is unlikely to be able to penetrate.
The Nationals are in a different position. They have a smaller number of seats, many with a significant One Nation presence.
To achieve her objectives, Ms Hanson needs to supplant the Nationals, to reduce them to the point that the Liberals will be forced to deal with her. We have seen this already in Western Australia where to try to save power the Liberal Party entered into a preference deal with One Nation that disadvantaged the National Party. This caused some dissension within One Nation itself, its vote appears to have dropped a little in the opinion polls, while the latest opinion poll suggests strongly that the Barnett Liberal Government is heading for a significant defeat at the 11 March elections. Regardless of the immediate result in Government terms, it is likely that the election will give One Nation upper house seats while damaging the National Party.
The State elections in Queensland are expected to be held late this year or early next year. The public opinion polling over time is summarised in this Wikipedia article. One Nation is now polling over 20% of the vote drawn pretty equally from both the LNP and Labor. The final two party preferred vote, the projected vote after distribution of preferences, has fluctuated between LNP and Labor.
This creates a problem for the LNP. Do they preference One Nation to win Government, recognising that if they do it is likely to give One Nation seats at the expense of the LNP, especially in those areas whose Federal Members sit in the Federal National Party room? It is too early to call this one. because of the number of variables involved.
At Federal level, the challenge to the Nationals posed by One Nation is in many ways similar to the challenges posed by the Labor and especially Liberal Parties.
The political equation is quite complex. The Liberals may be allies, but are also the National Party's biggest traditional threat because of the way the Liberal Party appeals to some voters who classify themselves as conservatives or anti-Labor first.The various coalition arrangements have tempered this threat, but you can map it over time by looking at the shift in seats between the Liberal and national Parties.
Labor poses a specific challenge in some areas with larger working class populations. You can see this in parts of Queensland and Northern NSW, for example. The Greens also pose a threat in the Northern River seats. There the Labor/Green combination has created an un-stable position for the National Party. One Nation adds to the complex mix by further nibbling at the vote on the right.The National Party also has to deal with the constant possibility of independent candidates seeking to attract dissatisfied voters.
Labor, Liberal, Greens and One Nation all claim to be parties for all Australians, although in practice their support is regionally concentrated, a concentration reflected in the particular policies they adopt. You can see this in practice in the so-called marginal seats approach where the parties seek to hold their existing seats but also tailor their approaches to gain support in individual seats that they believe that they can win.
As a party representing Regional Australia, perhaps more accurately a party of the regions of Australia, the Country or National Party message has for much of its life been that it stands against city domination, against the domination by metropolitan voters who do not understand country or regional needs. This gives the Party a spread across the political spectrum that does not quite match the conventional left-right divides. Perhaps the most striking case is Victoria's Dunstan Country Party Government (1935-1942, 1943-1945) which remained in power with Labor support.
The variations between regions across Australia are at least as great as the variations between those regions and their city equivalents. The approaches adopted by the various state branches of the Country or National Party reflect the varying political cultures and histories of the states, the regional variations within the states and the overall and changing demographic structures of the states including the size of the non-metro vote. .
The first Federal leader of the Country Party, William McWilliams, came from Tasmania. There the relatively more even spread of population led to the Party's disappearance. The Party has struggled in South Australia because of the small size of the non-metro vote, vanishing for periods. The decision by Party leader and sole parliamentary representative Karlene Maywald to support the Rann Labor Government following the 2002 election was greeted with fury by the Liberal Party.
In Western Australia, the WA Country/National Party has struggled to maintain its position given the relatively small share of the state's regional population compared to Perth, as well as continuing re-distributions that have reduced the number of regional seats. The Party no longer holds any Federal seats in either House of Representatives or Senate, but has maintained representation in the WA Parliament.
To maintain its WA position, the Party has (depending on your perspective) either reinvented itself or returned to its roots by emphasizing its role as an independent third force representing regional interests. One outcome was the Royalties for the Regions Program, something that has been held up in the Eastern States as a model by Tony Windsor as well as the Nationals. While Premier Colin Barnett has held up Royalties for the Regions as one of the great political successes for his Government, the political bruising and Liberal Party resentment flowing from the National Party's independent role is one of the factors influencing the Liberal-One Nation Preference swap.
In the eastern states where National Party Federal Parliamentary representation is now concentrated, (Northern Territory Senator Country Liberal Nigel Scullion also sits with Federal National Party) there is a distinct gradient from South to North, again reflecting varying demography and political cultures.
In Victoria, the National Party presently has 3 members in the House of Representatives, just one in the Senate. Reflecting its small farm origins, the Victorian Party was arguably the most radical of the various Country Parties. The Party has struggled in recent years because the continued growth of Melbourne has reduced the number of non-metro seats, while the Liberal Party has progressively intruded into traditional Country/National party seats.
As evidenced in Victoria and indeed Western Australia, the National Party has particular difficulties in the Senate in the absence of joint tickets given its focus and geographic concentration of vote.In simple terms, the Liberal Party takes more Senate votes from the Nats in the country than the Nats can gain in the city.
In NSW, the National Party presently has seven members in the House of Representatives, two in the Senate. Again note the discrepancy between the two.
NSW has been the most stable of the various Country/National Parties, has provided eight of thirteen Federal leaders (the others came from Tasmania (one), South Australia (one), Victoria (one), Queensland (two)) and has provided the clearest articulation of Country Party/National Party constitutional and political ideology (constitutional populism). Whereas the Victorian Country Party began as a centre-left populist party, the NSW Party was more centre, if with both populist radical and conservative overtones.
The differing balance between the two reflects in part the varying balance between radical small farm and more conservative pastoral/grazing interests. Victoria was a small farmer Party, the grazier interests were effectively captured by the Liberal Party equivalents, while in NSW the grazier interests generally became part of the Country Party. In NSW, too, other country movements and especially the New England New State Movement were central to consolidating Country Party influence in the towns. Northern NSW became and to an extent remains National Party heartland.
Like Victoria, NSW has gone through, is going through, structural and demographic change. This includes the growing population dominance of Sydney, the emergence of a Sydney-Canberra conurbation that has shifted the regional population balance towards the south of the state, the urbanisation of the North Coast flowing from sea-change shifts in the 1980s and the flow-on effects of the rise of the South East Queensland conurbation. Progressive electoral redistributions have reduced the number of inland seats to the point that inland New England now has one Federal seat, two if the giant Western-Northern electorate of Parkes is included. The changing electoral map was further complicated by the rise of the New England independents who cut a swathe through the Party's Northern seats.
The NSW Nationals have struggled to adjust to these changes, balancing increasingly divergent regional interests, as well as tensions and problems associated with coalition . While the Party fought back, its apparent submergence in the Baird led NSW coalition government created problems for it in the bush over (among other things) council mergers and the ban on greyhound racing, culminating in the 2016 loss of its Orange seat to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. One outcome was the replacement of previous leader Troy Grant by Monaro MP Giovanni Domenic "John" Barilaro. Grant was seen as a loyal deputy to Premier Baird, but also one allowed that loyalty to submerge the the interests of the National Party and its voters. Barilaro immediately asserted the Party's separate identity, an assertion made easier by the resignation of Premier Baird.
Queensland is different again. If the Victorian Country Party began, to use my typology, as radical populist, NSW as constitutional populist, Queensland can be classified as conservative populist. Queensland is, quite simply, different. It is the most decentralised state. It only in recent decades that the Sunshine Coast-Brisbane-Gold Coast urban conurbation has really begun to establish a population dominance. Like NSW with Riverina and especially New England, Central and North Queensland have distinct regional identities.
In the decades after its creation as a separate colony in 1859, Queensland politics was dominated by conservative pastoral and merchantile interests. In this context and unlike NSW which adopted universal sufferage, Queensland initially retained a property qualification for voting purposes.
With the exception of one week in 1899, Labor first came to power in 1915, holding power until until 1925. During this period, the Legislative Council was abolished (1922), making the Assembly the only source of electoral power.. Labor returned to office in 1932, holding power until 1957.Then a split in the ALP allowed the Country Party under Francis Nicklin to assume power. With the assistance of a rural gerrymander, the Country/National Party would be in power until 1989, initially in coalition with the Liberal Party and then in its own right. .
This short chronology explains one of the distinguishing features of Queensland politics. There the population distribution made the Country Party the main non-Labor Party, with the Liberals or equivalents largely reduced to Brisbane. With the continued population growth in Brisbane and Queensland's south east corner, the Queensland Country Party under the leadership of Robert Sparkes and Johannes "Joh" Bjelke-Petersen sought to become the dominant non-Labor Party by moving into urban areas. As part of this process, the Party's name was changed to the National party. In 1983, the Liberal Party was reduced to just eight seats.
While there was an obvious conflict between the renamed National Party's traditional role and the Queensland push, it was also very attractive to many in the Party (me included) who saw it as a way of overcoming the demographic challenge facing the Party while also extending Country or National Party values and ethos. But what, in fact, were those unique values in a party that straddled so many divides? How should they be articulated? How could they be reconciled with the practical realities of politics including the coalition?
In any event, the Queensland move failed as a consequence of hubris such as the Joh for Canberra campaign and the progressively revealed corruption within the Bjelke-Petersen Government. The end result was a Labor Government, a decline in the National Party vote and the formation of the Liberal National Party. Today, there are no National Party parliamentary members at state level in Queensland, while six members in the House of Representatives, two in the Senate, sit with the National Party. In Queensland itself, the Party's decline has opened the way for increased Labor representation, Bob Katter and now One Nation.
The choices facing the National Party at both state and federal level are difficult. The base National Party vote in their seats is difficult to estimate, but is perhaps 5 to 33 per cent. I say it's difficult to estimate because it fluctuates so much over time depending on circumstances and the candidate.There was no Country Party vote in Monaro when we reformed the Party in 1972. Now John Barilaro is leader of the NSW Nationals. But what proportion of his vote is personal, what proportion non-Labor, what proportion truly National? If John were to leave tomorrow with the Liberals contesting, how much base vote would the new National candidate have?
Now linking all this back to my starting point, the One Nation challenge. In considering this, I said that the challenge was, in a sense, no different from that posed by other national parties who seek to achieve power by appealing to slices of voters independent of geography while tailoring their messages to particular seats that they believe that they might win.
For the Nationals, the Party's survival in the face of the challenge depends upon two things. First, the capacity of individual members to service their electorates. That has always been part of the Party's strength. Secondly, the capacity to re-articulate the message about the Party's distinguishing features that contrasts the Party with One Nation or the Liberals for that matter. This second became much attenuated during the leadership of Warren Truss.Warren Truss was a loyal deputy Prime Minister who contributed to the stability of Government, but also submerged the identity of his own party. .
You can see that the Federal Party is trying to do this as evidenced by the recent flurry of announcements refocusing on decentralisation and regional development. I would argue, however, that the Party needs to go further than this by capturing and re-interpreting the successes, lessons and principles of its own past. A focus on "conservatism" and "traditional values" as such won't cut the mustard, for then the Party is trying to sell a version of nostrums already peddled by the Liberal Party.and, to a degree, One Nation.
If the Party does focus in this way then it can ride through the One Nation challenge even if One Nation wins some seats. In the end, One Nation has little to offer Regional Australia because it lacks the intellectual coherence and area focus to provide tangible results of the types provided by the Country/National Parties over time. To my mind, One nation is as much an opportunity as a threat.
In saying this, I accept that there is a particular problem in Queensland because of the Liberal and National Party merger, one that I cannot resolve. I have never accepted the maximisation of the "conservative' vote as an end in itself, for it's what you do with the vote you have or can earn that is important. The more the National Party redefines and re-articulates its separate role, the greater the difficulties for the Queensland LNP. In the end, I suspect (I may prove to be very wrong) that the major result of One Nation may be to force a de-merger. .