Sunday, November 25, 2007

New Directions - and thoughts for the Nationals

Yesterday was an interesting day. I for one did feel a sense of relief that the long campaign was over. It created a kind of a lock-step so far as thought was concerned. Now we can all move on.

Before doing so, I need to do some final updating on the election eve post I was doing on the New England Australia blog. Later I will do some tidy up posts, including material that I did not have time to write before.

Looking at the results, Mr Brough lost his seat, something I regret, yet Mr Turnbull retained his.

The interesting thing about the easy Turnbull victory is that it was so unexpected. In retrospect, I certainly failed to take properly into account the impact of Peter King's run last time. I should have.

In somewhat similar vein, I did not pick the swing against the Nationals in Queensland. I should have because I have some knowledge of the state's changing demography.

Take Flynn. Extending across 314,305 in the centre of the state, it includes the industrial city of Gladstone on the coast and the towns of Monto, Gayndah, Wandoan, Biloela and Moura. It then stretches west from Blackwater along the Capricornia and Landsborough Highways to include Emerald, Barcaldine, Longreach and Winton. This is an area of rapid growth with coal and industry.

Without having checked all the details, Labor in fact did very well across central and northern Queensland.

Nationally, while the Nationals retained their overall vote, the Party lost three seats - Page in Northern New South Wales, Dawson and Flynn in Queensland. The Party did in fact do a little better than I expected in Northern NSW, retaining Cowper. It also picked up Calare elsewhere in the state. Even so, its ten House of Representative seats is the lowest number since the Party's formation.

I felt a little sorry for Mark Vaile during the election campaign. He simply could not get any traction or visibility. I think that this is in part a problem of modern presidential style campaigning. However, I also think that the Party and leadership team got locked in far too tightly as a subservient junior party. One could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Costello was in fact Deputy PM. I think that Barnaby Joyce received greater publicity than Mr Vaile.

I think that the Party needs a new approach, one based solidly on the combination of changing demographics with elements in the Party's history.

Some of the commentators are already calling this the revenge of the "New Australia". Looking at the seat patterns across the board there is some truth in this. However, when you look at the details across the nation it is, at best, a partial truth and a potentially misleading one.

Others, those who have been the most vociferous defenders of the Howard approach, appear to be suffering from the bitterness of rejection. To my mind, they actually bear a significant share of the responsibility for locking in a mind set that became increasingly at variance with views in the broader community.

A number of the commentators appear to feel that the Liberal and National Party lacking any power base across the country will now enter a period of further decline.

I think that there is some truth in this, especially at Federal level. The Liberal Party and its predecessors have always displayed a measure of instability when out of office. With his current majority and degree of popular support, Mr Rudd is likely to be in power for a number of terms.

The position is very different at state level. Here the loss of the Howard Government provides an opportunity, a chance to dislodge Labor state administrations.

For the National Party, this defeat has created a very real opportunity to break out of a cycle of decline, to rebuild. This will not be easy.

In Queensland, for example, we can expect further pressures to merge Liberals and Nationals. There is, again, a historical pattern here. The problem is that failure + failure = failure. The decline in the Nationals membership base - this Party once had the largest membership base of any party in Australia - and the aging of its base create further problems.

There is, I think, a fear in the Party and among some of its supporter base that division means defeat, that the coalition must be maintained at all costs. And this from a Party that used to allow more than one candidate to run in the same electorate, both with Party endorsement!

The obsession with coalition and unity misses a key point. Previous leaders of the Federal Party - Page, Fadden, McEwen, Anthony - knew that success in coalition requires strength. Here Mark Vaile has been the most invisible leader in the Party's Federal history.

The National Party is both a regional party and a party of and for the regions. That was true at the time of the Party's formation and remains true today. To my mind, the need for effective country or regional representation is as great today as it was in the early 1920s. The Party knows this, but appears to have lost the capacity to articulate it properly.

The original Country Party was not a conservative party, nor did it see itself as just the country wing of the "conservative" forces. The Party contained a mix of views from radical populist to conservative country grazing interests. This mix varied greatly from region to region. Often conservative on social issues, this was also a Party that had the capacity to force change.

As with other parties, there was a desire for change and new directions in the 1970s. In the Country Party, this desire for change also reflected changing demographic realities, the decline in the traditional voter base, the rise of new forces.

The Party failed to meet these challenges. It is easy to be wise in retrospect, but the desire among some in the Party and especially in Queensland to become the dominant non-Labor Party put the Party on a trajectory that was bound to fail. In the midst of this, the Party lost sight of its core base.

The Party faced another challenge, one linked to the professionalisation of politics. Here I will speak of the NSW Party, the one that I knew best.

The NSW Country/National Country Party was like no other NSW party. The membership base - over 30,000 - was central. This supported a huge branch structure. While individual branches rose and fell, the Party was very strong at electorate council level.

Each election provided an opportunity to refresh the membership. This included building in new areas. When I decided to run for pre-selection in Eden-Monaro, a seat that the Party had not contested since the 1940s, there were just 33 members in the Queanbeyan-Canberra area.

Most of these were old bank-order members, some still formally paying the old guinea membership now expressed in decimal currency terms. By the time I dropped out a few years later there were over 600 members in the Queanbeyan-Canberra area.

During the second half of the seventies and the eighties I saw the professionalisation of the Party erode the membership. This was not unique to the Party, but was especially important for this Party.

The process was a bit like a death of a thousand cuts, each made for the best of professional reasons.

As a simple example, because the membership based pre-selection system sometimes threw up candidates who, in the judgement of Head Office, were not the best candidate to win the seat, the system was changed to give Head office more control.

All very professional and modern, select the best candidate. Who could argue with that? Yet the reality is that the old style pre-selection process in which candidates moved around the electorate in convoy seeking branch nominations was absolutely critical to the Party along two dimensions.

The first was that the pre-selection process itself was a critical marketing device. Unlike the modern Australian system where campaigns begin once the candidate is selected, the Country Party pre-selection process was very like an American primary.

It attracted constant media publicity - in one year I actually generated the largest volume of stories on ABC local radio Canberra from any source; that year I got a Xmas card signed by everyone in the ABC local newsroom.

People became involved in the campaign. By the time the candidate was selected every one in the electorate at least knew the name of the candidate.

Equally importantly, the process generated membership. Forget the modern obsession with branch stacking. Country party candidates were expected to recruit members. A lot would drop out, but each campaign left a core of new members.

Head Office, focused on trying to get a winning candidate, changed the process to reduce branch control. Because the pre-selection process itself was strategically important to the Party, this was actually quite disastrous in the longer term.

This has become quite a long post. I will continue later.


I see that Mark Vaile has decided to stand down as Nationals leader. He has also rejected the suggestion from Mr Tuckey that the Liberals and Nationals should merge.

For a delirious moment on Saturday night I thought that Phil Gardiner, the Nationals candidate in O'Connor, was going to get in front of the ALP candidate and then take the seat from Mr Tuckey on ALP preferences. Ah well, one can dream.

I will write some more on the challenge facing the Nationals. Perhaps better to let the dust settle first.

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