MUNGO MacCALLUM. Farmers, miners and failed leadership.

I think it was in 1969 I first predicted that the Country Party (as the Nationals were then called) would wither away.  

It seemed to me that the iron laws of demography meant that their shrinking rural base would shortly reach the point of no return – neither its numbers nor the resources needed to sustain them would be sufficient to keep the party of rural socialists in the style in which they had been accustomed in their long coalition to the increasingly impatient Liberals.

And when the coalition finally went into opposition three years later and lost its ability to deliver the goodies its greedy voters demanded, its very reason for being would disappear. But in fact the Nats survived the tumultuous three Whitlam years, and under new and ferocious leadership unquestioningly backed by Malcolm Fraser, a Liberal who often had more in common with the Nationals rump than the majority in his own party, it actually made something of a comeback.

And in spite of regular reports of its impending demise, the Nats have hung on – indeed, in 2016 they were credited with saving the coalition’s bacon. Thus it may well be that the attest reports of its death have been exaggerated.

But in the absence of any compelling leadership – the giants, Earle Page, Artie Fadden, Black Jack McEwen and the trio of headkickers, Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and Peter Nixon are long gone – the situation is not good.

It was McEwen who wrested the party from its rustic roots to try and broaden its appeal to the regions, and even into the suburbs of the cities. To an extent he succeeded, but in the process he set up tensions that have only increased over time.

Arguably the merger of the Nats and Libs in Queensland – always regarded as the heartland – was the final straw for many, and the party’s unquestioning support for the mining industry – often at the expense of the farmers – left more traditional voters looking for alternatives.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was the most obvious, and the leadership was slow to respond to the threat. But initially it was largely confined to the deep north– the infection could be at least partially contained. But then came the emergence of the Hunters Shooters and Fishers in New South Wales, which became a direct competitor within state politics, and was at least strong enough to provide a challenge – if only through its preferences – to federal seats as well.

The grass roots, who had long complained that they had been ignored by their leadership in Canberra which was thought to be under the thumb of the urban Liberals finally had an alternative – and at the same time both Labor and even the Liberals were devising rural policies (and pork barrels) of their own.

And it is in this context that the earnest but colourless leadership of Michael McCormack is now struggling. He is not the first nonentity to lead the Nats – Charles Blunt, Mark Vaile and Warren Truss, to name but three, were hardly shining lights, which is perhaps why the wildly erratic but charismatic Barnaby Joyce got the job ,and why he may get it again.

The mood for change will accelerate if the Nats lose a seat or two in New South Wales; if they lose any federally it will become irresistible. Whether it can save them in the longer term we do not know. But given my record, I’m not making any predictions.


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6 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Farmers, miners and failed leadership.

  1. Chris Borthwick says:

    Founded in 1920, withering from 1969, so almost exactly half its existence. Could we have a little more withering Mungo self-analysis as to exactly why he was so egregiously wrong in ’69? That would be more productive than self-evident statements that the party has in point of fact withered hardly at all.

  2. That is an excellent summary by Evan Jones of what happened. The arrogance of the mainstream economics profession is the central disaster of our times. Surely there is a basic conflict of interest between miners and farmers. The Nationals can represent one but not the other. The miners use huge volumes of our most valuable resource — water.

  3. Evan Jones says:

    Prescient of MM to see the future decline in 1969. The turning point seems to have been under Charles Blunt’s brief tenure in 1990, although the Party itself opened a permanent wound when it changed its name in 1982. The significance of the name change would be exemplified in two successive leaders (Anderson, Vaile) going straight over to the mining industry, and a later one (Joyce) pissing in mining giant Gina’s pocket.
    External factors contributed. The family farmer has been one of the great and unacknowledged casualties of neoliberalism. Certainly there was pork-barrelling. But the post-1974 Industries Assistance Commission went after it religiously; the post-1989 Industry Commission, with a broader brief, likewise. Agricultural economists have even been more disproportionately neoliberal than economists in general – which is saying something. Labor gradually dismantled the old regime, with the hardline Peter Walsh then with, albeit more sympathetic, John Kerin. The madness that was National Competition Policy discredited rationalising schemes that attempted to offset brutal market instability and corporate predation.
    Labor privatised the Commonwealth Bank, ushering in the plague of regional bank branch closures. There has been a Labor-Liberal Coalition to watch passively while the banks plundered the bush, with (highlight) the Nats sitting on their hands when the Commonwealth Development Bank was killed off in 1996 with the full privatisation of its parent. Howard privatised Telstra. And so on.
    The National Party is a Church. Like a certain other Church, rural and regional Australia continues to support it even though it has been neglected and abused by it. Its parliamentary representation has long been a self-serving rabble. Its corrupt role in the destruction of the Murray-Darling river system is a huge scandal. The National Party has long since passed its used-by date.

  4. Tony Mitchell says:

    Thank you Paul for this summation of the wretched Joyce’s career. It is of course inconceivable that the long-suffering voters of rural New England would select again this loud-mouth. ( Outrageously self-described as the “elected deputy prime-minister”). He so clearly personifies everything most country people rightly despise.
    So, having sired one child (and another already named male heir expected) – maybe he hopes to re-kindle his “family-man” credentials; and expect the people will forget his colourful record of marital adventures, associated expenses; not to mention massive departmental overspending and maladministration

  5. Charismatic is not an adjective I thought I would ever see applied to the purple headed member from New England. I even struggle to understand his appeal to the rustic rubes and agrarian socialists – surely they can see through the affectations of this Mulga Dill with his verandah-brimmed Akubra that remains untroubled by the sweat of any actual labour?

    A self-pitying chancer, a grifter, a bag-carrier for Gina and the miners who sacrifices the well-being of down-stream communities and the environment through a nod and wink to water theft by big agribusiness, a climate science denier and bloviating, opinionated ignoramus, a sex pest. Where does charisma fit?

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