IAN MCAULEY. The National Party’s Dämmerung – an awakening for representative democracy?

The National Party represents a declining demographic with values out of step with most Australians. In most democracies it would be sidelined as a fringe group. It holds disproportionate political influence only because we are not facing up to the need to break from our dysfunctional polarised political system.

When I recently wrote about Turnbull’s problems confronting the Liberals’ hard conservatives, Chris Sanderson reminded us of the other conservative force in the Coalition:

We have become so used to the idea that the ‘Coalition’ actually is one. It’s not. It’s two parties pretending to be one, for the purpose of having the numbers to ‘win a majority’ in parliament.

Our electoral system and parliamentary conventions have given the National Party political power way out of proportion to their public support. In NSW and Victoria, where the Nationals are in coalition with the Liberals but identified as a separate party, a mere eight percent of first preference votes in last year’s election delivered them ten seats in the House of Representatives, while the Greens, who won eleven percent of the vote, won only one seat.

An additional six members of Queensland’s merged Liberal-National Party make up the party’s caucus, giving the Nationals 16 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Not a significant number in itself, but it becomes significant in a coalition with a one-seat majority.

The absurdity of that situation becomes evident when we consider how such minor parties on the left or right fringe fare in other countries. In the Netherlands, for example, which also has a 150-seat chamber, Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom holds 20 seats – four more than our Nationals in our House of Representatives – but that country’s centrist parties have left his party out on the sidelines.

In most democracies where two more-or-less centrist parties hold an overwhelming majority such representation as held by the Nationals would relegate them to the cross bench. More centrist parties, while recognising their differences, work out a way of getting on with the task of governing without being held hostage to fringe movements.

A Dutch or German person looking at our parliament would see that the combined Liberal plus Labor representation in the House is 114 ( and that’s not counting 15 members of the LNP who identify themselves as Liberals.) He or she would conclude, rightly, that Australians have voted overwhelmingly for centrist politicians, a majority of whom probably support a clampdown on tax concessions for housing speculators, a market mechanism to combat climate change, federal controls on land clearing, a minerals resource-rent tax, an in-depth inquiry into the financial sector, and other sensible economic reforms.

Also, as confirmed by opinion polling that most Australians are strongly opposed to public subsidies for the Adani coal mine – a project pushed by the National Party (and the Queensland state Labor party) in defiance of economic logic.

If the Nationals represented a growing political movement, the coalition arrangement may make some sense for the Liberal Party. Indeed, the Nationals like to crow about how in last year’s election they gained a seat (Murray in Victoria) from the Liberals, while the Liberals lost 13 seats. But demographic trends are not on the side of the Nationals; nor are political trends.

Five of their sixteen seats, all coastal, are held on a less than five percent two-party margin. In these seats the balance between the coastal settlements and the rural hinterland is shifting, to the detriment of the National Party. Indeed, it is feasible that these coastal seats could become Green territory. The Nationals hold their inland seats with larger margins, but in time electoral re-distributions will result in a consolidation of inland seats because their population growth is much lower than in capital city and coastal regions.

Also, it would be folly for the Nationals to rely on rural social conservatism because the farming population is changing. Farming – from horticulture through to arid country grazing – is increasingly a technology-intensive industry, employing people no less skilled and educated than employees of high-technology industries in the city, whose social values are probably similar to those of their urban counterparts.

Nor are country people universally supportive of the National Party’s economic policies. The clearest division is over coal seam gas, but there are other divisions. Farmers who are trying to manage their properties responsibly are not enamoured with the idea that they have to compete with environmental vandals engaged in tree clearing, overstocking and profligate use of water, or with bullies underpaying seasonal workers. Tourism operators know that the natural environment is the asset that keeps them in business. Yet the National Party makes no secret of its hostility to the whole environmental movement. (It’s currently trying to have tax-deductibility for donations to environmental organizations abolished.)

Perhaps it will take an electoral defeat for the Liberal Party to see its coalition arrangement as a political liability. More broadly, both the Liberal and Labor parties, and other centrist groupings (including the Greens and the Xenophon team) should be thinking about how to prepare for a transition from a polarised and confrontational political system – a system displaying its worst characteristics in the USA and the UK – towards a multi-party democracy. There is nothing in our Constitution that binds us to a situation where our Parliament can be held hostage by a minority on an ideological fringe.

 

Ian McAuley is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Canberra and a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development

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