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.