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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Nationals in Crisis

Well, it looks like things are more serious in the National Party than anyone suspected (or did the media simply distort matters by keeping their eye off the ball, too busy leaping every time someone coughs in the Labor Party? One wonders when they will finally cotton on to the rift in the Greens, but that's another story ... )

Further than a mere Coalition, the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland are proposing a full merger - essentially the formation of a new party, to be called the (gulp) New Liberals. It must say something about how the Nats themselves see the future of their party when it was their own state leader, Lawrence Springborg who proposed the merger in the first place, and Lib leader Bob Quinn who apparently had to be dragged kicking and screaming. It shouldn't be forgotten that the Nats are still the dominant Conservative force in Queensland politics. So basically, this is a party (or a state branch thereof) which so little believes in itself (or perhaps, is so willing to get rid of the incumbent government) that it's willing to annhilate itself.

Ironically, ask anyone on the street to name a Nationals MP, and the man they would probably name is a Queensland National, Barnaby Joyce - undoubtedly the National who has done most since his election to distinguish himself from his party's Coalition partner, in defiance of the suggestion of his former workmate Julian McGauran who, in his decision to jump ship to the Libs, cited an increasing and inevitable convergence between the two parties that is always to the Nationals' disadvantage. However, Joyce - as some of his colleagues on both sides of the Coalition made clear - seems very much in the minority, and though Federal National leader Mark Vaile has vocally opposed the Queensland merger, his own lacklustre performance can hardly lend fuel to the case against. Joyce is, not surprisingly, also against, but perhaps more bizarrely, so too is Bob Katter, who wasn't quite so misty eyed that he could resist leaving the Nationals some years ago to become an Independent (though his suggestion that the merger is putting political gain ahead of policy is spot on).

Whether other states are likely to follow Queensland's suit remains to be seen (but then, Queensland does always tend to be a special case, and given the Joh years, thank goodness for that), but a similar move for the Federal party seems very unlikely. I can certainly see a major split looming should this ever become a serious possibility. Perhaps this would ultimately be a productive thing, with the more proactive Nats such as Joyce and Fiona Nash forming a more effective party. But one thing it would do would be to endanger the government's control of the Senate. And Johnny wouldn't like that at all.

Peter Beattie has already begun to capitalise on the notion that the dissolution of the Nationals would leave rural Australia with no authentic voice, and is playing up the idea of a revitalised Country Labor to fill the `void' left by the Nationals. However, after toothlessly rolling over to allow such things as the full sale of Telstra, WorkChoices, and the signing of the US-Australia FTA, I imagine it's some time since many country folk have seen the Nationals as truly representing anything more than a diminished force that the Liberal Party tolerate only to hold power.

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