What will it take for the National Party MPs to realise that their very future as a political force in Australia is now at risk? Various state and federal elections have been sending SOS signals to the party hierarchy for more than a decade now, but its leaders seem incapable of understanding what is happening in their own heartland.
The term “National”, which was adopted in 1982 as the surefire path to greater electoral success, is gradually becoming an embarrassing misnomer as the Party’s representation shrinks like the Mohicans Indians to a disappearing tribe in rural Queensland and New South Wales.
The Party is deeply in trouble with opportunistic Liberal and Labor parties ready to move in for the kill.
Following the extraordinary loss of Benalla in the recent by-election, where a former National Party leader’s seat went to Labor for the first time in almost a century, the Victorian Nationals are in danger of losing their party status in the Victorian Parliament.
While the swing to Labor in the by-election was just over 8 per cent, this came on top of a 7 per cent swing to Labor at the preceding State election.
The scale of the collapse of the National Party’s vote in Benalla can be gauged by recalling that just 12 years ago it held Benalla with a primary vote of some 70 per cent. Now it is struggling to get 40 per cent of the first preference votes.
Admittedly, there were some characteristics about Benalla which made it unusual, and it is possible to deduce too much from one very nasty by-election result.
The by-election was caused by the retirement of Pat McNamara who grew to become an unpopular local member because he failed to stand up to Jeff Kennett for country Victoria, or to use his influence as Deputy Premier to get particular things done for his own electorate.
Benalla voters were also still in a vengeful mood over the Melbourne-centric Kennett Government, and clearly wanted to give the new Bracks administration a clear run.
Nevertheless, Benalla has cemented an alarming trend which gained full exposure with the meteoric rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
The fact is, the National Party’s rusted-on voters are becoming fewer and fewer with each election.
Rural and regional Australians tried their luck with the ramshackle, amateurish One Nation Party, but are increasingly prepared to vote for a popular independent or even Labor candidate to get their voice heard.
The One Nation phenomenon was a democratic experiment in the “non-politician”, in people who often had no experience at any level of government and sometimes not even in community service.
Voters are unlikely to repeat this recklessness and country people are realising that their elected representatives need to be articulate, professional, and understand law making and Parliamentary procedures.
This accounts for the rise of the independents — popular and tested grassroots politicians who at least understand the political process.
The real reason for the decline in the National Party vote has been its failure to distinguish itself from the other parties.
It has been just as enthusiastic about embracing the economic rationalist policies of Canberra’s Treasury, including competition policy, privatisation and “free” international trade, with no apparent benefit to its own constituency.
The Nationals also built false hopes while in Opposition, promising things would be different for rural Australia after 13 years of Labor.
It has been different.
For many in rural Australia it has become much worse! While people in the large cities have gained from booming stockmarkets and rising housing prices and have got jobs in the “new economy”, country people have seen their standard of living continually eroded.
In Victoria it seems the Party may end its absurd “partnership” with the Liberal Party — a hoax perpetrated to avoid a real break with the Liberals.
But federally Victoria’s Peter McGauran (one of only three of his tribe left) stood by the party’s historic Coalition with the Liberals.
The fact is, every year more traditional National Party voters are recognising there is little difference between the Liberal and National Parties.
And if there is no difference between the parties, there is no need for the National Party to exist.