Monday, February 13, 2006

Nationals: conservatives or centrists?

The National Party's woes have revived speculation about whether it should continue with coalition with the Liberals, or try to strike out on its own, reforming itself as a rural populist centre party that could potentially work with the ALP (for some background see Anthony Green here) In the 1920s the Country Party had a major strategic debate (covered in Graham's Formation of the Australian Country Parties) before opting for the conservative coalition strategy. Sections of the old Country Party have advocated a centre party strategy in the past, but the last time the Country Party (strictly the breakaway 'Country Progressive Party') actually supported Labor in government was in Victoria in the 1920s until the entry of the South Australian National into the Labor cabinet last year. Victorian Labor on occasion supported the Country Party to form governments as late as 1950s. The sticking point however between Labor and the Country Party in Victoria was electoral law, with the Country Party defending a strong rural weighting, and this led to the collapse of their alliances. In 1970 the Victorian Country Party directed preferences to Labor and as a result Labor for the first and only time since the Labor split of the 1950s won electorates in south-west Victoria, but the pact with Labor was unpopular among Country Party voters, it lost 4 seats and its vote fell by almost a quarter.
What do rank and file National voters think? Government services and taxation perhaps even industrial relations (now that union militancy is so weak it is no longer feared) may establish points of cooperation with Labor but environmental regulation and ‘hunting and fishing’ divide the two parties. The fate of the South Australian Nationals at the coming election will provide a hint. In 1962 Don Aitkin surveyed Country party members in NSW (always the most conservative division of the party). He found that 45% supported cooperation with the Liberals and were hostile to any suggestion of alliance with Labor, 14% favoured cooperation with Labor and were opposed to cooperation with the Liberals, 17% favoured cooperation with either Liberal or Labor depending on circumstances and 24% wanted a strategy of pure independence.


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