Our political class: the National Party

There are lots of things going wrong with Australian government, resulting, for example in its failure to deal with climate change. One of these things is the membership of our political class. The problems are widespread but I’ll start with the National Party. The name itself is a problem, dating back to the brief delusion, encapsulated by the Joh for Canberra campaign in the 1980s, that the Country Party (as it then was) could become the dominant rightwing party. To the extent this idea had any substance, it was based on the success of various Country Party spivs in securing seats in the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.

What we now have is the process in reverse – a string of upper class spivs posing as salt of the earth bushies, and being elected to rural seats. To take just a few examples:

Barnaby Joyce: an accountant, educated at Riverview

David Littleproud: a hereditary politician and agribusiness banker

Matt Canavan: born on the Gold Coast, UQ education, previously an executive at KPMG and an economist at the Productivity Commission

Bridget McKenzie: allegedly Bendigo-based Minister for Decentralisation, primary residence in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood

The current beleaguered leader, Michael McCormack will probably turn out to be the last National leader who could claim any real association with the land

Coming up: The Socialist Left

30 thoughts on “Our political class: the National Party

  1. “Joh for Canberra campaign in the 1980s [1986-1987] that the Country Party (as it then was)”

    The Country Party changed its name to the National Country Party in 1975 and the National Party in 1982.

    Late in his life, Billy Hughes was asked why he had never been a member of the Country Party, when he had been a member of every other party. He answered that you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

  2. In that era, the TV ads pronounced “Joh and Nationals” as “Joh and the Gnash-a-Nulls”. I always called them the Gnash-a-nulls after that in my broadest mock country Qld accent. Gnashing their teeth about nothing, they were a bunch nulls (noughts).

  3. “What we now have is the process in reverse – a string of upper class spivs posing as salt of the earth bushies, and being elected to rural seats.”

    But ’twas ever thus! The old Country Party was always the preserve of the squattocracy.

    If you’ve ever lived in a country town you will know that class divisions in them are much more clearly defined than in the city and the local member was always drawn from, and represented, that upper class.

  4. Smith9, I’m aware of the history. The Joh for Canberra campaign was the culmination of the process which I described, in which the Queensland Party adopted the Nationals name, then pushed it on to the other states.

    The Hughes story is a favorite. I expected it’s apocryphal, but too good to check.

    Ikonoklast, that’s great!

  5. The current beleaguered leader, Michael McCormack will probably turn out to be the last National leader who could claim any real association with the land

    He grew up on the family farms, but his own career before entering Parliament was in the newspaper business, not farming.

    This is unsurprising, as it’s not the case that the majority of the party’s (federal) leaders have been farmers. The two who held the position longest (and this was during the party’s early history) were Earle Page and Artie Fadden: Page was a doctor and Fadden an accountant. Neither came from a farming family, either: Page’s family had a hardware manufacturing business and Fadden’s father was a police officer. It’s true that they both grew up in country towns. (McEwen, Anthony, Fischer, and Truss, all of whom held the position for substantial periods later in the party’s history, were also all farmers.)

  6. That’s okay, because their own voters aren’t representative of the bush, either. 29% of Australia live in rural or remote areas, but the primary vote for Nationals in 2019 was 10%. Remember that, the next time Dutton or McCormack or whatever is implying that greens voters are some fringe minority not worth considering

  7. There are/were big differences in the origins and attitudes of the National/Country Party between states, and even within states. These differences are linked to the history of closer settlement as it affected the distribution of farm sizes and farm incomes, and the commodity composition of farm output, especially the relative dependence on domestic and export markets. The entity barely exists in South Australia and Tasmania. At least in Victoria, it would be wrong to describe the National Party as representing a rural upper class, or part of a long departed ‘squattocracy’. Interstate and interregional political differences in rural Australia were once expressed in attitudes towards government intervention, agricultural assistance and agricultural marketing. With the declining economic significance of agriculture, most of these differences have disappeared. Somewhat ironically, since closer settlement in Victoria followed the decline of gold mining, the contemporary National Party link to mining, intended to prolong its influence, is an artefact of Queensland (and Western Australian) geography and geology. Farmers and miners have some common economic interests but there are conflicts. No wonder National Party members from different parts of Australia are at one another’s throats!

  8. The Hughes story is a favorite. I expected it’s apocryphal, but too good to check.

    Wikipedia gives a page reference in the official biography, which still leaves open (at least for those of us who have never consulted the book) the question of where the official biographer (Hughes’s own choice for the job) got the story.

    Anyway, you might like this:

  9. Did the system vaporise this?

  10. Apparently so. It was Antony Green tweeting as follows:

    When asked why he’d never joined the Country Party, ex PM, Labor Leader and famous party hopper Billy Hughes, replied “you had to draw the line somewhere”. Where will Mark Latham’s line be drawn?

    Sorry I had to post repeatedly to get that through.

  11. “29% of Australia live in rural or remote areas, ” Are you sure? Most estimates of urbanization for Australia I’ve seen are 85-90 per cent. Not sure where regional cities fit into that.

  12. I am reall looking forward to John’s discussion of the Socialist Left. Can I also suggest the ALP Right (my team), the Liberal.moderates, the Greens (of course), the populist Right and the Christian right.

  13. 29% seemed surprisingly high to me, too. I have to confess I literally just googled ‘how many Australians live in regional and remote areas’, and the first hit was the AIHW, which cites the ABS as source

  14. The capital cities plus Gold Coast gets you to 70%. So unless Newcastle, the Sunshine Coast, Wollongong and Geelong count as rural or remote, 29% is much too high.

  15. ‘Rural and remote’ and ‘regional and remote’ are not synonymous because ‘rural’ and ‘regional’ are not synonymous. ‘Regional’ can be used to mean ‘everywhere that’s not capital city’: by that definition, the proportion of the Australian population that is ‘regional’ is much more than 29% (closer to 50% the last time I looked, but things have probably changed since then). However, that includes a lot of ‘regional urban’ population.

  16. A quick search using urban as the key term reveals a UN figure of 86% (Australia’s urban population as a percentage of total population. If 86% of the population is urban, then 14% is ‘rural’, ‘rural and remote’, ‘non-urban’, or whatever else you want to call it.

    I feel as if it’s only within my lifetime that the term ‘regional’ and ‘regions’ have become frequently used to refer, roughly, to areas that are not metropolitan–possibly because ‘provincial’ and ‘provinces’ are pejorative? Anyway, whatever the reason, ‘urban’ by any standard demographer’s definition, including that used by the UN, must include a lot of country towns, some small, some large, many of which were traditionally strong bases of Country Party support (although not in all parts of the country). You might think of Orange or Warrnambool, for example, as ‘rural’, or you might not, but there’s clearly a strong case for referring to them by some such term as ‘regional’.

  17. Regional may fall into the same argumemtn as JQ rails against – generations.

    I know 70+ yr olds who vote greens, and 20 yr olds who would make dutton blush. Urban and rural.

    Same it would seem to be classifying regional as definitive voting blocks.

    The yoof of today may break these stereotypes of regional in the not too distant future.

    https://insidestory.org.au/millennial-madness/

  18. Smith9: “The capital cities plus Gold Coast gets you to 70%. So unless Newcastle, the Sunshine Coast, Wollongong and Geelong count as rural or remote, 29% is much too high.”

    Yes. Adding those cities gives you an urban population of about 76%, and we still have yet to consider Launceston, Ballarat, Bendigo, Albury-Wodonga, Coffs Harbour, Toowoomba, Hervey Bay, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and Bunbury, which taken together add another 5 per cent.

  19. The AEC has demographic definitions for federal seats. Of the 151 seats, 38 are deemed rural and 23 provisional (where majority of voters live in a provisional city) and the rest are deemed inner or outer metropolitan. So that is 40% of seats are non metro. Next question do all seats have a similar number of voters? I always assumed they did within +/-10%.

  20. Of the 151 seats, 38 are deemed rural and 23 provisional (where majority of voters live in a provisional city) and the rest are deemed inner or outer metropolitan.

    Provisional, provincial? Provincial, provisional?

  21. Next question do all seats have a similar number of voters? I always assumed they did within +/-10%.

    1. At the time a redistribution is conducted, each electoral division must have a number of voters within 10% of the quota, but obviously this can change before another redistribution happens. However, the redistribution criteria effectively require that rates of demographic change be taken into account (so a seat might be a combination of slow-growing and fast-growing areas, but if not then fast-growing areas must be put in seats with a below-average number of voters at the time of the redistribution and slow-growing areas in seats with an above-average number of voters, so that they’ll move towards parity rather than away from it). If seats move too far from parity then another redistribution must be held early, but the process has been so good (until now) at taking account of expected demographic change that this rule has never yet had to be invoked.
    2. The quota is set separately for each State and Territory, and that happens at different times because they aren’t all redistributed at the same time. So the variation between States and Territories is greater than the variation within any one of them, especially because the Constitution guarantees each original State a minimum of five seats, which gives Tasmania more seats than it would otherwise have and therefore a smaller number of voters in each seat, by a good deal more than 10%.

    At the end of 2019, the seat with the largest number of voters enrolled (124,758) was Sturt, in South Australia (eastern suburbs of Adelaide, running from Highbury and Oakden to Myrtle Bank and Waterfall Gully); the seat with the smallest number (68,987) was Solomon, in the Northern Territory (Darwin city and most of the Darwin and Palmerston suburbs, running from Buffalo Creek to Bellamack).

  22. J-D 11:30 am, this clearly requires fixing, and properly!

    One vote, one value. Make Tasmania a territory, protectorate, or put it in the same offshore boat as NZ… NZ, yet another fix required.

    More referendums to add to a long ‘to do’ list that won’t get done..

  23. “Next question do all seats have a similar number of voters? I always assumed they did within +/-10%.”

    The five Tasmanian seats (from memory) have many fewer voters than the seats on the north island. This is because the constitution says that all the original states are guaranteed a minimum of five seats.

  24. There would still be substantial variation between the States and Territories, especially the smaller ones, even if there were no guarantee of five seats to Tasmania. Notice that the current smallest enrolment is not in Tasmania, but in the Northern Territory? If the Northern Territory were just one seat, it would have an enrolment way larger than that of any other seat: dividing it into two gives each of them a way smaller enrolment; there is (obviously) no way to give it one and a half seats. The ACT also currently has enrolments well below average for each of its three seats; not long ago it had two seats, each with enrolment well above average. This kind of thing could be avoided by abolishing the system of allocating seats to States and Territories and dividing the country into electoral divisions with boundaries that could cross State/Territory borders, but obviously that idea is a complete non-starter.

  25. Or we could double the number of seats in the HoR (and therefore also, because of the constitution, the Senate). The Tasmanian population problem and territory integer programming problems would disappear. Might need a new parliament house though, so perhaps not all that practical.

  26. Canberra may override the NT government at any time… The Tasmanian population is just 1.28 times the size of the ACT population, and 2.12 times that of the NT. Being magnanimous, if not to be a territory then allow Tasmania 3 Senators, and 3 MPs.

    “abolishing the system of allocating seats to States and Territories and dividing the country into electoral divisions with boundaries that could cross State/Territory borders..”

    And make them all multi-member electorates, say, 3 or 5 members each.

  27. J-D yes sorry I meant provincial not bloody provisional😡. Interesting revelations about the wide discrepancies across some electoral numbers in some states. I will bet the discrepancies, nearly all favour the Nationals and it would be good to know what the bias % is. I know we have had several elections where the side with more votes still lost the seat count. Hawke vs Peacock and Howard Vs Beasley come to mind.

  28. I will bet the discrepancies, nearly all favour the Nationals …

    Not at all. The process for determining boundaries, which you can read about in detail at the AEC website, is scrupulously non-partisan. The between-State discrepancies favour Tasmania for Constitutional reasons, but that helps the Nationals not at all, because they don’t operate in Tasmania. The need to round off each State or Territory’s allocation of seats to a whole number means that the least populous will be either the most over-represented (if they’re rounded up) or the most under-represented (if they’re rounded down), but since the Nationals also don’t operate in the NT, the ACT, or (at least for Federal elections, at least with any chance of winning) in South Australia, or even much in Western Australia, this also makes little difference to them.

    Under the various systems which operated before 1984, rural areas were typically favoured to some extent, in varying ways, over urban ones, which did help the Country Party to some extent. Since 1984 the only factor which might slightly favour rural areas is that the redistribution must take account, among other factors, of the area of electoral divisions, but this (along with other qualititative factors) is strictly subordinate to the numerical criteria. The requirement to take account not only of current enrolment figures but also of projected future trends leaves much less of a numerical margin to play with.

    At the end of last year, out of sixteen seats held by the Nationals, eight had a number of voters enrolled above the average for the State the seat was in, and eight below the average: no indication of bias there.

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