Tony Abbott as National Party leader

Discussing the National Party tomorrow morning on ABC Ballarat, some thoughts (which build on my predictions before the last election):

For decades political observers have chronicled the decline of the National Party, and predicted the party’s final demise, in particular some have argued that the dismantling of agricultural market regulation would be fatal to the Nationals. However the National Party has outlasted many of its critics. Agricultural market deregulation was a wrenching shift but the new liberal order in agricultural policy appealed to values of individualism and entrepreneurship which were always strongly held among Australian farmers, the left’s dreams of a populist worker-farmer alliance have always foundered because of these values. Agricultural market regulation was frequently criticised as ‘agrarian socialism’ but this was incorrect. It reflected a populist suspicion of large-scale capital but this suspicion was tinged with envy rather than out and out hostility.  At this election the Nationals are likely to gain seats such as Dawson and Flynn in Queensland. It is true however that the party’s position within the Australian party system has fundamentally changed; we will never see National Party leaders as influential as those of the old Country Party. The modern National Party is much more subordinate to the Liberal Party than in the past, but the modern Liberal Party, now populist and conservative, has become more like the Country and National Party of old.  John Howard was the best National Party Prime Minister that Australia ever had. On social welfare policy he followed a path in line with Australian expectations and recognised that voters expected an active role for the state. Under his leadership the Liberals diversified their appeal and followed in the footsteps of the Nationals to win more support among lower income voters and Catholics. In some aspects Australia as a whole has become more like rural Australia had always been characterised by an increased role for small business, higher levels of self employment and lower union membership. John Howard was also, like the Nationals, willing to appeal to voters on the radical right. Queensland became Howard’s great bulwark, observers were fascinated by the slow and painful demise of the Queensland National Party but the Queensland Liberals shed their small ‘l’ liberal pretensions and took over the ground that the Queensland Nationals had once occupied. Queensland now looks like it will be the best state for Tony Abbott who is a staunch defender of Howard’s legacy. Even the Liberals change of heart on emissions trading followed the conservative position laid out by the Nationals. Yet the memory of WorkChoices remains a major drag on Coalition prospects, and here perhaps was the Nationals’ greatest recent failure. In government they offered no effective resistance to a policy that fatally endangered the conservatives’ appeal to lower income voters.

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