Death of a National

Right-of-centre politics in Australia has lost another link with its respectable past. Doug Anthony, former deputy prime minister, died on Sunday in a nursing home in northern New South Wales, a few days short of his 91st birthday.

Anthony, who was the last survivor bar one from the Menzies government, was the last federal leader of the Country Party and the first of its reincarnation, the National Party. He served as deputy prime minister under John Gorton and William McMahon in 1971-72, and again for the whole term of Malcolm Fraser’s government from 1975 to 1983. He retired from parliament in 1984.

Anthony is a paradoxical figure in Australian politics. He was a very traditional Country Party politician: in some ways more traditional than his predecessor, John “Black Jack” McEwen, who had led the party into an embrace of protectionism, while Anthony’s sympathies were with free trade. And under him, in the late 1970s, the Country Party enjoyed something of a golden age.

Yet its power was brittle. The Liberal Party in 1975 had won, for the first time, a majority in its own right; Fraser maintained the Coalition, and conceded great influence to Anthony and other Country Party ministers, because he was more in sympathy with them than with most of his Liberal colleagues. Once he and Anthony were both gone, the National Party in the 1980s blundered into a series of crises that permanently weakened its position.

The change in name was symbolic of a deeper change that was happening to the party during Anthony’s tenure, although it was not something that he directed or probably wished for. Its traditional role as a representative of the sectional economic interests of the rural sector was becoming unsustainable: too few people now lived on the land, and its vote as a proportion of the Coalition total had gone into long-term decline. Instead, the party tried to remake itself as a broad conservative party.

For the Queensland division, under premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and party president Robert Sparkes, that was a viable strategy; they succeeded in outvoting the state’s Liberal Party and ultimately evicting it from the Coalition. But elsewhere the party made no inroads into metropolitan areas – social conservatism doesn’t play well in the suburbs.

The party was caught, as it still is, in a cleft stick. It wielded power courtesy of a large measure of Liberal Party indulgence; if it tried to compete on the latter’s turf, it risked being cut loose. But if it downplayed its separate rural identity it became vulnerable to challenge from rural independents. And its turn to the hard right in Queensland eventually created the political space for a more uncompromising version of the same thing, in the shape of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

By the time Anthony retired he already seemed like a figure from a bygone era, even though he was only 55. He returned to his farm and mostly remained quiet during the succeeding decades. One of his few interventions was to support a “yes” vote in the republic referendum of 1999: a dramatic sign of how out of touch he was with the orthodoxies of the conservative camp.

The Country Party was a tough school of politics; for all his folksy image, Anthony played the game hard. But he played it within the rules – there were limits beyond which he would not go. His successors have steadily pushed those limits outwards, and today’s National Party by comparison looks more like a small-time criminal racket than a serious political party.

It is some consolation that it has paid an electoral price, now attracting less than half the vote that it did in Anthony’s time. The golden age has become a distant memory.

One thought on “Death of a National

  1. It would seem prudent for a federal Liberal leader to keep the Nationals in Cabinet, as insurance, even if the Libs win a 1975- or 1996-style absolute majority by themselves. Is it common for the Liberals to do otherwise, to govern alone when they do win a majority of seats in their own right? The answer seems to vary between “never” in NSW (where the Coalition parties get on very well) to “hell yeah” in WA (where the Nationals do not even have an official standing coalition with the Libs but instead undertake a lot of Hamlet-like deliberation, whenever they hold the balance of power, as to whether they might, just might, back Labor to govern this time if it makes the bush a better offer). Victoria is in the middle – even though the local Nationals did in fact back Labor (or were backed by Labor) at one point, since 1955 they have been firmly committed to the Liberals, but have been left as wallflowers during the Bolte and Kennett eras because their seats were not needed.
    And then there’s Queensland, where the relationship has fluctuated from harmonious coalition in the Sixties to “Tom vs Cousin Greg”-style hazing by the mid-Eighties, to the Libs walking out and actually talking seriously about backing Labor in 1983, 1986 and 1989 (at least for the specific purpose of cooperating to repeal the Bjelkemander) to renewing the coalition by the mid-Nineties to merging into a single party in 2008.
    (Although the “LNP” representatives that Qld voters send to Canberra still divide themselves between the “Liberal” and “National” party rooms once they arrive there, with voters having no control over which caucus their local candidate with align with. One “LNP” MHR may self-identify as Liberal, with a chance to be – or at least a vote upon – the next Prime Minister; the “LNP” MHR next electorate over morphs into a “National” when she hits the tarmac at Canberra Airport, meaning she can never be Prime Minister [except for seven or eight days if the Liberal leader goes under a bus] and doesn’t even get a vote on the Prime Ministership).
    (I’m not really sure why Qld’s centre-Right voters put up with this lack of electoral choice, especially when they huff and puff so loudly about the tyranny of compulsory voting… I still have no idea who so many “Just Vote[d] 1” in 2001 and 2004 because the hated Peter Beattie urged them to. This shows one argument for having “relatively” rather than “absolutely” optional preferences – ie, “number at least three candidates” rather than “a vote is valid even with just one preference”: a minimal increase in legal compulsion removes the fear of vote-splitting and thus encourages allied parties to offer voters a choice of candidates, making the choice real, as opposed to “well, there’s only one centre-Right candidate on the ballot I can choose but thank heavens I wasn’t forced to number two or more squares, that was only one step above serfdom!”)

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