The Nationals’ Senate Leader, Barnaby Joyce, gave an address to the National Press Club yesterday where his key theme was the need for the Nationals to more clearly distinguish themselves from the Liberals.

He said

“the 2007 Federal election loss was a devastating event for the Federal National Party, not only because it saw us out of Government in every single jurisdiction in Australia, but because it underlined the drift from our Party’s history and traditions that we permitted for a decade or more in the name of unity. “

……

“Our electoral standing is at root a consequence of the party’s decision to blend in, chameleon-like, with the approach of its Coalition partner.”

While not everyone would agree with him, I think the point he makes is quite plausible.  But regardless of how accurate his analysis is, I still cannot see how the Nationals can pursue a strategy of more clearly differentiating themselves from the Liberals in Canberra, while remaining merged with the Liberals in Queensland.  I didn’t hear a broadcast of his speech, so I don’t know if any of the media in attendance asked a question of Joyce seeking clarification of this.

Even if you view the LNP in Queensland as a Nationals takeover of the Liberals rather than a merger – which might have been broadly true at the time, but matters less and less over time – the point remains that a single merged entity can’t differentiate from itself.

From looking at the rest of Joyce’s speech, he seems to be suggesting the Nationals could/should play a role on the right of the Liberals, shoring up their Conservative base as the Liberals seek the swinging vote/middle ground.  This parallels what he sees as the role the Greens play on the left of Labor. 

I think his analysis of the Greens as Labor’s “able lieutenant” funnelling left wing preferences back to Labor is shallow and flawed, but it’s a view which many others also hold, so I can’t really be too hard on him for reflecting it.

But the key differentiator he is really suggesting is the between the Senate and the House of Representatives, not between the Liberals and the Nationals.

The media focused on his view that the Nationals (i.e. the Senate Nationals) would not support a Carbon Trading Scheme in any form.  But more significant was his suggestion that the Senate’s representation should be changed to regions, so that 2 Senators were elected from each region, rather than 12 from each state.  He draws a parallel with the USA, where each of the 50 states elects 2 Senators regardless of their population. 

Electing just 2 Senators at any election would just give you 1 Labor and 1 non-Labor Senator every time – as has occurred in the ACT and the Northern Territory at every election since they first gained the right to have 2 Senators representing each territory.  Electing Senators from regions rather than states would require a referendum, and will never happen.  But Joyce’s vision highlights a desire that the significant malapportionment which currently applies in the Australian Senate, where both Tasmania and NSW have equal representation despite huge variations in population, could somehow be spread across an even greater number of regions, thus enabling the survival of the Nationals in the Senate.

One of the great ironies of the call for greater differentiation between the Nationals and the Liberals, manifesting itself occasionally in the two parties voting differently in the Senate, is that the Nationals would probably have no representation at all in the Senate after the next election were it not for the fact that they now contest the Senate on a joint ticket with the Liberals in the three big eastern states.

Demographic reality makes it almost impossible for the Nationals to avoid further shrinkage over the long-term and I don’t profess to have any ideas how they could counter this.  But if there is a genuine belief that clearer differentiation from the Liberals is the way to go, then the easiest way for them to test it is to run on a separate Senate ticket at the next federal election.

There is always a certain romantic appeal to a death or glory strategy – in this case it would be very apt to call it a ‘Sydney or the Bush’ strategy. But having personally gone through the extremely unpleasant experience of being amongst the last Senate representatives of a dying political party, I wouldn’t recommend this path be taken lightly.

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