One result of the 2007 federal election has been a further decline in Nationals' representation. In this article, I explore the reasons for this, focussing on the Nationals' inability to frame their defence of rural Australia in a way that attracts widespread support. In its own analysis, the Party blames its decline on demographic change- the continuing depopulation of traditional rural seats and the changes wrought on others by intra and inter state migration (National Interest, 27 May 2007). Implicit in this explanation is an acknowledgement that the Party has no appeal outside its regional and sectional base: as rural populations decline so does the Party because its ideology has little resonance beyond its traditional heartland. This was not always the case.
So long as there was a sizeable rural population, agriculture's contribution to the economy was significant, and Australian identity was bound up with rural imagery, 'countryminded' or agrarian arguments were widely accepted, even by some urban Australians (Overacker 1952, 224; Aitkin 1985, 35). The core characteristics of countrymindedness are a belief that country people are morally and physically superior to city dwellers, city life is corrupt and parasitic, and that rural industry is essential to the nation's economy. The conditions that supported these beliefs no longer prevail and as successive election results prove, both the Nationals' electoral support and its capacity to influence policy have been eroded. This has not necessarily led to the neglect of rural Australia but nowadays the attention paid to country areas is driven by pragmatic electoral considerations rather than a shared acceptance of agrarian ideology. Indeed as the 2007 results indicate, lavish expenditure in Nationals' seats has not been sufficient to halt the Party's decline and may even have contributed to it.
The Nationals' Electoral Status
The Nationals now hold only 10 lower house seats in the national parliament, the lowest number since the party first contested a federal election in its own right as the Country Party in 1922 and won 14 seats. Parliamentary membership peaked in 1975 with 23 members and 8 senators who were elected on a surge of anti-Whitlam feeling. In 1996, the Party still had 18 members in the federal parliament, but at each of the four elections since, its representation has fallen by one or two members. Its decline has been even more substantial than the raw figures suggest because the Nationals' representation as a percentage of the parliament has fallen as the parliament's size has increased: the parliament in 1922 had only 75 members, 127 in 1975 and 148 in 1996 compared with the current parliament of 150.
All of the seats the Party won in 2007 are designated rural by the Australian Electoral Commission but these represent less than a quarter of seats with this rating. Of the 44 seats described as rural, the Nationals won 10, the Liberals 18, Labor 13 and independents 2. It should be noted, however, that the Electoral Commission's definition of 'rural' is broad: 'divisions without a majority of enrolment in major provincial cities'. This means that electorates as diverse as Leichardt (Labor), which incorporates the Torres Strait Islands and the tourist centres of Cairns and Port Douglas; McEwen (Liberal), a Victorian seat that includes wool, market gardening and wine among its industries; and Maranoa (National), a large Queensland seat dominated by primary production, are all classified by the Commission as rural.
Despite the anomalies created by the Commission's definition, it is clear that the Nationals do not monopolise rural seats. To begin with, and despite their name, the Nationals are not a national party. Their federal representation is confined to the mainland east coast states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Even at state level, the Party is poorly represented beyond the east coast with only 5 lower house members in Western Australia and 1 Legislative Councillor; 4 Country Liberal members in a 25 seat parliament in the Northern Territory; 1 member in South Australia (Karlene Maywald, who was invited to join the Labor ministry and who currently holds the portfolio of water security); and no members at all in Tasmania. …