Over 90 years strong
The Nationals, Australia’s second oldest political party, celebrate 90 unbroken years of representation in the Federal Parliament on 22 January 2010. On that day in 1920, 11 members of parliament who had been elected in December 1919 supporting the objectives of the Australian Farmers’ Federal Organisation, unanimously agreed to form an independent political party.
Today, the party stands for all regional Australians – families, the retired, small business operators, sea changers and tree changers, students and anyone who wants to see a fair go for all, no matter where they live.
The group elected the Tasmanian Member for Franklin, William McWilliams, as its first leader and agreed that, after a settling in period of about 12 months, new leadership elections would be held. McWilliams relinquished the position to the New South Wales Member for Cowper, Earle Page, on 5 April 1921.
The Australian Country Party (ACP), as it was known, won 14 seats at the elections on 16 December 1922 and held the balance of power. Page recognised that the best opportunity for the party to get its policy objectives on to the statute books would be by being a partner in government, while maintaining the party’s separate entity. But he refused overtures to form a Coalition with the Nationalists – forerunners of the United Australia and later Liberal Party – as long as Billy Hughes remained its leader.
This resulted in Hughes standing aside for Stanley Bruce and paving the way for the first Coalition between the two non-Labor parties. Published on 9 February 1923, it became the foundation agreement upon which all others have been modelled up to the present time. The separate identity of both parties was maintained, and the composite Cabinet of 11 members saw the Country Party hold five portfolios, including that of Treasurer. Page took precedence in the ministry after the Prime Minister – effectively Deputy Prime Minister – and the administration was called the Bruce-Page ministry.
Coalition was controversial in some of the state Country Party organisations and caused drama from time to time in Canberra.
John McEwen was expelled from the Victorian Country Party in 1937 for accepting the post of Minister for the Interior in the Lyons-Page government. Page withdrew the Country Party from the Coalition in April 1939 when Robert Menzies became Prime Minister. Arthur Fadden, as Prime Minister and Treasurer in 1941, lost office when his budget was voted down by two Victorian Independents, one of whom was an anti-Coalition Independent Country Party member, Alexander Wilson.
McEwen threatened to break the Coalition after the death of Harold Holt in December 1967 if the Liberals elected Bill McMahon as their leader and Prime Minister. The 1987 “Joh for Canberra” campaign was centrally aimed at breaking the Opposition Coalition of Ian Sinclair and John Howard.
Despite these tensions, the Coalition between the non-Labor parties in Canberra has been enduring. It has only been broken for two short periods since December 1949 – by agreement in the 17-month Opposition period between December 1972 and May 1974 and for four months from April to August during the “Joh for Canberra” campaign.
Coalition has also become controversial when the Country and subsequent National Party has been seen to punch above its weight, having a greater influence on policy outcomes than some believe its parliamentary numbers should warrant.
The party has consistently delivered major achievements in the national interest, with an emphasis on regional Australia. It has held the key trade related portfolios, under various names, in all Coalition governments since 1923.
More than a farmers’ party
Although the party was born out of a determination by farming organisations to gain more political recognition and policy action to further the interests of primary industries, it has never been simply a ‘farmers’ party.’
The Nationals has always fought for an equality of services and lifestyle between the cities and the regions, as well as for the best economic and trading opportunities for the rural sector and the nation.
The Nationals MPs and Senators bring a deep knowledge of regional Australia – from the remote outback to the towns and provincial cities – to the Federal parliament, and fight tenaciously for better services, schools and hospitals, roads, railways and communications, throughout their electorates.
The party has never been encumbered with the sometimes conflicting interests of an organisation representing city as well as regional interests.
The stand out achievement of the party over the past 90 years has been that it has forced all other parties to pay far greater attention to the development of non-metropolitan Australia than would otherwise have been the case.
Then-Leader John McEwen saw the party’s role in the following terms in 1968:
“The most important thing is that we have a total national concept of the Australian need. … So we conceive our role as a dual one of being at all times the specialist party with a sharp fighting edge, the specialists for rural industries and rural communities. At the same time we are the party which has the total co-ordinated concept of what is necessary for the growth and safety of the whole Australian nation. … Summed up, our philosophy and our intent are the determination to have a safe Australia and a secure Australia, a growing Australia, a rich Australia.”
Keeping the balance
Another key role of the party has been to keep the balance between political extremes. As Doug Anthony told the party’s Federal Council in October 1972:
“A strong Country Party does keep the balance – the balance of stable Government, dependable Government; the balance of development between the city and the country areas; the balance of economic activity; a balance between the rural industries and the other sectors of the community. We went to see a balance of opportunity for education and employment; a balance of special justice between different sections of the community; a proper balance between the powers and responsibilities of the State Governments and the Commonwealth Government, with neither becoming over-dominant, but working in partnership. We keep a balance between extremes of political thought.”
John Anderson articulated a similar view in June 2005:
“We bring an earthiness to Cabinet because we know and understand how life outside the mad sophisticated cities works; we have practical experience … I’ve always seen my role, and that of our party, as being to support economic reforms that will bring national wealth and employment to the highest levels, but then to redistribute some of those gains to the people and communities who would otherwise miss out. And it’s imperative that we do this, because rural communities contribute more than what they are rewarded for.”