As the junior party of most of Australia’s centre right coalition governments, the National Party of Australia does not receive the same level of scrutiny that the Liberal Party does. Yet it is an important part of the ruling class’s hold over the political system. And while not likely to disappear soon, the party has been in consistent decline since the 1950s. The crisis reflects both the decline of “agrarian” political parties in many wealthier capitalist countries and the unique features of the Nationals.
Originating as the Country Party, the Nationals were a strongly agrarian-based organisation. As Linda Botterill and Geoff Cockfield note in their 2009 book The National Party: Prospects for the Great Survivors, there has been considerable variation in the forms that agrarian political parties have taken around the world. Their unifying theme has been “understanding agriculture and farmers as holding a special place in society”. The political and ideological implications of these views varied according to the time and level of economic development.
The inter-war Eastern European “peasant parties” (like the Polish Peasant Party “Piast” or later the People’s Party), for instance, often promoted ties to the monarchy and landowning classes. Others, like the Czech Republican Party of Farmers and Peasants, supported land redistribution. Most were socially conservative. In other cases, small farmers were more politically radical and sympathetic to the labour movement. The Landless Peasant Movement in Brazil today is one example.
For the most part, though, the agrarian parties’ main base of support was small and middle farmers with a “sectoral” allegiance to agriculture. These groups were often hostile to both “big business” and “big labour”. Although often struggling to survive economically, small farmers nevertheless believed that they had interests distinct from the growing working classes. They above all wanted to preserve their property rights.
Yet the growth of capitalist relationships tended to doom most small farmers to bankruptcy. Only the most competitive survive using capital-intensive farming methods.
Many of these parties formed unstable alliances with urban commercial elites against the labour movement. These ruling class elements, in turn, granted concessions to small farmers to preserve an electoral base. Such political alliances inevitably promoted conflicts and occasionally broke down.
From its origins in 1920, the Country Party defined its role and electoral base by a desire to promote the interests of agriculture in Australia. The party promoted “country-mindedness” as its own form of agrarianism. Despite already being a heavily urbanised country by the 1920s, Australia was presented as an essentially agricultural society with a “pioneer spirit”.
For example, Don Aitkin argued in a 1985 essay that political “power resides in the city, where politics is trapped in a sterile debate about classes. There has to be a separate political party for country people to articulate the true voice of the nation”.
Country-mindedness drew on myths around the “ANZAC legend” and other facets of Australian nationalism. It also included hostility to foreign interests and Indigenous claims to land. The environment was a resource to be productively exploited. While country-mindedness promoted the image of the small farmer in the face of city-based interests and organised labour, it ignored that it had often been wage labourers who had built the agricultural sector before World War One.
Significant industrial organisations had been built from the 1870s onwards among shearers and miners. The economic depression of the 1890s led to widespread strike waves, resulting in many defeats for the trade union movement. The ensuing emergence of the ALP eventually led to the creation of arbitration and the entrenching of some labour rights. The ALP also advocated protection of the manufacturing sector, which disadvantaged agricultural exporters.
The main agribusiness interests, therefore, began to organise their own conservative and anti-labour candidates. Several state-based parties such as the Victorian Farmers’ Union and the Farmers and Settlers Party of New South Wales had already supported candidates after 1912.
The Country Party eventually emerged as a compromise between large and smaller farmers. The former opposed tariffs and changes to land tenure. The latter wanted their own form of protection in price support schemes and marketing pools.
Many comparatively smaller and medium-sized farm owners were united with large farmers in opposition to unions. While a large section of the rural population was wage earners, they often gravitated to the more well-to-do farmer interests that had the ability to mobilise resources and pose as local leaders.
When the Country Party emerged in an unexpected position of having the balance of power (12 of 75 seats) in the 1922 elections, its leader Earl Page was able to negotiate a coalition with the centre right Nationalist Party (after it ejected former ALP leader Billy Hughes). Page remained the party’s main leader in the inter-war years. The federal party set the main trend of governing in coalition with centre right governments.
The party was able to maintain its representation and shared government with the Nationalist and later United Australia Party. It helped implement a range of anti-trade union measures in the 1920s. The 1928 Transport Workers Act, for instance, targeted maritime workers. And it enthusiastically supported measures that led to declines in conditions for urban workers. Well-to-do people promoted antipathy between workers on the docks and farmers, to distract the latter from real causes of their problems (banks and traders).
However, the agricultural sector received increased support through funds for infrastructure, subsidies and settlement schemes. Ongoing turbulence in international markets meant the income of the wheat and meat industries fluctuated. The Meat Export Bounties Act established a bounty payment on any exported beef. Similar measures supported the livelihood of dairy farmers. Wool, however, remained the backbone of agriculture and Australian capitalism’s exports. Big pastoral interests dominated government decisions.
There were also changes in how farming was conducted, with a reduction in demand for labourers. There were 403,000 people employed in agriculture in 1911 – around 23 percent of the workforce. Owner-proprietors were 52.6 percent of the agricultural labour force.
By 1933, the number of people employed in agriculture rose to 513,000 (still 23 percent of the labour force due to the depression and unemployment in the cities). Yet owner-proprietors had increased to 59 percent of people working in the sector. The Country Party reached its highest level of support in 1940 with 13.7 percent of the vote and almost 20 percent of seats in federal parliament.
By 1947, total employment in agriculture had fallen to 452,000, or just 15 percent of the labour force, and owner proprietors were 64 percent of people working in the sector. The type of employment also shifted away from wage labour to self-employment. “Bounties” and other measures (such as allocating land to returned soldiers) also expanded the number of owner-cultivators.
These conditions continued into the 1950s as the Country Party solidified its role as a coalition partner with the Liberal Party during long years of Robert Menzies’ prime ministership. However, things began to change in the 1960s. The Country Party’s vote had fallen below 10 percent by 1951. It maintained this level of support through the rest of the decade. By 1961, however, agriculture accounted for just 10 percent of the labour force. The proportion of Australians living in rural areas was also declining.
Other changes to farming practices began to impact owners of smaller farms. Although export markets had diversified away from reliance on the UK, the prices of key commodities wool, wheat and meat fluctuated. Severe drought also occurred between 1958 and 1968.
One result was the emergence of the so-called rural crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. While sheep flocks and areas under cultivation increased, the number of farms and rural enterprises began to decline. These had remained steady at around 250,000 between 1930 and 1970. But by 1990, there were fewer than 130,000.
The Country Party’s primary vote first fell to below 8 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The decline had prompted it to rename itself the National Country Party and then National Party of Australia in 1982 to appeal to non-rural voters.
The Nationals, however, remained loyal servants of capital. Between 1973 and 1975, the party’s leader Doug Anthony participated in attempts to remove the first federal ALP government since 1949. And he led attacks on the trade unions under the Fraser government between 1975 and 1983.
Yet cuts to services and reductions in subsidies impacted the party’s base. Resentment emerged against the banks in the 1980s as increasing numbers of farms were foreclosed.
The National Party became caught in a net of contradictions. Its hostility to the labour movement and support for capitalism meant it was unwilling to argue for measures to prop up its shrinking base among farmers. By 1979 a new peak body emerged – the National Farmers’ Federation – which supported the neoliberal restructuring of the rural sector. The party largely was relegated to a role of “softening the blows” of these attacks while in government.
Three main trends emerged in different parts of Australia.
In Western Australia, the state branch had always maintained some independence from the federal party and from state Liberals. And it had split over participation in the state coalition government between 1978 and 1983. While maintaining several seats in the state parliament, it was only ever able to regain one federal seat, in 2010. Tony Crook, however, opted to sit as a cross-bencher.
Another path was merging with the Liberals. The Nationals had been the dominant partner in coalition governments in Queensland. As Rebecca Barrigos documents in a Marxist Left Review essay, Queensland was, historically, an exceptional state. Its settlement was more decentralised than others. The ALP had ruled Queensland virtually uninterrupted between 1915 and 1957. It had reinforced its power by establishing a gerrymandered electoral system in 1949 that favoured country areas where the party had a base among the then still large wage-earning population.
The combination of increased farm mechanisation and the 1950s split in the ALP reversed the situation. The Country Party was able to manipulate the system even further to entrench its rule. The high point was premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s rule between 1968 and 1987. Bjelke-Peterson implemented a range of reactionary measures while opening the state to intensified resource development from mining capital. During this time, the Nationals arguably succeeded in becoming the main party of business interests in the state.
Perhaps dizzy from success, Bjelke-Peterson was touted for a time as a potential prime minister through the infamous “Joh for PM” campaign. The state’s Liberal Party had already left the government in 1983.
Bjelke-Peterson eventually lost power after the Fitzgerald Inquiry revealed widespread corruption in the state. Faced with declining support, in 2007 the Nationals and the Liberals merged into the Liberal and National Party.
The third and main trend was the emergence of competitors. Nationally, the party’s share of the vote continued to fall. One Nation emerged as a serious competitor between 1996 and 2001, exploiting xenophobia and disenchantment with the political system in regional areas. In 1998, the Nationals obtained just 5.3 percent of the primary vote, although still controlling 10 percent of federal lower house seats. As early as 1990, Doug Anthony’s seat of Richmond in NSW was lost to the ALP, largely due to demographic changes.
In 2010, the party’s primary vote reached its lowest level, 3.4 percent. Most seats were lost to its coalition partner, the Liberals. Others went to rural independents such as Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Bob Katter also won his seat of Kennedy. Katter left the National Party in 2001. His history is highly illustrative. His father, Bob Katter senior, had initially been a union official and ALP member before the 1957 split. By 1966 he had defected to the Country Party, winning the seat of Kennedy. He could easily shift from the right wing and agrarian Queensland ALP to the Country Party.
Katter Jnr had a long career in the Bjelke-Peterson government before shifting to federal politics. He established his own Bob Katter’s Australia Party in 2011 to “represent agriculture” in Australian politics. Then, in 2016, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation unexpectedly re-emerged with almost 10 percent of the Senate vote in Queensland.
Other competitors include the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party. It emerged to protest the Howard government’s restrictions on gun ownership in the late 1990s. It now has lower house seats in NSW and upper house seats in state parliaments across the country. It openly attacks the Nationals as not being “dinkum about doing anything for the country-side’s long term future”.
In the spirit of the “country-independents” who broke with the National Party in 2010, yet another current has emerged in the New England region of NSW. Drawing attention to the impacts of coal seam gas mining and climate change, activist Charles Tym established an “Anyone But Nats” campaign, arguing: “The National Party turn their backs when a lot of rural people are very concerned about climate change and they are doing deals on water and it’s just not good enough”.
Like many agrarian parties around the world, the National Party has experienced considerable declines in support and influence associated with the decline of the agricultural sector. Its attempts to rebrand itself and appeal to a broader voter base have floundered. It remains a party dominated by agribusiness and well-to-do farmers hostile to the labour movement. Its coalitions with the Liberal Party entailed support for unpopular neoliberal policies that undermined many small farmers and regional communities.
These contradictions – economic and political – have undermined the party.