You doity rat

Victorian Senator Julian McGauran’s defection from the Nationals to the Liberals has attracted widespread criticism on talk radio and blogs (here and here and here and here), much of which has echoed Nationals leader Mark Vaile’s critique – that "the honourable thing for Julian to do would be to step down from that position and allow the National Party to fill the position", since Victorian voters "elected a National Party senator and they expect to see one there now".

Did they though? McGauran owes his position to an arrangement in which the Coalition parties run a joint Senate ticket in Victoria, depriving above-the-line voters of a choice between the two. The Nationals take second and fourth place on the Coalition ticket at alternating elections, which means certain re-election for McGauran at the end of his six-year term, and certain defeat for the filler candidate who comes in between. It also means that a Coalition vote in Melbourne is as much a vote for the National Party as a Coalition vote in Gippsland, such that it makes no sense for either critics of McGauran or McGauran himself to talk in terms of his "role of representing country people".

By way of comparison, the Coalition parties in Queensland have not run a joint ticket since 1977, and the Nationals have won at least one seat on their own strength at every election since – with the exception of 1998, when Bill O’Chee lost his seat to One Nation (interestingly enough, there has been talk over the years that O’Chee might return to politics as a Liberal). In Victoria, nobody quite knows how the Nationals would go if left to their own devices. The last time voters across the state had an opportunity to vote for the party was after the 1987 double dissolution, when they scored 5.7 per cent. Given that their goal is to out-score the Liberal Party’s surplus over 28.6 per cent (the total required to elect two Senators), this would leave them struggling to win a seat at their expense – and there is little doubt that their vote has fallen since.

There may be details of the Coalition agreement that I am missing here, but surely the National Party would opt out if they thought they stood a better than 50 per cent chance of winning at a half-Senate election. As for the Liberal Party, they have apparently suffered the arrangement largely because McGauran delivers preferences from the Democratic Labor Party – not legally the same party that came out of the 1950s Labor split, but a new group that refused to accept its eventual demise in 1976. The DLP owes its continuing existence to support from the McGauran family during a legal challenge against the Australian Electoral Commission, which sought to deregister it because it refused to prove it had 500 members (the party sought an activist ruling invoking implied constitutional rights, of a type that would not normally win favour among conservatives).

There have been times when the McGauran-DLP link has come in handy. At the aforementioned 1987 double dissolution election, the DLP gave the young McGauran a valuable 2.0 per cent boost that helped secure him the eleventh out of the available 12 seats. The party’s support since has proved remarkably resilient, hitting a peak in 2001 (for some reason) of 2.2 per cent – which helped a struggling Coalition to a third seat, without which it would not hold its current majority. In 2004, their 1.9 per cent was higher than the vote for Family First, from which Steve Fielding achieved a remarkable victory.

Nevertheless, many in the Liberal Party have taken the understandable view that a Senate seat was a big-money sacrifice for a small-change preference deal, and one which seemed likely to decline in value with the passage of time. McGauran’s decision to jump ship is very likely a signal that the Liberals were about to pull the plug on the arrangement, and that Liberal preselection seemed a more likely prospect than Nationals victory from a separate ticket.

UPDATE (25/1/06): A link from Crikey (always good for a midday hit-counter spike) draws attention to this analogy regarding the National Party from commenter Hudson: "They are like a pig being swallowed by a constrictor, but being pigs they will not remove themselves from the trough long enough to extricate themselves from the snake". The Poll Bludger is not sure that the National Party is as doomed as many are saying and might get around to explaining why some time. Also in comments, this interesting explanation from Stephen L for why the DLP did so well in Victoria in 2001:

Many DLP voters are not actually looking for a conservative Catholic party – a quick look at their preferences in lower house seats shows that. Instead they attract a large number of people whose eyesight is poor and see the word ‘labor’ and think that this is the ALP column. The DLP vote rises when they have a position on the left of the Senate ballot paper, particularly when they are well to the left of the ALP. This occured in both 2001 and 2004. They did slightly worse in 2004, probably because the presence of Family First meant that some of the people who really did mean ot vote for them in 2001 found a new home. If the next election draw sees the DLP placed to the right of the ALP on the ballot I predict their vote will plummet.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

25 comments on “You doity rat”

  1. At the last National Party Preselection,Julian waschalleneged by 3 others which he only just won. At the time a number of Liberals came out and said that if any of the challengers and in particular Scott Mitchell former Young Nats National President won then the deal givining the Senate position to the Nationals would be withdrawn.

  2. Firstly one must accept that it is a furphy to suggest that on a joint ticket that the people of Victoria elected a National. It is simply a nonsense.
    Secondly, it is fundamentally, misleading to suggest that the people of any given State elect any particular party to a seat. They, in fact, elect a person to a seat. This is self-evident – notwithstanding the complications of above the line voting and the ability of States to appoint replacement Senators from the same party.
    Hence, when Senators resign from their parties (Colston, McGauran et al) but not from the Senate they continue to hold their seats.
    Anyone complaining that they are not getting what they voted for have always been labouring under a misapprehension about the way the system works.
    One little tidbit I find interesting is that the Nats are now on the threshold of losing offical party status as I understand it. This must impact on their reactions toward so-called ‘rogue’ senators, no???

  3. It is remarkable that Vaile said he was ‘not disappointed’ in the loss of a ministry position for the Nats following McGauran’s defection. The Nats have been in the process of being absorbed by the libs for decades as every election they lose another seat, particularly in Victoria. They are like a pig being swallowed by a constrictor, but being pigs they will not remove themselves from the trough long enough to extricate themselves from the snake.

  4. He may have been elected in 2004 but its less than seven months into the 6 year senate term…I suppose thats the end of joint senate tickets in Victoria?

  5. The Nats only have 2 Federal seats in Victoria, Mallee and Gippsland.

    Last time Mallee faced a three cornered contest the ALP came thirs and preferenced theLibs. However about half of the ALP voters preferenced the Nats, thus giving the Nats a small victory as the Libs for the first time topped the primary vote. Next election could see the Nat member retire and the seat fall to the Libs.

    Gippsland after the last election will be a contest between the Nats and ALP and when the anti Government swng comes could see this seat fall to the ALP if not too many more ALP families move out of the area. The election afterwards will probably see the Libs run a serious campaign and beat the Nats on primaries. After the next Victorian State election everyone will know more of the strengths of the Nats ond the Libs on the ground as there will be 3 cornered contests for the first time in a long time in Gippsland

    Interesting to note that the last seat the Nats lost in Victoria was Murray. Sharman Stone joined the Liberal Party after losing National Party preselection for the seat and won it for the libs. She also tok 450 NAtional party members and combined them with the 13liberal party members in the seat. Yesterday she got promoted. Dont the Nats look silly now

  6. You are puzzled as to why the DLP’s vote peaked in 2001. A quck look at ballot position will help. Many DLP voters are not actually looking for a conservative Catholic party – a quick look at their preferences in lower house seats shows that. Instead they attract a large number of people who’s eyesight is poor and see the word “labor” and think that this is the ALP column.

    The DLP vote rises when they have a position on the left of the Senate ballot paper, particularly when they are well to the left of the ALP. This occured in both 2001 and 2004. They did slightly worse in 2004, probably because the presence of Family First meant that some of the people who really did mean ot vote for them in 2001 found a new home.

    If the next election draw sees the DLP placed to the right of the ALP on the ballot I predict their vote will plummet.

  7. The decline of the Nationals, as it has happened so far and as it will go, reminds me of a snowball rolling down a mountain. It builds up momentum, and I think that is what we will see.

    As the Nationals get smaller, I expect a few things to happen:
    -If they get knocked out of Victoria (where they are holding on barely) it will affect them in their other two remaining states (NSW and Qld) by diminishing their credibility as a “major party”. This should also result in falling support in other states.
    -This decline will likely lead to more loss of ministries. Currently a quarter of the Cabinet (Vaile, Truss and McGauran) are Nationals, far above their representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

    You also need to look at where they are losing seats. They are effectively being attacked from three directions. Currently, the seats belonging to the last four Nationals leaders before John Anderson (Richmond, New England and Farrer), are all held by other parties. Farrer was poached by the Libs following Fischer’s retirement, Richmond was won by the ALP in 2004, and New England has been held by Tony Windsor since 2001.

    I think they each provide perfect examples of what will kill the Nats. I think that at least 2/3s of the Nationals seats, including the three coastal seats in NSW, Riverina, and possibly the Victorian seats (I don’t know as much about the Victoriana and Queensland seats) would fall if the Liberals challenged National control. Since the Libs took over Hume and Eden-Monaro, the Nationals have made no serious attempt to gain them back, showing that they don’t have the capacity to regain seats.

    The Liberals obviously don’t put that much energy into unseating Nationals, and it’s no surprise. They are effectively the same as Liberals most of the time, and the effort the Liberals would require to knock off the Nationals would probably lose them the election to Labor.

    So that’s what’s interesting about the case of Richmond. Richmond (and, to a lesser extent, the other north NSW coastal seats) has seen a significant demographic change which has seen it more resemble the seats usually contested by the Liberals. Even if they don’t take a seat directly off the Nationals, the Liberals will have much more success in defeating Labor in a seat like Richmond than the Nationals. I predict that the next time Richmond falls to a Coalition MP, it is a Liberal, and in the future the Liberals will be the main Coalition partner in that region.

    That’s how the decline will eventuate. The Libs won’t be able to knock off all the Nationals. Seats like Gwydir and Parkes will be much more difficult. But by even knocking off, say, 5 seats, and reducing the Nationals to 7, will put them under even more pressure for McGauran-style defections and leave the Nationals incapable of stemming their decline.

    I’ve also got some comments about the Nationals’ fate in the Senate, but I’ll post them another time.

  8. Wasn’t the 1987 Victorian result due to the Hartleyite ‘Industrial Labor Party’ preferencing against John Halfpenny on the Labor ticket or is this just an urban myth?
    Senate ballot positions used to be determined alphabetically (based on the average ‘A-ness’ of the ticket). In 1937 in NSW Labor picked a team of As, got first place and won.

  9. Geoff, you are venturing beyond my era of expertise, such as it is, but the 1987 Victorian Senate election results make for interesting reading.

    A ticket headed by Hartley got 4243 votes (including both ticket and non-ticket votes) and John Halfpenny (who was number six on the Labor ticket) ultimately fell 6060 votes short of winning the twelfth and final seat. So if those preferences had gone the other way (assuming Hartley had the Liberals ahead of Halfpenny, as I believe you are inferring) it would have made an already nail-biting result even closer but the outcome would have been the same.

    Instead, the twelfth seat went to the Liberals’ number five candidate, future superstar Kay Patterson.

  10. The mistake the Federal National Party have made is that they don’t understand their core support base.

    The typical National Party voter is economically left wing, socially right wing, anti establishement and politically rusted on. This is not the same as a typical Liberal voter.

    National Party politicians have assumed that their support base would accept unpalatable policies if laced with droplets of honey. They assume that National Party stalwarts would rather see the Nationals in coalition at any cost, as a subservient entity, rather than see the ALP in government. They are wrong in their assumptions. That is why they keep losing seats.

    The National Party are dying because they no longer have a brand. They don’t stand for anything or defend iconic issues. Their last bastion of ideology was betrayed when they meekly allowed Telstra to be privatised. Voters look at the Nationals and ask one question. Why vote for them? That is their problem.

    The National Party’s only chance of survival is to break from the coalition, reject the Liberals and have a Barnaby Joyce style leader who will provide their heartland base with a reason to vote for them again. Otherwise they will continue to bleed to death. Under the leadership of Mark Vaile and Ron Boswell they are stuffed. If some of their MP’s jump ship so be it. Clean ’em out and move on as a united, vocal, but smaller force. At least they will be identifiable as a brand.

    They should follow the example of Peter Ryan in Victoria where I predict the Nats will win 10 lower house seats, a net gain of 3. Ryan has been able to differentiate the Nats from the Libs and reinforce these differences to his heartland base. Ryan has had the guts to criticise the Liberals because he knows that many conservative voters in the bush don’t want either major party. They crave a traditional Country Party who will represent them.

    The dummies in Canberra simply don’t understand that the National Party is simply the Country Party with a differennt name. They should happily accept this and accept their place in the world. Otherwise they perish.

  11. I agree with your sentiment but in Victoria it is too late for the Nats to regain state seats, they need to defend what they have. In the last state election didnt they only win one lower house seat outright in a three cornred contest. So which 3 seats do you think they can win?

  12. I agree with most of what has been said above, but I think that Ben Raue overstates the case. Consider the example of Cowper. This is one of the coastal seats Ben says would fall to the Liberals if they challenged.

    However, in 2001 there was a three cornered contest, because the sitting National MP retired. The new National candidate beat the Liberal 30% to 16% on primaries and was never seriously challenged. I don’t know how hard the Liberals campaigned, but it certainly doesn’t look like this is an easy win for the Liberals.

    In Victoria prior to the last state election I thought the Nationals were likely to be wiped out, and many commentators predicted this. They held onto all their lower house seats and gained one. However, in the upper house they lost two seats and barely survived in two others.

    My conclusion from this was that the National brand didn’t win votes. In the upper house, with candidates who were little known, they struggled. However, in the lower house the electorates were smaller and conservative voters decided on the basis of who had the better candidate, and in most cases where they made a serious effort people thought their candidate was better than the Libs.

    Their chances of survival depend on getting candidates who are seen as being better than their Liberal opponent. However, I can’t see them regaining ground – aside from the two seats held by Independents, I don’t think there are any seats they don’t hold where they are within cooee of winning, even with good candidates.

  13. In Victoria the Nats hold Benalla (won off Denise Allen at the last election), Gippsland South, Lowan, Murray Valley, Rodney, Shepparton and Swan Hill. They will hold them all safely.

    Realistically they are a big chance of winning Gippsland East, held by independent Craig Ingram. Ingram was one of the three amigos who handed Bracks the Premiership in 1999 and as time goes by his gloss is starting to fade as the stench of the Kennett government dissipates. This is National Party heartland.

    The Nats could win Bass off the Liberals. They didn’t stand a candidate last time and the electorate covers fertile territory such as Dalyston, Nar Nar Goon and Bunyip. The combined independent vote in 2002 was 26% and the ALP/Green vote was 34%. If the Nats stand a good local candidate then they could finish ahead of the Libs and win on preferences. I believe the sitting Liberal is likely to retire later this year.

    On reflection I admit the Nats will struggle to win a third seat, but I suspect they will do well in seat like Morwell where Federal distaste for the Liberal could cause some of their 20% vote to drift to the Nats who scored 12% in 2002. The independent vote was also about 20%. The ALP only have a 5% buffer and towns like Traralgon might be receptive to a frisky Peter Ryan hopping into the Libs. It will be one to watch.

  14. I agree the Nationals’ crisis is overstated. Bass is more likely to fall to Labor, the Council voting suggests Labor would have won it if they had not run dead to assist Davis. Will Davis run for Labor? Population trends favour Labor in Bass. I agree the Nats do better in smaller electorates at the state level, but perhaps there is a reason for their better state performance apart from this. Labor had particular problems in Morwell last time, this year they will be past problems and Labor will probably increase their vote (as they did in 1992 against the trend after the messy 1988 preselection). The Nationals will continue a slow decline for many years to come. When will they lose the deputy-prime minister’s position? Those who call for the Nats to return to their traditional base forget that this base is now mostly gone due to social change.

  15. I normally take minor parties’ poll ratings with a grain of salt, but the latest Newspoll result is very interesting – the Nationals are up from 4 per cent to 7 per cent, their highest rating in five years. Unfortunately ACNielsen does not offer separate rating for the Libs and Nats.

  16. Ok Billy, I disagree

    The only thing that saves the Nationals in the Vic state parliament is the deal they do with the ALP over preferences. If a like deal is not done this time, its unlikely that the VicNats will have that many state seats

    eg Swan Hill (was a liberal seat from 73 to 83) in 2002 GRN 1635 ALP 8384, Lib 8438 and Nat 11066. A preference change by the GReens and ALP would deliver the seat to the Libs

    Lowan (was liberal 70 to 79) in 2002 GRN 1658, ALP 9683, Lib 9871 and Nat 14568. Again a prefernce change would make this sea a Liberal one

    Rodney GRN 1414, ALP 8212, Lib 9723 and Nat 11046. Yet again same result

    Murray Valley GRN 1764, ALP 9846, Lib 6565, NAt 13778. While this looks good for the Nats the conservative vote could change if Ken Jasper retire this election. But I would call it a Nat seat

    Shep. GRN 1057 ALP 7050, Ind 5000, Nat 9268, Lib 9662. Again an ALP prefernce change would make this a liberal seat

    Gippsland South GRN 3905 ALP 9505, Lib 7015, Nat 12891, This seat should stay with the Nats

    The Nats willbe lucky to get 2 in the new upprhouse, more likely 1 that could leave them with 3 seats in the next parliament in a worse case scenario

  17. I don’t think the ALP would preference the Libs ahead of the Nats in Victoria. It is now in the ALP’s interests to keep the Nats going. The Nats have reached a point where they are going to cause problems for the Liberals. Although Peter’s analysis is an eye opener.

    Years of obseqiousness has stripped the Nats of their reputation and they need to redeem themselves to stay alive. Expect further name calling from Peter Ryan, along with an attack on Liberal policies such as the half baked tollway concessions for Eastlink. In Victoria the state Libs are a joke. The Nats will pick up the odd seat this year by default.

    Like William I am fascinated by Newspolls results. If correct they are showing the Nats picking up seats at the expense of the ALP and retiring Liberals. The worry for the Libs is that their vote is dipping sharply. The ALP could cause them real damage in the city on the back of preferences simply because the Liberals primary vote is withering away. Nothing to do with the ALP surging in support. Sometimes staying still can get you home.

    The Nats need to surf their wave of support now and assert themselves. We’ll see if Mark Vaile has the guts or political smarts to capitalise.

    The long term problem for the Federal Nats is caused by the constitutional requirement of the nexus to limit the number of House of Reps seats for the states to approximatelty twice the size of the Senate. Unless the Senate is increased by a change to the CEA then the number of Federal seats stays approximately the same.

    In 2006 the average Federal Division has 90,000 electors, in 1984 it was about 65,000. Consequently traditional country seats are becoming urbanised in order for each electorate to meet their enrolment quota. Add to this the complication that Queensland’s expanding population is fleecing seats from all the other states and you have a major problem for the Federal National Party.

    If they want to assert themselves maybe they could convince John Howard to initiate constitutional reform. Propose to remove the harnass of the nexus and ensure each state’s number of seats can increase as its population also increases. Each electorate could have about 75,000 electors, a reasonable size I would have thought. At least all states could be democratically represented without being stripped of their representation by faster growing states. I reckon it would stand a fair chance of passing because it is a reasonable proposition.

    It is a practical solution that hasn’t been considered, even though Referendums are notoriously unsuccessful. You really wonder about the ability of our political masters to think laterally.

  18. Sceptic makes a number of good points about the nexus, personally I favour a system, where 70,000 or 75,000 is needed to make a seat and the AEC does a redistribution after every election. A way to break the nexus would be to limit the Senate to 9 members from each state and have them all elected at each election. I am sure that Howard wont do that, but maybe labor might next time.

    It might need to be done in 2 stages, Senate reduction and comined election first and then the House of Reps side.

    How many people would vote to reduce the Upper hous MP’s is the question, prob. quite a few

  19. The major problem that the National Party has in relation to the Coalition agreement which protects sitting members only. The Nationals should have demanded a concrete system of seat allocations as a price of a Coalition. Seats like Farrer and Murray would have been protected from the Liberal Party and would still be National strongholds. Their inability to see the power of their position and to demand protection for their seats have seen Farrer and Murray, and others, lost to the Liberal Party forever. All the work that Tim Fischer did was lost with Farrer. Why not for example demand that Richmond be only contested by Nationals in the future, that way ensuring growth. They effectively hold the balance of power in the Senate and are fairly indespensable for the formation of a non-Labor Government in the Lower House, yet they will continue to be eaten gradually until all that remains is Gwdyr. Either they are truly unconscious of their power or too scared to use it. Self preservation means a re-writing of the Coalition agreement.

  20. The nexus referendum was tried, and failed everywhere except NSW, in 1967 on the back of the most endorsed referendum (the Aboriginal question) since Federation. So I doubt that one’s a goer.

  21. OK, I’ve found some things to disagree with. Firstly, the idea that the Nationals could win Bass is mad. Less than a quarter of the seat is friendly territory for them. A town like Pakenham would return 3-5% National vote in a 3 cornered contest, and Philip Island would be little better.

    Secondly, the reason the number of House seats is not increased is nothing to do with the Nexus. The problem is that voters don’t like politicians (understanably) and think that more of them is a bad thing. They may be wrong in this – there is an arguement that the things they dislike are a result of too large electorates, and more MPs would also mean better ones, but few people agree. Expanding the size of the House is a vote loser, and will only happen if there is a powerful reason.

    In fact, the Nexus could be the one thing that does cause an increase in the number of electorates. It may eventually be decided that electing an even number of MPs at each election from each state is too problematic (had the coalition not scored 4 in Queensland this might be on the agenda now). Having 9 or 11 elected at once would require consitutional change, so if this idea does take hold the easiest way is to either go to 5 senators per state per election, or to 7. Knocking off that many MPs would cause any party huge internal pain, so they might just wear the voter backlash of increasing it to 7.

  22. At some point in the not too distant future the government will have to either:

    1. Amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act to increase the number of Senators for each State to either 14 or 16 so the size of the House of Reps can increase.


    2. Bite the bullet and attempt Constitutional reform. Demolish the nexus.

    The Nexus Referendum was tossed out in 1967 but that was 40 years ago. Just because something failed once doesn’t mean it isn’t worth another try if it is right.

    Otherwise within 4-5 years Federal Divisions will be over 100,000 electors in size, all the states except QLD will lose another seat, and the whole notion of representative government will be tarnished. For example how will the good people of SA feel when they are reduced to only 10 seats in a few years. The time for destoying the nexus will become a war cry.

    Currently the population quota for a House of Reps seat, based on ABS population figures, is close to 140,000. In 1996 it was 112,000. That is a real worry.

    Surely constitutional reform, if supported by proper education, is preferable to jacking up the number of Senators for each state. Tasmania, a State smaller that inner Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, would have 14 or 16 Senators. The same as the bigger states. That in itself makes constitutional reform eminently sellable (no offence to the nice people of Tassie).

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