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.