The National Party

The enduring strength of a rural-based party in Australia—the National Party—has been rightly judged ‘unique’ (Costar and Woodward 1985, p. 2). Other developed countries have had rural-based parties, but none continued to prosper into the second post-war generation. In the 1920s ‘farmers’ parties’ burgeoned in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, but in the post 1945 period all discarded their rural identity, adopted Centre Party monikers, and, in some cases, underwent total ideological metamorphoses. In 1920s Canada, a United Farmers Party reigned in some provinces, and the Progressive Party had some successes at the federal level. But these elements ultimately subsumed themselves within the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, or the New Democratic Party. In New Zealand a small Country Party existed from 1925 to 1935 before disappearing.

But Australia’s National Party endures. It and its earlier incarnations (the Country Party, and the National Country Party) have provided one of Australia’s prime ministers, and seven of her sixteen deputy prime ministers. The party has, in the past, secured the premiership of Australia’s most industrialized state; has ruled in its own right in the fastest-growing state; and on occasion has won more seats than the Liberal Party in the largest state. Its share of the vote has fallen significantly since the 1980s. But in spite of the massive contraction of the relative importance of primary industries (from about 25 per cent of gross domestic product in the years of the party’s origin to only 2.5 per cent in 2013/14) one tenth of MPs elected to the 2013 House of Representatives caucused with the National Party.


This persistence belies no loss of identity. Bitter electoral contests with the Liberal Party continue at the national, state, and local level; in the hung parliament of 2010 one National MP sat on the cross-benches rather than join in coalition with the Liberal Party; National Party MPs have, in recent years, served in Labor Cabinets [19] and three times over the past century there have originated, from the National Party, MPs that have either secured Labor minority governments, or felled anti-Labor ones [20].

The singularity of this endurance is highlighted by the fact that organized rural-specific politics came late to Australia: when American prairies were aflame with populism, there was no organized rural-specific party in the sunburnt country. In the September 1914 federal election the two parties—the Australian Labor Party and the Commonwealth Liberal Party—together won 98 per cent of the vote, with both easily spanning the rural–urban divide. At the state level, NSW beyond the Great Dividing Range was a near continuous expanse of Labor seats (twenty-seven of its forty-six seats were from outside Sydney), with the Commonwealth Liberal Party reaching beyond Sydney, up and down the long rural coast.

It was the upheaval of world war that split anti-Labor forces. The first ‘Country’ member of the federal parliament was elected on 14 December 1918. The general election of December 1919 returned to the federal parliament seven ‘Country Party’ parliamentarians, almost depriving the government of a majority. The new politics were even more starkly evinced in 1922, when the Country Party entered into government with five of the eleven ministries, including the Treasury.

How did it come to pass that, since 1918, there have been two anti-Labor parties when there had been only one before?

It might be construed as the correction, or overcorrection, of the lopsided political economy of both parties before the First World War. The Deakinite political economy of the pre-war era had been essentially an urban transaction. The expansion of the apparatus of state was inevitably focused on the metropolis: the successful Kyabram movement of 1902 to overthrow the Deakinite Premier of Victoria, Alexander Peacock, originated from the bush. The ‘Harvester Judgement’ of 1907 amounted, of course, to a tax on the purchase of agricultural implements. These pre-existing rural–urban tensions were inflamed by the First World War through the high prices of foodstuffs paid by cities, and by the price maxima subsequently imposed on the sellers of foodstuffs. The war revealed to rural producers so many policy devices that could powerfully harm—or powerfully benefit—them, and rural producers strived to win command of these new tools.

Yet there is another explanation why, from 1918, there were two anti-Labor parties when there had been only one before. And that is that there had not been one before. Until they fused in 1909 the anti-Labor parties had been two: Protectionist and Free Trade. The cause of Protectionism was not exclusively urban; it had knitted together certain urban and rural interests. But, a victim of its own success, once Protection had become the established policy of the country, and no longer furnished a shibboleth to sort the Gileadite from the Ephraimite, its urban seats defected to Labor, and the rural ones to the new Commonwealth Liberal Party. What the Country Party was reopening, then, was not some papered-over split between bush and city, but the difference in outlook between Protectionist and Free Trader. Consider the ten seats held by official Protectionists in 1906 and not subsequently won by Labor; ‘anti-Labor Protectionist’ seats.


If we exclude two won by Protectionist candidates of 1906 who contested the 1922 election under Nationalist colours we are left with eight: of these, six were won by Country Party [21]. Further to the same conclusion, all the leaders of the Country Party from 1921 to 1990 represented seats that in the initial Federation election of 1901 were won by Protectionists [22]. The identification of the Country Party with the old Protectionist Party shorn of its urban wing is underlined by the fact that the accession of the Country Party to the Cabinet did not, contrary to the obvious interest of export-orientated farmers, provide a counterweight to the pre-existing ‘principle’ of protection to manufactures (Reitsma 1960, p. 21). The two ardent Free Traders of the new party were exiled to the backbench, while, from 1923, rural producers were given ex officio representation on the Tariff Board, joining the representatives of manufacturers and importers.

The adherence of the new Country Party to protection suggests that the interpretation of the Country Party as promoting the interests of agriculture is superficial. The adherence of the Country Party to protection suggests its underlying position is better approximated as ‘Property but not Market’. In the days of its origin this formula served well foodstuff-producing agriculture, faced with Labor’s aspiration to abolish freehold title and city-based consumers’ demand for cheap food. But ‘Property but not the Market’ is a formula of far broader application than the encounter of farmer and townsman. Property but not the Market is a formula deployed in numerous other circumstances with distinct success. It was the economic creed of Catholic Christian Democracy, including its representative in Australia after the Second World War, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The DLP and the Country Party were a good fit, and in Western Australia the two parties ultimately amalgamated.

A still closer parallel to the Country Party’s successful deployment of Property but not Market was in Ireland’s Fianna Fáil. Founded about the same time as the Country Party, Fianna Fáil was ‘essentially a rural phenomenon’ defending the rural periphery against the urban centre; a voice for ‘small farmers and petty bourgeoisie’ against pastoralists; offering protectionism and cultural conservatism, and enduring in the face of the de-ruralization of Ireland (Dunphy 1995, p. 16). The triangle of Labour, Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael that dominated Ireland for many years could be seen mirrored in the Labor, Country, and Liberal Parties of Australia, but with the greater urbanization of Australia so enlarging Labor that in Australia ‘Fianna Fáil’ and ‘Fine Gael’ were forced into a defensive coalition. It might be argued that the formula of ‘Fianna Fáil’ was so strong it disturbed even Labor. The mysterious figure of Jack Lang—the Big Fella, of Labor but perhaps essentially alien to it—may form a counterpart to De Valera—the Long Fellow—and another testimony to the potency of the formula.

9780198753254This extract is taken from Only in Australia: The History, Politics and Economics of Australian Exceptionalism edited by William Coleman.

This edited volume is about the Australian difference and how Australia’s economic and social policy has diverged from the approach of other countries. Australia seems to be following a ‘special path’ of its own that it laid down more than a century ago.

[19] South Australia, Karlene Maywald 2004–10.

[20] William McWilliams in 1929; Alexander Wilson in 1941; Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor in 2010.

[21] Cowper, Gippsland, Richmond, Riverina, Bendigo, and Swan.

Featured image credits: [1] Shutterstock 85527103; [2] Shutterstock 62264485

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