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Truss out, Joyce in – what next for the Nationals?

Barnaby Joyce will replace Warren Truss as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Truss out, Joyce in – what next for the Nationals?

Barnaby Joyce will replace Warren Truss as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Barnaby Joyce has been elected unopposed to lead the National Party following Warren Truss’ retirement. NSW senator Fiona Nash will be Joyce’s deputy, becoming the first woman to hold that position.

So, in contrast to the major parties in recent times, the federal Nationals appear to have made a less messy leadership transition. It will excite relatively little comment apart from some anticipation of the fun to be had from Joyce’s mix of agrarian sentiment, sharp insights and unique communication style.

Otherwise, under Joyce, the most-successful minor party in Australia’s political history will pretty much continue to be treated as the Akubra wing of the Liberals. In its more than 90 years of existence, the National (previously Country) Party has spent more time on the government benches than in opposition.

The Nationals have had leaders with a variety of inclinations from mercantilists (John McEwen) to “Liberals in moleskins” (Charles Blunt, John Anderson) to partial populists (Tim Fischer). The Nationals’ leader must still have some of each of those tendencies. This will be a challenge for Joyce.

The role of a National Party MP

A National Party politician’s role is essentially threefold.

First, they are retail politicians. Facing the electorate and promoting the party to its constituency, with a touch of populism and rural authenticity, is important.

Pork barrelling, once important, is now rather constrained. But it is still important for a National Party politician to be seen to be fighting for rural services and providing a visible presence for the interests of rural people, especially drawing attention to the supposed urban-rural divide.

Second, the National Party politician is a member of the Coalition and, particularly in the case of the party’s leader, needs to preserve a strong working relationship with the Liberal Party. As a result, some economic liberalism is needed.

Third, the National Party has its own policy agenda. This is largely focused on addressing spatial inequities, but also has some specific concerns relating to agricultural industries.

In spite of ongoing attempts to broaden its base, the National Party’s support remains both geographically concentrated and anchored in agrarian ideology. Both of these factors contribute to the party’s success electorally and in influencing Coalition policy.

Now and into the future

The concentration of its vote allows the party to convert a relatively small percentage of the overall vote into a disproportionately high number of seats. In 2013, the Nationals won 15 seats in the House of Representatives – including Queensland LNP members identifying with the federal Nationals – an increase of three seats over the previous election. However, this did not reflect a substantial increase in the party’s share of the vote, which has been between 5.3% and 6% since 1998.

The persistence of agrarian sentiment in the Australian community is also to the Nationals’ advantage. It arguably contributes to their occasional policy wins. Our research shows that agrarianism, or countrymindedness, extends beyond the National Party’s supporters to generate a broad – at times romanticised – sympathy for farmers and rural communities across the electorate.

This allows the Liberals to support National Party policy positions that might otherwise appear to be contrary to Liberal Party ideology without attracting undue criticism.

The Liberal Party also at times resorts to agrarian rhetoric itself, for example around the impact of windfarms on rural landscapes and reverting to the language of disaster to describe drought.

The challenges for Joyce

So, what does this all mean for Joyce?

Leadership matters – to an extent. Those who are seen as too close to the Liberals can generate discontent among the grassroots membership and leakage of votes to more populist alternatives such as Katter’s Australian Party.

The Nationals have not really recovered from the One Nation election of 1998, where even Fischer’s relentless rounds of the wombat trail and common touch could not prevent the party reaching an electoral low point. Fischer was burdened by a gun laws backlash and the perceived impacts of economic liberalism on rural industries and services.

There was a small recovery under Anderson, but lingering suspicion of his Liberal tendencies remained. It was the low-key Truss who oversaw a modest revival. The Nationals have probably reached around the party’s contemporary maximum of 10% of lower house seats.

Joyce’s style has some old-style Country Party inclinations and this may serve the party well, at least in terms of retaining current levels of support and resisting the challenge from other populist parties and independents.

Returning to the three roles a Nationals MP must play, Joyce is a good retail politician. He was close to Abbott, being a fierce opponent of the carbon tax, but may face some challenges as deputy prime minister alongside the more socially liberal Malcolm Turnbull.

On balance, it would seem that the Nationals are here to stay and will probably survive at least until the celebration of the party’s centenary in the federal parliament in 2022.

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