Originally published in The Australian Financial Review on November 27, 2017

Three years after Campbell Newman suffered the biggest swing in Australian political history, the Liberal National Party (LNP) just lost another 8 per cent of Queensland voters.

[This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review – here]

Remarkably, senior conservatives are already demanding greater distance between their party and the vast majority of voters who live in cities even though the seats around Brisbane were where the LNP lost the most votes.

Even more remarkably, these calls for the LNP to abandon the majority of metropolitan voters comes despite the fact there were far fewer One Nation voters than expected.

Australia’s population has grown by about 6.3 million people in the 21 years since John Howard was elected in 1996 and the vast majority of those new Australians live in cities. The sea-changers and tree-changers willing to leave the cities are not moving to regional Australia in search of jobs in agriculture or mining, yet that is the one thing the National Party strategists want to talk to their voters about. That’s a problem for Mr Turnbull.

Agriculture and mining have both become far more capital intensive and less jobs intensive in recent decades. While cities are preparing for driverless cars it seems the Nationals are yet to prepare for driverless tractors. When you add in the impact of robot fruit-pickers and satellite-controlled irrigation systems, the agricultural workforce is likely to be cut dramatically in the coming years. So what is the Nationals’ plan? Ban new technology on farms?

States of denial

Just as they deny the scientific evidence of climate change, many conservative politicians deny the economic impacts of structural and technological change. Rather than help build the new industries that might employ the workers the primary industries will inevitably shed, the Nationals prefer to blame their political opponents. Indeed, Senator Matt Canavan got so caught up on Saturday night that he actually blamed the ALP for the big swing against his party. Read that again if you need to, it still won’t make sense.

While defining themselves in terms of their opposition to inner-city environmentalists comes easily to the Nationals’ leadership, their real problem is that their electorates are gradually filling up with the voters they like to mock. You can get a good latte in Rockhampton and Townsville and many potential Nationals voters care a lot more about the quality of healthcare and education services than they do about culture wars targeting latte-sippers.

The Nationals’ willingness to chase a shrinking proportion of voters would be of little concern to most Australians were it not for the fact that they are in a Coalition agreement with the Liberals. This agreement entitles the Nationals to nominate the deputy prime minister and several other ministers. While John Howard was skilled enough a politician to simply throw billions of taxpayer dollars at his junior coalition partner, Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull have placed the Nationals behind the steering wheel of national policy. It is not working well.

The only reason that our national debate is wasted on absurd ideas of building new coal-fired power stations is because the Nationals’ identity politics demands that it support anything environmentalists oppose. Likewise the same-sex marriage debate.

Thumped twice over

Over the weekend, George Christensen used the LNP’s drubbing in the Queensland state election to call on his party to redouble their commitment to their conservative base. But the problem for Mr Christensen and the Prime Minister is that conservatives have been thumped twice by voters in as many weeks: once at the postal box and once at the Queensland ballot box. So-called “conservative Queensland” voted far more strongly in favour of same-sex marriage than NSW.

Australia is a vast continent with a sparse population, but as that population grows it does not just put pressure on our cities’ infrastructure, it is putting pressure on the comfortable coalitions that have defined Australian politics since World War II. It was once true that if the Liberals could win the cities and the Nationals could win the bush then the Coalition was a powerful force. But it is fast becoming obvious that the Nationals’ identity politics agenda is now costing the Liberals dearly in electorates where renewable energy and same-sex marriage are now vote-shifting issues. It is no coincidence that the Liberals lost Prahran to the Greens in the last Victorian state election and may lose Maiwar to the Greens in Queensland.

There was nothing to stop the Democrats or the Palmer United Party from making themselves irrelevant. Just as there is nothing to stop the Nationals from using the smaller-than-expected One Nation vote as a justification for a bigger dose of 1950s-era identity politics. But whether the Liberals let the Nationals’ rivalry with One Nation drag down the whole Coalition government is a matter for Malcolm Turnbull. For now.

Richard Denniss is the Chief Economist for The Australia Institute

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