THE ABC documentary A Country Road focussed on former Western Australian National Party leader and current MP Brendon Grylls and the political resurgence resulting from his party’s independent political branding.
In a scene introducing Mr Grylls at the NSW Nationals conference, he was described as a “legend of the modern National Party” for implementing the $1 billion per year Royalties for Regions policy.
The policy underpinned the balance of power negotiations that unfolded at the 2008 WA election.
“Country people don’t always expect you to win, but they do expect you to get a blood-nose trying,” Mr Grylls said.
“And if you take on a fight no one expects you to win, get the blood nose and then actually win.
“At that point they stop treating you as a politician and they start treating you as their local champion.”
Ahead of the 2008 election, the WA Nationals were written off by many critics as a spent force, but they have fought back in recent years, achieving the party’s best result in 40 years at the last election.
“We knew we had to do something to change,” Mr Grylls said.
“The status quo was not going to work so we came up with a model of being more independent, looking to drive our own policy agenda and worked damn hard to implement it.
“I personally believe that for a minor party in politics to have an influence, you have to be able to have your own policy ideas.
“You have to be able to say to your electorate, ‘I agree with this or I don’t agree with this’.
“And I don’t like the Coalition model that has country MPs basically telling country people that this is a good thing when country people know it’s not,” he said.
In praise of independence
Former NSW independent MP Tony Windsor has long praised the WA National Party’s model of independence as a strategy to win all non-metropolitan seats and hold the balance of power at every election.
Mr Windsor repeated his views in the ABC series saying Mr Grylls “took advantage of the moment” and used the balance of power to deal with both sides of parliament, and that the deal he almost did with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) helped secure Royalties for Regions.
“That’s the leverage that the Country Party, the National Party of today, could in fact wield,” Mr Windsor said.
In her interview, former Riverina MP Kay Hull lamented the party changing its name from the Australian Country Party to the National Country Party in 1975, and then to the National Party of Australia in 1982.
But former Queensland Nationals Senator Ron Boswell said if the name wasn’t changed, he may never have been elected in 1983.
He said he won six to seven per cent of the vote in metropolitan Brisbane by gaining support from small businesses like chemists and newsagents, and conservative Christian voters.
“If we were still called the Country Party I don’t think I could have got up,” he said.
Ms Hull also said one of the party’s biggest dilemmas was drawing a line in the sand for fights against the Liberals, a line which seems to keep moving.
“Where is the line in the sand going to be where we say no more?” she said.
Nationals doing the job: Truss
The documentary was interspersed with opinions and views from former Liberal Prime Ministers John Howard and Malcolm Fraser and National Party leaders Mark Vaile and Tim Fischer.
But federal Nationals Leader Warren Truss has repeatedly defended the Coalition model as being more effective over time, rather than using balance of power negotiations to extract a short-term policy impact.
Mr Truss said his fundamental task as leader has been to win back seats the party lost at the 2007 election and harness a new generation of party members.
He told Fairfax Media that despite earlier criticisms, he stamped the final word on the documentary, saying the National Party is “here, doing the job and the Nationals will deliver”.
“There will always be critics and there will always be those who want to share our achievements or understate them,” he said.
“That is a challenge always for a smaller political party and it’s also a fact that many of our achievements occur behind closed doors because we’re part of the government and we’re part of a team.
“And by being part of the team, we expect key parts of our agenda to be delivered, and we expect that from time to time the senior partner (Liberals) will respect the fact we are part of that team and our agenda needs to be fulfilled as well.
“And therefore we are able to make those gains and to achieve those successes in a harmonious and co-operative way that’s been very good for Australia.”
National Party deputy leader Barnaby Joyce said documentaries like A Country Road can at times turn into a caricature of the subject matter, “which can be a bit dangerous”.
But he said overall the recent ABC series showed the National Party was “a very dynamic party”.
“It has been around for much longer than most other political parties and continues to evolve,” he said.
“But one thing remains constant: the Nationals represent regional areas and we can be unabashed in supporting regional areas.”
Mr Boswell said the National Party’s unique standing had been used to gain dozens of achievements over the years, including former Leader John Anderson standing against a proposal to remove government financial backing for agricultural R&D (Research and Development), when he was Agriculture Minister.
“I was John’s parliamentary secretary at the time when he was told to get rid of the dollar-for-dollar subsidy used for R&D, but he just wouldn’t do it,” he said.
“John said, ‘we need to develop new breeds and strains; this is the future of Australia and our primary producers’.
“He won the battle but he never made a fuss about it.
“We’ve also won the fight for the diesel fuel rebate when the Liberals wanted to cut it.”
Mr Boswell said the party had also fought back from having only 10 members and four senators after the 2007 election, to a party room of 21 now.
He said new members such as his replacement Matthew Canavan - “a very skilful economist” - and Barry O’Sullivan, gave the party greater depth and capacity to broaden its demographic appeal.
The Nationals also need to increase female representation but are well-served by Senators Fiona Nash and Bridget McKenzie, he said.
Mr Boswell said Mr Joyce was a future party leader who has learnt to take the party with him, rather than have it work against him, following his early maverick years.
“We’ve got a future,” he said.
“There’s more to the National Party than just farmers.
“Farmers are an important part of the base and always will be important and will always be looked after, but we’ve also got a big small business vote, a big conservative vote, the stay-at-home mums and conservative church groups who support the National Party.
“The farmers are our base and we’ll look after them but we will also look after country towns and businesses and other primary industries.
“I agree you’ve got to expand your demographics and we have expanded our demographics and we are doing that,” he said.
“We’ve probably always had a big mining vote – Doug Anthony used to be very strong on mining which is part of rural Australia and a rural industry – but we’ve got to appeal to all people and not just appeal to farmers.
“When the chips are down it’s usually the National Party that get things for country Australia.”
This is part two of Colin Bettles' analysis of the ABC documentary series, A Country Road. Click here to read part one.