Photo: Bob Hawke was Prime Minister of Australia from 1983 to 1991

The political landscape of rural politics, ever since the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia, has been dominated by two distinct yet inextricable binary conflicts of interest: the interest of the mining industry’s strong unions and the interest of the agricultural sector’s conservative business owners; as well as the interest of agricultural workers and the interest of aforementioned business owners.

These conflicts are often best observed in the ballots, with the once in- famous bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro, where a seat acts as a microcosm of the larger election, that bucked the trend in 2016 – voting in the ALP – and the maybe lesser known bellwether seat of Riverina, now a safe National Party seat since 1980. They demonstrate a pattern of strong federal Labor presence generally directly relating to a strong swing towards Labor in traditionally Coalition dominated rural constituencies.

This is all mostly due to the makeup of many country-but-not-quite-out- back seats, rural enough to be laden with mining towns and major farms, but not too rural that it’s all homesteads and independent operations. Generally speaking, workers in these mining towns and large-scale farms would vote Labor as they were the party of unions and individual workers’ rights, reducing the powers of employers over their employees. So conversely, business owners were more conservative, trying to reduce government restrictions within the private sector and giving them greater autonomy to treat their employees however they saw fit. So the mass voter base of these rural electorates is generally left-leaning and more progressive, however, the powerful and influential were generally slightly more right-wing conservative.

More outback electorates would be constituted of a lot of homesteads, small populations over enormous sects of land, leading to people probably becoming more conservative and wanting less government interference over their businesses. Though if there was a major mining town like Broken Hill then it would dominate politics in the area as it did in the now abolished electorate of Darling.

Enter the National Party, originally the Country Party in the 1920s, the party tailored to regional areas feeling disconnected, disinterested and disenfranchised by two-party city politics. It was designed to be a country representative, to give rural areas a better voice in the parliament that often felt dominated by metropolitan electorates. However, it was heavily influenced by this class divide of workers and their employers, left and right, and even though its voter base was primarily blue-collar workers, like Labor, donations by wealthy business owners often influenced their politics to become gradually more conservative – hence today they form the Coalition with Liberals and not Labor.

Theoretically, this political dance between left and right should empower the Nationals to be an independent juggernaut, tipping the scales in the favour of regional interests, not reduce them to the Liberal’s lackey, there to bolster the ranks of their party lines. The federal leader of the Country Party from 1958 to 1971, John McEwen, recognised there was a great misrepresentation in the party, that they were “carrying into the non-Labor side of the House a substantial proportion of voters who still have an affinity with Labor”.

Federal politics in Australia, however, started to shift in the 1980s, with the Labor Party beginning to lose its once iron grip on union-dominated country areas, and the National Party taking a hit in the House of Representatives, going from consistently around 20+ seats pre 1980 (20 in 1980) to consistently below 20 seats post 1980 (10 in 2007, 16 in 2019). Partly, this was due to the rebranding from the National Country Party, to just the National Party, making them appear more right-wing, but also partly due to a shift in rhetoric in favour of mining; despite their origins as an amalgamation of agrarian parties.

Labor’s switch is because of a few key reasons: issues of individual workers rights and government protection thereof were replaced by issues of healthcare with Medicare in 1984, issues of climate change and the environment in the 70s and 80s, as well as the issues of superannuation in 1992 and emphasis on taxation with the introduction of the GST in 2000; country voters identifying largely as National voters, not Labor or Liberal, despite being similar to Labor since they have more “particular policies” for country voters according to John Mcewen; a steady breakdown in the relationship between voters and government nationally, as trust in politicians and the democratic process has declined consistently from the 1986 election to the most recent one in 2019 according to the Federal Election Results; and an overrepresentation of older voters, 55+, being registered, with a paralleled under-representation of younger voters, 18- 29, being registered since the mid-1990s.

Strong Labor leadership has also been key, from Andrew Fisher in 1910, to John Curtin in the Second World War, Gough Whitlam in the 70s, Bob Hawke in the 80s, Paul Keating in the early 90s and Kevin Rudd in the 2010s (excluding Jim Scullin through the Great Depression) Labor needs a strong leader to carry them over the finish line. Although this factor is not independent enough, especially after the switch.

Essentially, lack of issues affecting country voters and an increasing identification as “National People”, accompanied with the general lack of faith in the process and dropping voter turnouts at the polls, have led to Labor losing its voters to apathy and distrust, and National strongholds like the division of Riverina, stay Nationals due to slightly overrepresented older generations voting with tradition.

So for the upcoming Federal Election in 2022, the direction of the vote in places such as Riverina might be obvious, the inexorable pull of the National vote subsuming all else, party allegiance trumping importance of policy, as policy fails to represent the people.

With less than 3 months until the federal election, will Eden-Monaro strike out again and the incumbency of McBain resonate with voters, or will the coalition break back in?

By Thomas Hanway