ANDREW Stoner has entered strange territory. The Deputy Premier is treading a path which only three others – Bob Carr, Robert Askin and Neville Wran – have trodden before him.
Mr Stoner has just clocked up 10 years as the leader of The Nationals, putting him in the company of the longest-serving leaders of any political party in NSW.
When he took the leadership from George Souris in 2003, the relatively fresh-faced Member for Oxley only had 11 members in the Legislative Assembly and took control of a party which had “almost lost its status” in NSW.
“The vote in regional NSW was being fractured, particularly by the so-called country Independents movement,” he said.
“That divide and conquer which was happening out there in regional NSW was not good.”
Mr Stoner said he regarded rebuilding the party – which has seen numbers swell to 18 in the Legislative Assembly and seven in the Legislative Council – as his greatest achievement as leader.
He has avoided factionalism and survived the Coalition’s defeat at the 2007 election to continue as Nationals leader.
“My most significant thing in terms of The Nationals has been to rebuild it, to make it a more inclusive party, a party that represents all people in regional NSW,” he said.
“That translated to electorate support, which has tended to unify the vote in regional NSW.
“If you can show not only your own MPs but the broader community that you’ve got a vision, that you’re on a path to achieving that vision, people will back you.”
The Liberal-Nationals Coalition romped home at the 2011 election, unseating the Labor government of 16 years and helping the Nats take 18 of the 20 seats it contested in regional NSW.
Premier Barry O’Farrell led the Liberal party to win enough seats to govern in its own right, yet stuck with his Coalition partner, Andrew Stoner.
Not only did he honour the agreement, he appointed seven Nationals to ministerial roles within Cabinet.
“(Mr O’Farrell) could see that The Nationals supported him, that we weren’t a disunifying force within the Coalition and as a result we had a strong Coalition and he and I had a strong personal relationship,” Mr Stoner said.
“That relationship is now six years old and that – in recent times – is quite a record for Coalition partners in NSW.”
However, Mr Stoner said there was more to the partnership.
“Barry is a very good student of political history and he knows the 2011 election result was probably a high water mark for the Liberal party (and) that The Nationals tend to be a little more stable in terms of their own numbers between elections,” he said.
“When the tide goes back out for the Liberal party, he will need The Nationals. It will happen and he will need, at some stage, the National party.”
The Nationals is surely close to its own high water mark, given – provided the party wins the Northern Tablelands by-election as predicted – it will hold 19 of a possible 20 contested regional seats.
It is the highest proportion of the parliament The Nationals – or its predecessors the National Country Party, Country Party and Progressive Party – has held since the late 1930s.
However, there are signs that support which delivered such a convincing result in 2011 could be waning.
In the battleground issue of coal seam gas and mining exploration, the Greens – led by MLC Jeremy Buckingham – are openly looking to fill a perceived void in advocating on the behalf of landholders, a role The Nationals would have traditionally performed.
Mr Stoner acknowledged some discontent on some issues, but said it was largely due to the government needing to “better inform” the electorate of its achievements.
“The challenge has been enormous.
“Our greatest weakness – apart from not being able to wave a magic wand and fix everything overnight – has been we haven’t sold the things that we have actually done.”