Eden-Monaro result a Nats' wake-up call

Opinion: The Nationals need to become more forthright

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The Australian Labor Party's Kristy McBain has won a narrow victory in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro.

The Australian Labor Party's Kristy McBain has won a narrow victory in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro.

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What would Sir John 'Black Jack' McEwen think of the current Murray Darling Basin fiasco?

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Given the tiny margin by which Labor's Kristy McBain looks like winning the Eden-Monaro by-election, there seems little doubt that the Libs have been denied a historic victory in this traditional bellwether seat by the antics of NSW Nats leader John Barilaro.

By reportedly encouraging Nats voters to second-preference McBain (who, nonetheless, stacks up as a worthy contender), Barilaro has deprived Scott Morrison of a morale boost he could have well used - especially after learning he is soon to lose his highly regarded Finance Minister Matthias Cormann.

Barilaro is just part of the Nats' problem, as the party (founded federally in 1920 as the Country Party - which it should still be!) this year celebrates its centenary.

His behaviour has been erratic, at best, while at federal level we have a party leader in Michael McCormack whose guiding principle seems to be to keep his head down and avoid rocking any boats.

Unfortunately this is not how the National Party needs to work. As Queensland Nats Senator Matt Canavan rightly put it this week, "we need to become more forthright within the Coalition because some of our voters don't think we've got their back".

There was little doubt what the party stood for when it was led federally by the seasoned warhorse Ian Sinclair (featured in these pages last week) and simultaneously in NSW by the straight-shooting Wal Murray.

Since then, the party has been well served in Canberra by a succession of high-profile, distinctive and effective leaders, up to and including Barnaby Joyce - until the latter's messy private life got in the way.

Going back further into time, we come to the long reign of Sir John 'Black Jack' McEwen, and one wonders what he - a Victorian soldier settler in the Murray Valley - would have made of the present Murray-Darling Basin imbroglio.

It's hard to imagine him remaining on the sidelines while family farmers reliant on ricegrowing or dairying were priced out of vital irrigation water by deep-pocketed plantation interests and water traders.

Part of the Nats' problem in recent times - driven to some extent by changing demographics - has been its attempts to widen its electoral appeal, thereby diluting its relevance to its core constituents.

This has created an opening for rival special-interest parties such as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party whose three NSW electorates now cover half the state.

It was precisely this eventuality that Sir Arthur Fadden, who led the (then 'Country') party from 1940 to 1958, foreshadowed in his 1969 memoir, They Called Me Artie. Referring to an internal push in the late 1960s for the party to widen its electoral appeal, he wrote: 'If this course were followed it would not be long before another Country Party rose from the ashes of the old to give the sort of service country people need'.

Quite so, Artie!

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