Tuesday, 16 June 2020
National Party of Australia
Next Monday it will be 100 years and six months to the day since the formation of the federal National Party of Australia. I rise to mark this milestone. We are the second oldest party in this parliament, having been formed on 22 January 1920. I'm sure those in the oldest party, the Labor Party, can attest that to continue for an unbroken 100 years is no mean feat. Our party has been written off, virtually since its inception, by opponents and detractors. But we have survived for decades. We have survived the challenges by adapting to changing economic, political, social and demographic circumstances. Our party has broadened its base, changing its name from the original Country Party to the National Country Party and then to the National Party, to reflect the changes in country Australia and the regional industries that underpin our national economy—farming, forestry, mining and tourism to name just a few.
Over all incarnations, our party remains an important and influential contributor to Australian politics while remaining committed to its founding values. We are a specialist party, we are a regional party, and we make no apology. We don't contest metropolitan seats and we have no intention to. Commentators often like to highlight that our primary vote is notionally lower than that of, for example, the Greens. But that's not surprising. The Greens contest nearly all the seats in the House of Representatives, whereas we generally contest fewer than a quarter, and only in regional areas, because that is who we're interested in representing. Of course the Greens will have a higher primary vote, but they don't win; we do. At the federal election last year, we contested only 30 House of Representatives seats and we won 16. The Greens contested nearly every seat and won just one. Other parties spent more and had even less success.
In fact, in our 100 years in this parliament, we have contested a total of 1,192 House of Representatives seats at general elections, and we've won 617. That is a success rate of nearly 52 per cent. Our lower house numbers have ranged over time from a low of nine in 1943 to a high of 23 in 1975. Indeed, since 2007, contrary to the recent callers of our demise, our lower house numbers have increased from 10 to 12 to 15, and we currently have 16 members of the other place and five here in the Senate. We have held our ground and, in doing so, have succeeded in delivering for the nation as well as for our regional constituents.
Our achievements over the years have been numerous, from setting up agencies that are still in existence today—like the CSIRO in 1926 and the Trade Commissioner Service, which is now Austrade, in 1934—to the first medical benefits scheme, in 1953, which led to our first national health scheme. We've also abolished poor policy, like petrol rationing in 1950 and death duties in 1977. We established Australia's first regional university, the University of New England, in 1954. We've negotiated numerous trade agreements over the years, most notably the Australia-Japan agreement on commerce in 1957, which resulted in Japan becoming our largest trading partner for about 26 years from the early seventies. And, of course, we've ensured—and we make no apology for doing so—the investment of multiple billions of dollars over the years on regional infrastructure, such as mobile phones, internet connectivity, roads, railways, regional airports, water infrastructure, health and education. We invest in Aboriginal affairs and, of course, we continue to fight for drought and natural disaster relief.
Our success is principally because everyone in the Nats, from branch members on up, is centrally focused on fighting for better services, facilities and opportunities for the nearly nine million Australians living and working beyond our capital cities. As a party, we realised very early that if you seriously want to make a difference, if you want to get results on the statute books, you have to be part of government. That is why we've been a forceful contributor in coalition formed governments almost continuously since Earle Page signed our first agreement with Stanley Bruce in 1923, because you don't get outcomes from the sidelines. The Nationals are in there, we deliver and we make a difference.
From time to time we've had to flex our muscles to get our way with our coalition partners, and that's led to the many successes I mentioned before. But, equally, we've had to be prepared to support policies that are right for the nation, even when opposed by our own members. The tougher gun laws following the 1996 Port Arthur shooting massacre are just one example. So the point is that, while we have been and are forceful and we punch above our weight, we have been and are a reliable partner.
The Nationals have provided three prime ministers over the time: Earle Page, Arthur Fadden and John McEwen, each taking on the role in difficult circumstances. They're often denigrated as being only stopgap prime ministers, but, while their tenure may have been short, they were far from gap fillers, each being sworn in in his own right with full authority and each making decisions and taking actions that went far beyond the conventions of a caretaker administration.
What I am particularly proud of is that we are a party that operates on the basis of equality. From our earliest days we've allowed membership for men and women, and everyone is given the chance to progress to the highest levels of our organisation. We provided the first-ever female president of any political party in Australia—Shirley McKerrow, who led the Victorian National Party from 1976 to 1981. She then went on to become the first female president of any federal party—of the federal National Party, elected each year from 1981 to 1987. We employed the first female director of a party in Australia—Helen Tiller, in South Australia, in 1978—and in 1992 we appointed the first female federal director of a party—Cecile Ferguson, someone I'm proud to call my friend. Today more than 28 per cent of our parliamentary party are women, and here in the Senate that ratio is 80 per cent. And we've done all of this through equal opportunity, not through quotas.
I am biased; I believe in a party whose values I share, whose achievements I applaud and whose history I am proud of. For one reason or another, I've grown up with the National Party and I'm proud that I can say I've known every federal leader from Doug Anthony on. I worked for a while with Ron Boswell, who served in this place for 31 years and who I was delighted to see appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia in this year's Queen's Birthday honours.
In conclusion, I quote from a 1950 Country Party brochure titled Mileposts:
You can't afford to be without a Country Party … Thank your stars there is a Country Party.
Change the name from 'Country Party' to 'National Party', and that statement remains as true today as it was in 1950. You need a National Party to deliver for the regions, to take the focus away from the cities and to make sure that those nine million Australians are not forgotten.