It has been a marriage of convenience for very long time. The origins of the federal Coalition go back to 1923, when the Nationalist Party (a precursor to the Liberal Party) was forced to win over the Country Party (now the Nationals) to form a majority. While there have been a couple of trial separations along the way, they have fought most federal elections as one party ever since, making it one of the oldest two-party coalitions in the world.
But for all of its longevity, the partnership was certainly showing signs of stress this week.
The most glaring example was on full display in the Senate on Wednesday morning, just two days after Barnaby Joyce had been resurrected as Deputy Prime Minister. In a surprise to their Coalition colleagues, the Nationals put forward two amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin plan demanding that the government back down from increasing environmental flows to the benefit of South Australia.
In what became high farce, the Liberals relied on Labor and the Greens to reject the amendments after five Nationals, backed by One Nation, voted for the amendments.
Hardly bashful about the defeat in the Senate, the following day the Nationals fronted up with the same amendments in the lower house. Except, this time, a vote would have forced Mr Joyce to reject his own party’s position on the matter. Thankfully for all concerned in the Coalition, Peter Dutton, their Leader of the House, quashed that possibility by ruling the amendments out of order.
But for all the theatrics, and potential humiliation, the Nationals, who had been working on the amendments for weeks, wanted to make a point, and make it very publicly: the days of them being a policy doormat were over.
Every marriage has its bad days, and that was certainly one of them. But with Mr Joyce’s return premised on his ability to stand up to his Liberal colleagues, there is sure to be more ahead. For the party’s survival, it probably has little choice.
Despite former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack’s “decent hard-working bloke” persona, under his leadership the Nationals had been gradually vanishing from the political stage. Attracting attention may not be the most honorable facet of political life, but without it, hard-fought wins are more than likely to go unnoticed. Rusted-on voters may back a party no matter what, but winning elections requires convincing swing voters you are in their corner. You cannot convince if you cannot communicate.
The Nationals managed to keep all of their seats at the last federal election in 2019, which helped prop up Mr McCormack’s leadership. But, in the same year, the NSW election revealed how vulnerable the Nationals are to narrowcast parties – in this case the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party – which can tap directly into concerns of regional and rural voters without being encumbered, as the Nationals are, with their city-focused Coalition colleagues.