Friday, November 06, 2009

Branding political parties and the Nationals

There has been a great deal of recent public speculation about the state of the Liberal/National coalition in Federal politics, much of it seemingly fed by Liberals who are trying to pressure the Nationals to (in management speak) "get on the bus or get off the journey". Today Michelle Grattan joins the fray with a piece that concludes that the winner from a separation of the two parties would be the ALP.

I am not so sure I agree. It is certainly one thing the Liberals keep reminding the Nationals of, that in the history of "three cornered contests" the Liberal candidate usually wins what was a previously National seat. However, on the flip side the Nationals have been increasingly challenged by strong regional "independents" who have pushed an old fashioned regions vs cities agenda. (I used the quotes because both Federally and in NSW there has been a degree of loose co-operation between these independents).

One consequence of the declining position of the Nationals has been the reduction i the portfolios they can claim, including communications which was long a cherished portfolio amongst the Country Party. That then means that they effectively lose their voice on issues of significant regional importance.

When confronted by a "three cornered contest" the regional voter is ultimately offered two candidates constrained to the same policy, one of whom belongs to the party of the leader of the Opposition or (more recently) PM. It is not the fact the Nationals lose that is astonishing, it is th fact that they remain competitive. In the seats where the voters choice is the ALP, a coalition candidate or a strong candidate campaigning on regional values it is the third candidate who wins.

The challenge as Grattan points out is how the merged Queensland party, the LNP, will brand itself for the election.

Here they might look to NSW Labor. NSW Labor has long realised that Government is won or lost in NSW on the basis of regional seats. They have created an entity called Country Labor for campaigning in the regions, an entity that has its own logo and conference.

The LNP in particular, and the coalition as a whole need to get the idea that there is a natural separation between the "non-socialist" parties of the city and the bush. "Coalition" in opposition is a nonsense. The two parties either need to fully merge but create the "Nationals" brand as the exclusive brand under which they campaign in the regions, including separate policy; or they need to fully separate and have three cornered contests against sitting members of both sides. My money is on the Nationals knocking off all the country Liberals, and possibly some independents too.

All that having been said, you could say "what does he know?" After all I did join the Democrats just before their sad demise. That demise had many causes, but in the list were the failure of the Democrats to stay clear on their position instead becoming participants in "governing" against principle, and an inability to share in a common interest rather than self-interest (most, if not all,of them did research that showed they had a better chance as themselves than as Democrats - but rather than take the message to build the Democrat brand they hid it).

The people of regional Australia do need representatives other than those who believe in a quiet system of patronage and sheltered workshops (the modern ALP) or those who believe the purpose of the State is to enhance the well-being of corporations (the modern Liberals). If not the Nationals, then who?

Note: The last two descriptions were for dramatic effect, both parties are deeper than that and include many fine well-intentioned individual members.

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