Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Nationals’ Michael McCormack. (ABC News: Sarah Maunder)
As election night rolled on at the Murrumbidgee Turf Club, the mood at the National Leader’s shin-dig grew more upbeat.
Decadent sausage rolls were gobbled, beers were guzzled and pizza was aplenty.
But there was also disbelief. Words, terms and lingo overheard included, “Gobsmacked”, “I am shook”, “WTF?” and “what about my holiday?!”
Most of the Nats — the party’s leader excluded — were hugely surprised by the Coalition’s victory. They were less shocked by their own individual successes.
Despite drought, politicking over the Murray-Darling Basin, some poor results in the New South Wales state election and internal scandals like former leader Barnaby Joyce’s affair, the Nats are expected to hold onto all 16 of their Lower House seats convincingly.
Three main things in the Nationals’ favour
So what went right?
The Coalition’s strong support for the controversial Adani Carmichael coal mine boosted the chances of LNP members in central Queensland seats dramatically.
The promise of jobs was a big lure in electorates like Capricornia, Dawson and Flynn. As soon as the Coalition ticked off on the groundwater approval plan for the mine — in the nick of time before the election was called — the party was confident Michelle Landry and George Christensen would hold.
Ms Landry is a strong local campaigner and has worked hard. Mr Christensen is also effective in campaign mode, and that paid off despite criticism he’d spent too much time in the Philippines rather than in his own electorate.
Aside from One Nation’s preferences, the Nats also feel that Labor’s franking credits policy spooked many older Queenslanders. “They were worried about what else Labor might have coming for them,” one Nationals insider remarked last night.
Flynn had been very problematic for the party. Ken O’Dowd is a sharp and successful businessman but hardly a dynamic campaigner, yet he looks to have significantly increased his ultra-slim margin.
And the resounding message a lot of the Nats were feeding back to Coalition headquarters during the campaign was, “People out here just don’t like Bill”.
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‘Normal’ leaders struck a chord
It was a different story when it came to Scott Morrison. Nationals MPs across the board agreed that people they spoke to in their electorates found him to be likeable and an “authentic bloke”.
Despite being increasingly known for being “unknown”, the same can be said for Nationals leader, Michael McCormack.
He was liked by people who met him on the campaign trail and he comes across as “normal”. The morning after such a huge political win, he was out to breakfast in Wagga, ribbing his family over who got the best results in their in-house footy tipping competition.
Mr McCormack has also played a sensible political game. He’s run a steady, focussed and low-key campaign. From the outset, his plan was to fight the battle on local issues. He identified that Mr O’Dowd had a problem and filled his bucket with promises of road upgrades, bypasses and job opportunities. He consistently made the local candidates, not himself, the story.
In safer seats like Calare, he and Andrew Gee made a big deal about upgrading the local amenities at the Canowindra Showgrounds and race course. The prospect of flash new loos at the trots left the town’s show society gentleman looking proud as punch.
More to be done on drought
“Local” matters in all seats, but particularly in rural and regional ones. And in large, safer Nationals electorates, voters have traditionally favoured incumbency.
While there is definitely anger and frustration over issues like drought and the Murray Darling Basin Plan, there weren’t strong enough alternative candidates to propel a groundswell of protest votes for those independent and minor party candidates who did run.
But people living in country Australia will still be looking for a comprehensive drought plan and the nation’s farm lobby will continue to push for one. Even rusted-on Nationals say more needs to be done in that policy area.
Mr McCormack will be basking in this win, not just for his party but for his own personal future as leader. He will never be the colourful, outspoken Deputy Prime Minister his predecessor, Barnaby Joyce was, but this election shows the Nationals don’t need to rely on having a rockstar with a tendency to go rogue, in charge.
Leadership spill won’t trouble McCormack
There’s been leadership speculation in the National party for months, with Mr Joyce nipping at Mr McCormack’s heels. But the case for change is now minimal, if non-existent.
The Nationals spill their leadership positions after each election but given this result, arguments that Mr McCormack is too “dull” or “unknown” won’t wash.
He can take credit for helping to repair the party’s damaged brand following the messiness of the Joyce saga, but also the internet dating fiasco that saw former frontbencher Andrew Broad fall too.
Veteran Affairs Minister Darren Chester has praised his leader, saying anyone thinking about leadership change “should pull their heads in”.
“Well you can only point to the scoreboard,” he said.
“Michael McCormack went into this election campaign under a fair bit of pressure and by working hard with his colleagues, seat by seat, he was able to hold all National Party seats around Australia.”
But Mr Chester said there was “no prospect of a change of leadership” after the election result and would not be drawn on Mr Joyce’s leadership ambitions.
“I’m not going to talk about individual people and their aspirations, I’d simply say there is no case for change,” he said.
“Anyone thinking about that should pull their head in.”
Looking ahead, the Nationals will have a record number of women in their party. The figure will rise from two to five, and possibly six if Perin Davey takes an unexpected Senate spot in NSW. A win from her would also increase the partyroom number overall.
Barring any dramatic new scandals, there could be a renewed sense of stability ahead for the country-based party.
— with Jarrod Whittaker
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