A look behind the rusted on and off Nationals voters

Marking 100 years of The Nationals: those rusted on .. and off

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Boggabilla farmer Pete Mailler has been involved in a number of political parties, with the aim of creating competition for the Nationals.

Boggabilla farmer Pete Mailler has been involved in a number of political parties, with the aim of creating competition for the Nationals.

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Part four of a special report: why some are 'rusted off'

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THE term 'rusted on' - particularly when applied to Nationals voters - is usually thrown around in a derogatory way, one step away from an insult.

It has connotations of the voter being uninformed, uneducated, political apathetic and voting for the Nationals simply because that's what their parents did.

But to dismiss rusted on Nationals voters so simply is foolish. These voters have good reasons for sticking with the party.

On the other side of the coin, there are a growing number of disenfranchised Nationals voters who have strayed away from the party in recent years.

The Nationals have to acknowledge and address the issues that led to people walking away from the party, if it wishes to remain a political powerhouse for another century.

MARKING 100 YEARS OF THE NATIONALS

Parkes farmer and former Agricultural Societies Council of NSW president Tim O'Brien says he has supported what the Nationals have stood for through the years because "nothing's really changed in my opinion".

"They probably take in a lot more. It used to be more just farmers but now it's more the regional community," Mr O'Brien said.

"They can get themselves into hot water from time to time, but who can't."

He said it was a hard job, but the party had supported farmers well through the drought and was taking things in the right direction.

Queensland dairy farmer Damien Tessmann said "rusted-on Nationals voters" was a very lazy term, because "there's no free tickets handed out to the Nats".

"Country people are just as happy to jump off the Nats, so they've got to get out there and fight," Mr Tessman said from his farm at Kingaroy.

"If you go back in history, people stuck with the Nationals because they invested in the regions.

"The politicians were from rural backgrounds, they understood the demographic and what they wanted, and they were able to bring about policy that saw infrastructure and investment in the regions."

Small business owner and former Nationals candidate for Indi, Marty Corboy, said there was a simple reason rural voters kept backing the party.

"Part of it is loyalty, but the other part is that people in regional areas are truly aware of the local issues, and they're a lot more aware than inner-city writers understand," Mr Corboy said.

"These people live in close-knit communities, they work together, and without any consultation they naturally [vote Nationals] because they want what's best for the region."

Mr Tessmann agreed regional voters were very in touch with issues that would directly affect them, because "in the bush, it can literally be life or death".

"Take regional telecommunications for example - if you have a car accident or fall off a horse in your paddock, and you've got no phone reception, you're in a lot of trouble," Mr Tessman said.

"The Nats know that and they've been the only party championing blackspot funding.

"I don't know how many issues in metro areas are life and death.

"People in city areas vote on the 'nice to haves' and people in the bush vote on the 'must haves'."

However, Mr Corboy did have a stern warning for the party's hierarchy.

ENGAGED: Marty Corboy, pictured on left with Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, said country voters were far more politically engaged than many gave them credit for.

ENGAGED: Marty Corboy, pictured on left with Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, said country voters were far more politically engaged than many gave them credit for.

"You'll notice whenever we go cold on the party, it's because the leadership has rusted off the very base it represents," Mr Corboy said.

"They can get distracted by external noise, or try to be relevant in irrelevant electorates like Melbourne or Sydney.

"We need to stick to what we do well and leave other side issues alone.

"If they don't start pulling back and listening to the members, they will purge them or the party itself will be purged."

Tamworth councillor Mark Rodda was a Nationals member for 27 years.

"And that was pretty rusted-on rock-solid support in some of the most dire electoral times for the Nats in their hearland area of Tamworth and New England," Cr Rodda said.

"I often say to people that I was a dedicated dyed-in-the-wool Nat. But I was blinded and now I see."

The catalyst for his recantation was when his concerns about privatising NSW's poles and wires fell upon deaf ears.

As a National party member, he wrote to every lower and upper house MP in NSW, and only got a couple of responses.

"Those that I did get were quite ambivalent about the issue and said something like 'it doesn't really worry me' or 'doesn't really affect me'," Cr Rodda said.

"If they're going to treat me as a member like that, I can only imagine the way they're treating the electors, the voters.

"I thought, 'what's the point?', and that's why I left."

Once the "wool was removed" he began to notice other issues, which had a common theme - supporting decisions that were detrimental to regional Australia at the behest of the Liberal Party.

"Libs know the Nats will obediently follow them blindly into the abyss," Cr Rodda said.

"They trade and surrender their independence, their own identity and their own policies because they don't want to have a contest in an electorate where a Liberal might win.

"What would restore my faith a bit, is if they actually stood up and said, 'we are a genuine independent party', one that's not shackled to the Liberals.

"Everyone acknowledges the Nats could be the genuine balance of power party."

RUSTED OFF: Mark Rodda was a rusted on Nationals voter for 27 years. He's since become a vocal critic of the party. Photo: Gareth Gardner

RUSTED OFF: Mark Rodda was a rusted on Nationals voter for 27 years. He's since become a vocal critic of the party. Photo: Gareth Gardner

Boggabilla farmer Peter Mailler also lamented the Nationals being "joined at the hip and tied almost unconditionally" to the Liberal Party.

"Nowhere else in the world do you have a coalition that's in opposition, it just doesn't make sense," Mr Mailler said.

"The party seems to be committed to an ideology before its constituency in terms of that coalition.

"The Nationals could choose to be in coalition with Labor or the Liberals, depending on who is going to get the best deal through on regional seats.

"They still hold the balance of power and they really don't leverage it the way they used to."

Mr Mailler dismissed claims only the Nationals could deliver for regional Australia, pointing to how the money still flows into electorates with independent MPs.

"You can clearly demonstrate that they're not really delivering more than someone else," Mr Mailler said.

"That's a challenge to the narrative because what the Nationals don't do is real policy - they come up with little catchphrases, but a lot of it doesn't hold water.

"Over time, the party has become quite complacent and like most other political organisations, has taken regional seats for granted."

Mr Mailler once regarded himself as a Nats voter noting that "it was very much a tribal kind of thing, that they were my team".

But he's recently been involved in other political movements, such as Country Minded and the Australian Democrats, which he said aim to create competition.

"My interest in getting involved with politics was working out how to fix that [complacency], and the only way to fix that is for the Nats to lose," Mr Mailler said.

"They'll work a lot harder if they know they might lose their spot."

Fishers, Shooters and Farmers Orange MP, Philip Donato, said there were a number of people who "are disillusioned and feel disconnected with the old Country Party, and who have come to us".

"People see the National Party as very city centric. They see them as the little sibling of the Liberal Party, and under their spell and direction," Mr Donato said.

"I mean, when you've had a seat for 60 or 70 years that you've held by a 20 per cent margin, you can see how complacency does set in.

"Often getting pre-selected for the Nats is the biggest battle, then they've got a job for life. It's not healthy for the community. You want to have an elected representative who you know is going to return your call."

The SFF now represents 60 per cent of NSW's land mass in the state parliament, after wins in the former Nationals strongholds of Orange, Murray and Barwon.

Mr Donato said he wouldn't be surprised if other safe Nationals seats began to fall in other states, and at a federal level, given the party's complacency and the growing perception of it being the "Liberal's lapdog".

"[Regional voters] are sick of being treated like second-class citizens, and they want someone who's going to actually fight for their interest, not just toe the Liberal Party line," Mr Donato said.

"Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is the Libs tell the Nats what to do, the Nats just suck it up and do it.

"Unless they change that, a lot of people in the bush - fair minded, hardworking, reasonable people - will just think, you know what, we don't want to just have some Liberal telling us how to run our farms, the environment and all this other stuff."

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