Andrew Black

This thesis undertakes a detailed analysis of the Country-National Party in Victorian state politics from its formation as the Victorian Farmers’ Union during the First World War through to the defeat of the Kennett Liberal-National Coalition Government in 1999. Long neglected as a subject of dedicated research, the Victorian Country-National Party is a rare example of an agrarian party that endured for over a century in a developed and comparatively urbanised democratic polity. The thesis examines the various survival and adaptation strategies deployed by the movement as it transitioned from its origins as an exclusively agrarian, political-industrial farmers union into a more broad-based, ‘country-minded’ rural party, and subsequently into a conservative, regional-oriented, right-aligned wing party.
Having subsisted for most of its history as an independent agrarian third party outside of a conventional anti-Labor coalition partnership, the Victorian Country-National Party charted the most distinctive course of any of its federal and interstate counterparts over the course of the twentieth century. By situating the Victorian movement within the context of the wider agrarian party family in both Europe and North America, it is argued that its overarching strategic direction conformed more closely to the pattern exhibited by most comparable agrarian parties abroad than did the rigid coalition model that was adopted elsewhere in Australia from the 1920s onwards. Like most agrarian parties, the Victorian Country-National Party initially conceived of itself as a moderate agrarian force positioned between the twin urban-based extremes of city capital and organised labour, and sustained its parliamentary representation by means of an extensive, farmer-dominated, mass-membership, extra-parliamentary machine.
The thesis explores how the party forged strategic alliances with both sides of the traditional party divide between the First World War and the 1970s, before it finally accepted the coalition model and pursued a political partnership with the Liberal Party. The thesis challenges the assumption that the party was merely a passive conduit for ‘country-minded’ sentiments in Victoria, and instead posits that the movement actively cultivated and shaped agrarian political thought amongst its members and supporters, and reinforced traditional gender relations on the land. The thesis examines how power was contested in the movement as the parliamentary leadership successfully resisted the efforts of the organisational wing executive to enforce external controls over the elected members and assumed greater authority over the strategic direction of the party.
Supervisors: Professor Sean Scalmer, Emeritus Professor Stuart Macintyre