Victorian Farmers' Union
The Victorian Farmers' Union (VFU) was an association of farmers and primary producers formed in 1914 in the Australian state of Victoria. Although initially formed as an "absolutely non-political" entity, the VFU became a political party in 1916, and nominated candidates for the 1917 and subsequent Victorian state elections, gaining a significant presence in the Victorian lower house, as well as a federal parliamentary seat. The party was a precursor to the Country Party in Victoria, which merged with other state parties to become the federal Country Party, later the National Party of Australia.
Proposal and formation
The attendants at the meeting agreed upon the following resolutions regarding the formation of the association:
- That a Victorian Farmers' Union be formed.
- That the qualification of membership be that they are legitimate farmers.
- That the basis of union be absolutely non-political in the party sense.
The meeting also outlined the union's objectives:
- To safeguard and promote the common interests of all primary producers in the State.
- To meet labor unionism in industrial disputes with the spirit of reason and justice, and at the same time place ourselves in the best position to resist any unfair demands or unreasonable conditions being placed upon us.
- By the application of the co-operative principle on safe and economic lines we propose to guard against the withering influence of monopolistic combinations of every form.
The VFU was inaugurated, and held its first public meeting at Newham on 5 June 1914. While its first executive officers were appointed at this time, the VFU did little active organisation over the next two years due to the outbreak of World War I. In 1916, the VFU merged with the Farmers' Union of Victoria, an organisation with a similar name and objective, which had formed in the northern districts and was based in Melbourne. At the time of the merger, "party politics" were still prohibited as per the original resolutions, although the VFU agreed to formulate a political policy in its first conference held during Show Week later in the year. At the conference, which began on 26 September, the executive recommended that the VFU gain a parliamentary presence by admitting existing Members of Parliament. The proposal was rejected by the delegates, and instead it was agreed that members must join the VFU before being endorsed and nominated to stand for parliament at the next state election.
Growth and political activity
At the time of the inaugural conference, the VFU consisted of 130 branches and 2,836 members, drawing its most enthusiastic (and militant) support from farmers in the wheat-growing districts of the Mallee region. From 1917 to 1920, the VFU rapidly accumulated members from amongst graziers, dairy farmers and orchardists, and by 1920 had 547 branches and 14,817 members.
On 26 September 1917, at its conference in Geelong, the VFU passed a motion to change the name of its political wing from the Victorian Farmers' Union Party to the Country Party. At the 1917 Victorian state election, the Country Party contested eleven seats in the Legislative Assembly, of which it won four: Grenville, Korong, Rodney and Swan Hill. At the next election in 1920, it increased its representation in the assembly to 13 seats.
The VFU also made several forays into federal politics. The party nominated a candidate (John Hall) for the Flinders by-election, 1918, however a "strategic defeat" was arranged, withdrawing Hall from the campaign after the VFU gained a promise from the Nationalist Party to introduce preferential voting. Hall's name remained on the ballot paper and he received 382 votes (1.7 per cent). In 1919, the introduction of preferential voting by the federal government enabled the VFU's candidate in the Corangamite by-election, William Gibson, to defeat the Labor candidate (future Prime Minister James Scullin) on preferences despite being over 4,000 behind on primary votes, thereby gaining the VFU its first member of the federal House of Representatives. It gained a second member in the general election later that year, when Robert Cook ousted the Nationalist incumbent in Indi. A year later, Gibson and Cook joined several rural MPs in forming the Australian Country Party.
In September 1923, Harry Lawson formed a composite ministry, Victoria's first conservative coalition, including five Country Party members, with John Allan as Deputy Premier. The VFU, however, refused to support the coalition and voted it down at its annual conference in March 1924, forcing Lawson to dismiss the Country ministers and form a Nationalist cabinet.
PPU split and transition to the Victorian Country Party
In 1925, the VFU suffered a major setback when John Hall (the party's candidate in the Flinders by-election), and its former core support base of Mallee wheat farmers, split from the group and formed a new organisation, the Primary Producers' Union (PPU). Hall stated, as the PPU general secretary, that the new union was formed due to the lack of political unity within the VFU, as well as the failure of the parliamentary party to pursue the group's objectives, including compulsory organised marketing of primary products, reduction of tariff duties, establishment of a rural bank, and resisting centralisation.
The PPU announced it would contest all electorates in Victoria's northern wheat belt at the 1927 state election as the Country Progressive Party. At its annual conference in late March 1927, the VFU responded by changing its name to the Victorian Country Party. The new party also broadened its membership, to include all "bona fide country residents" of any occupation, whereas membership had previously been restricted to primary producers only.
The two parties would eventually reconcile and merge to form the United Country Party in 1930.
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