Shenanigans in Queensland in the LNP and its new-ish government are a one-way ticket to oblivion; if nothing changes, Labor is two years from a stunning return to power in the Sunshine State, and the LNP’s antics, left unchecked, cast a pall over the prospects of the Coalition federally.
It seems an age ago now, but in reality it is little more than six months since Campbell Newman led the LNP — a merged, hybrid Liberal-National Party — to an historic and awe-inspiring win in Queensland, virtually wiping the ALP out of the state Parliament after the dirtiest and nastiest election campaign in recent Australian political history.
The conservatives had won Queensland outright for the first time since 1986, and it seemed that for the LNP — if it played its cards correctly — a generation in government beckoned.
How quickly things change in politics.
The Newman government in Queensland was already feeling the heat on the back of public sector job cuts and other fiscal measures designed to begin the torturous process of rebuilding Queensland’s public finances and paying down its debt.
These measures, whilst painful and (understandably) unpopular, are entirely consistent with the LNP’s election manifesto and, I believe, no less than the difficult job Queenslanders quite knowingly saddled the LNP with when they overwhelmingly endorsed it to form government back in March.
More recently, however, the LNP appears to have embarked on a deliberate program of self-immolation that can, if allowed to continue, only end in tears.
And in opposition.
There had already been a minister sacked before he was even sworn in; a scandal around LNP figure and Newman government departmental Director-General Michael Caltabiano; and some early rumblings from the Clive Palmer direction that, at that stage, were quickly papered over.
But now…billionaire mining magnate and major LNP donor, Clive Palmer — sometime candidate for LNP preselection, and no stranger to controversy this year — launched an extraordinary tirade against Treasurer Tim Nicholls, accusing him of “cooking the books” and misrepresenting Queensland’s net debt at $65 billion (Palmer claims it is $11 billion).
Unbelievably, Palmer filed a complaint in conjunction with the wife of a LNP MP with the LNP organisational wing to have Nicholls stripped of his job.
Palmer has also opined, of the LNP government, that “never have such a bunch of crooks held office in Queensland.”
Palmer’s LNP membership has been suspended in the wake of his outburst, pending further consideration — normally a euphemism for expulsion — and in retaliation, he’s threatening to sue.
Clearly aggrieved and believing he had been denied due process, Palmer likened the LNP’s actions to Nazi tactics.
For good measure, Palmer also asserted publicly that deputy Premier Jeff Seeney was “a thug and a bully.”
Housing minister Bruce Flegg’s son — who works for a lobbying firm in Queensland — has been stood down from his job over unauthorised liaison with his father’s office on business matters.
Flegg, meanwhile, has sacked a longtime Liberal Party adviser, Graeme Hallett, who in turn called a press conference to accuse Flegg of being unfit for office, and to demand Flegg either resign or be sacked.
Liberal identity and powerbroker — and one-time Queensland government minister and Senator — Santo Santoro has been referred to Police by the LNP organisation over alleged internal party matters.
And despite the bickering, petty fiefdoms and tinpot brawls, from a general perspective the LNP’s organisational wing is largely estranged from its parliamentary wing.
These are just some of the goings-on being served up in Queensland in the full glare of public scrutiny by the LNP itself.
And they potentially reopen the door to a discredited state Labor Party that, by rights, should be studying its navel for decades.
It’s not a difficult ask, if the present political environment persists until the next state election in Queensland is due: recycle those defeated MPs who either had their promising careers chopped off (Cameron Dick, Andrew Fraser etc) and/or those relatively untainted by the death throes of the Beattie/Bligh years — and hold them up as an experienced team-in-waiting, ready to return to Parliament.
The political quality of the Labor leader would pose a problem; still, as Newman showed, it’s not implausible for an outside figure (like Dick) to fight an election as leader from the outside.
And speaking of Campbell Newman, his chances of facing Kate Jones in Ashgrove have to be nearing 100% the longer all of this internal fighting continues.
I’m not going to comment on the rights or wrongs of the various battles being played out in and around the LNP at present; the merits or otherwise of the positions of the various combatants is for others to judge.
But as one of the thousands of Liberal Party members in Queensland who unswervingly gave a lot of time over many years to doomed election campaigns during that state division’s darkest years before I moved south in 1998, it is frustrating — to say the least — to sit in Melbourne and watch what my northern brethren seem determined to piss away their opportunity in government over.
And right now — standing on the outside, looking in — Newman’s government has the distinct look of a one-term government about it.
Were all this nonsense to continue unchecked, I see four possible courses for the LNP:
1. The party brings its disputes and vendettas and grievances behind closed doors, closes ranks publicly, and gets on with the job of governing;
2. Things continue as they are, with the likely end result the LNP splinters into Liberals and Nationals, but with the business of government largely relegated to the backburner whilst the current internecine warfare increases in intensity and the present Premier, in all likelihood, quits;
3. The LNP nominally remains in place, but a sizeable number of disaffected members and MP deserts it, either throwing their lot in with the likes of Bob Katter’s mad crowd, or setting up a similar protest party of their own;
4. Campbell Newman and those of his MPs who are ex-Liberals (believed, depending on who you talk to, to be between 46 and 49 of the LNP’s 78 MPs) exit the LNP, re-establish the Queensland Division of the Liberal Party in Parliament and govern in their own right — for now, at least — in the face of an official Opposition composed chiefly of National Party MPs and in a climate of absolute and unbridled hatred.
Clearly, anything less than the first of these four scenarios risks inflicting colossal damage on the conservative political forces in Queensland, to the point the Labor Party becomes a real chance to win the next state election, presently due in March 2015.
Yet as things stand, it is difficult to see the LNP getting its act together.
Having gone through the process of a merger, the LNP has, for some years, been at pains to prove the naysayers (like me) wrong; discipline has been rock-solid, indiscretions pounced on, and the veneer of unity maintained in order to realise the ultimate objective: the winning of a state election in Queensland.
With that event now out of the way, there is every indication that the Liberal-National rift some (like me) foresaw prior to the merger was always latently present and has now been rent asunder: it seems to be no coincidence that the combatants in the various battles and fracas being played out in the LNP are facing off, broadly, across Liberal-National lines.
This isn’t like it was in the 1970s, when Joh Bjelke-Petersen slaughtered Labor in 1974, with the ensuing decade of warfare between the Nationals and the Liberals giving little lift to the ALP’s political prospects.
For one thing, Joh had the ever-present spectre of Whitlam and his government to point to; for another, Labor at the time was too badly damaged by its 1974 experience to pose any serious electoral threat.
Since then, of course, the Hawke-Keating government, with its modernising reforms and its modernisation of Labor, has come and gone.
Since then, too, the Labor Party — having heeded most of the lessons of its internal splits and of the disastrous experiment that Whitlam’s government was — is a far more professional and relevant outfit today than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
And at the state level, Labor has now held office for periods of at least a decade in every Australian state since the Queensland Coalition government split in 1983 — in some cases, such as in SA and Victoria, it has done so twice — and with the possible exception of Victoria, it is in Queensland that the ALP has enjoyed the most success of any state since that time.
My point is that whilst Labor governments still can’t manage money (and are generally wreckers of economies), when it comes to the hard and actual politics of it, Labor today is no easybeat.
So as I said, this isn’t like the aftermath of the 1974 election, when it was safe for conservatives to fight publicly with each other over the spoils of government.
To do so now would be to facilitate the early return of a discredited state Labor machine, under what increasingly appears to be an ineffectual and ineffective alternative Premier in Palaszczuk, well before the electoral cycle and the weight of public opinion might otherwise conspire to do.
Readers may recall that prior to the March election, I hinted at a potential election strategy which, if employed by the ALP, might have seen Bligh scrape across the line: and now the election is in the past, I’ll share my thoughts.
The strategy called for a campaign based almost exclusively on simmering tension between Liberals and Nationals in the LNP; firstly, to abandon Kate Jones in Ashgrove (Jones could have been promised anything for her participation in the strategy), withdrawing every conceivable resource from the Ashgrove Labor campaign, even to the extent of running dummy independent candidates in that electorate to direct preferences to Newman. It was, in this scenario, in the very best interests of the wider Labor cause to maroon Newman in Parliament as leader of the opposition.
That done, Bligh and Labor should have fought on one issue and one issue only: the capacity of the LNP, riven with irreconcilable internal factional differences, to effectively govern Queensland. The unwillingness of bush Nationals, who had kneecapped the conservative cause for years in their determination to retain the upper hand over the Liberals, to be led by a moderate city Liberal. The history of infighting between the traditional Coalition partners. Bruce Flegg’s effective termination of the Coalition campaign on day one in 2006 over his answer to a question about who would be Premier if the Coalition won. And so on.
The end objective would have been to engineer a Labor victory, however narrow, on the back of the one great gift historic Liberal-National relations offered the ALP, and to strand Newman as Opposition Leader in the process to face the recriminations: a come-down and humiliation indeed from the lofty heights of the Brisbane Lord Mayoralty.
As readers might expect — and despite my genuine outrage at the time — I couldn’t believe it when Bligh went down the “Newman’s a crook” path without a scrap of evidence to back the contention. Aside from proving what a complete shitbag she really is, she threw away a winnable election.
I relate these details now partly because it is too late for the strategy to damage the conservative cause (and if it’s used in 2015, the current crop of combatants can only blame themselves) but also partly because, based on its current behaviour, the LNP is showing that such a scare campaign would have been no ruse.
And should the LNP persist along its present course, it runs a great risk of jeopardising the electoral prospects of the Coalition federally next year: as Peter Brent (of Mumble fame) pointed out in his column in The Australian today, every five-point improvement in the federal voting numbers for Labor in Queensland equates to a one-point improvement in its overall federal numbers.
The Labor federal vote in Queensland has already increased by well over five percentage points in the last couple of months: and to put it into perspective, yesterday’s 51-49 lead to the Coalition in Newspoll would be 53-47 if the state LNP weren’t letting the ALP back into the game federally in Queensland.
As Bob Hawke once said: “if you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country.” The irony that the disunity to which those remarks referred, in 1987, emanated from Queensland is distinct.
The ALP will, of course, return to government in Queensland one day. But it shouldn’t be in 2015, and it most certainly shouldn’t occur on the receiving end of a gold-plated gift like this.