THAT ONE-TERM AURA continues to waft from Campbell Newman’s LNP government in Queensland; no sooner has the ruckus surrounding the disendorsement of former leader Bruce Flegg died down than a fresh round of public disunity — and LNP disarray — has found its way into the harsh glare of the national press. A little discipline would go a long way, as would a little direction. Very simply, the LNP must get its act together.
There are some things in politics that can’t be controlled, and the LNP government in Queensland has had more than its fair share of them; the emergence (and potential existential threat) of Clive Palmer’s party, seemingly in retaliation over not getting certain approvals he wanted from the LNP once it was in power, is one of these. The arguably unconstitutional (Palmer-engineered) Senate witch-hunt, due to report in the week the state election is likely to be held, is another.
And a defamation claim lodged two years ago by ex-leader, ex-minister and very soon ex-MP Bruce Flegg against a sacked adviser — emanating from an ugly episode that first led me to think Queensland’s state government might not survive its initial re-election attempt — just happened to return to the headlines yesterday in a brutally inconvenient coincidence of timing that saw Flegg’s complaint begin to be heard in the Supreme Court at Brisbane.
But for all the things in politics that can’t be managed or controlled, there are plenty of others that can be, and with the latest outbreak of LNP disunity, damaging media coverage, leaks and poison within that party all finding their way into the eager arms of a hungry press pack, you have to wonder whether a state election campaign is just the thing to finish the Queensland government off altogether.
After all, if the past few weeks — away from the rough and tumble of a full campaign atmosphere — are any indication of how the LNP behaves when the pressure is off, then God help it when the heat is really on, and with millions of cynical voters hanging off every word and deed.
Two stories in two days, carried in Fairfax titles nationally (you can read them here and here) paint a picture of an outfit racked by factional rivalries, personality cults, subterranean intrigues based on seething vitriol and hatred, and the complete lack of discipline that once again sees the LNP’s filthy laundry publicly aerated for all to see and to recoil from.
To some extent, any government elected in the thumping landslide Newman’s was — winning 78 of 89 seats — is always going to encounter some problems holding an unruly and bloated backbench together.
But through by-election defeats and defections, the LNP has already lost five of its 78 seats; now — with all evidence pointing to a huge swing to Labor at the coming state election and a Premier virtually certain to lose his seat — there are reports of up to six more LNP MPs seeking funding support from the Queensland Police Union to stand as independents in a panicked attempt to hold onto their seats.
This comes in the wake of a highly damaging dispute over funding for the Safe Nights Program — an initiative to crack down on alcohol-fuelled violence — which saw the QPU take the extraordinary step of openly attacking Treasurer Tim Nicholls, accusing him of working to undermine Newman’s leadership, and labelling him “the Kevin Rudd of the LNP.”
It comes as MPs — unnamed, bravely enough — background journalists about “posturing” allegedly being undertaken by Nicholls and former leader Lawrence Springborg to seize the LNP leadership after next year’s election; Springborg, for his part, has dismissed the suggestion as “crap” and Nicholls has attributed it to ungrounded mischief-making on the part of the QPU, but the suggestion itself is damaging enough.
And it comes as reports emerge that pork barrelling is to be eschewed at the electorate level, with the LNP focusing instead on cutting the cost of living: with the notable exception of Newman’s seat of Ashgrove, where largesse continues to be shovelled out in a doomed attempt to hold the district against Labor’s Kate Jones.
The fact Newman is virtually certain to lose Ashgrove is apparently beside the point, and whilst I have no desire to see the Premier beaten in his seat — not least given the “Moggill option” seems to have been closed off by all sections of the LNP, including Newman himself — I am so sure it will happen that I bet a mate of mine (who was stupid enough to take the wager) $100 last week that Labor would regain Ashgrove come polling day.
Irrespective of who says, does and denies what, the reports of jockeying around Nicholls and Springborg is a giant stride down the path of ex-Liberals and ex-Nationals fighting over control of the merged party, which is exactly what I forewarned of six years ago, in an opinion piece carried by the Courier Mail, when the idiocy of merging the Liberals and Nationals was in the process of being indulged.
Now, add in the nervous backbenchers in seats typically unwinnable by the LNP, who have acquired a liking for life on George Street and all that goes with it, and who are starting to jib as they confront the prospect of electoral oblivion.
Add in the clear unpopularity of Newman, which may or may not be justified, given the highly defamatory lengths opponents on both the Left and Right have gone to in an unprecedented attempt to destroy the Premier personally.
Whilst Flegg’s departure from state Parliament isn’t a bad thing, add in the differential standards meted out to Ros Bates and — disturbingly — the so-called “penis plonker,” Peter Dowling. It’s not a good look, even if local LNP members finish either or both of them off at a preselection ballot.
Add in the likely electoral impact of Clive Palmer, who stands for little more than destroying the careers of those who oppose him, but is nonetheless likely to grab at least 12-15% of the vote on polling day; the LNP, based on existing experience with Palmer preference flows, can really only expect to see about half of these votes flow back to it: and with optional preferential voting in Queensland,* 30-50% of the Palmer pile is likely to simply exhaust rather than be distributed to the major parties at all.
Add in the reprehensible Senate inquiry Palmer set up to fling dirt at Newman leading into and during the state election campaign, the unhelpful headlines that continue to be generated by Flegg, the lingering odium of the Scott Driscoll fracas, the crackdown on bikie gangs, and everything else the LNP has done to turn off Queensland voters, and the LNP has a big problem.
Finally, now add in the loose lips, leaks, the malicious backgrounding going on and the litany of get-square agendas that are being vigorously pursued (on condition of anonymity, naturally) against the backdrop of opinion polling showing an average 12% swing against the LNP statewide, and the prospect of electoral defeat — even narrowly — becomes the unthinkable potential outcome of an election that should have been a lay-down misere.
Despite all of the
rubbish unadulterated bullshit that has been written about Queensland for decades about it being strange and different and backwards, all of these things play out the same way in Queensland as they do anywhere else in the country. Right now, what is going on in the Sunshine State threatens to gift the ALP a thoroughly undeserved fillip by way of a state election win it has no moral entitlement to expect for at least another decade.
And if the LNP loses in Queensland, there will be real consequences that will reverberate across Australia.
For starters, a state election defeat will almost certainly spell the end of the merged LNP, although that can hardly be said to be a poor outcome; an experiment that should never have been undertaken will have reached its logical, and inevitable, conclusion, although the re-segregation of the state’s conservative forces into Liberals and Nationals would be painful and protracted.
More seriously, it would place the Abbott government’s political prospects under a cloud, with the LNP in Queensland holding 22 of the Coalition’s 90 House of Representatives seats — a quarter of the federal government — in that state alone. A swing against Abbott in Queensland of just over half what state-based polling suggests will hit the LNP could wipe out ten of those seats: and most of the federal Coalition’s majority with them in one king hit.
And if Labor were to return to power in Queensland after a single term in opposition, the consequences for that state would be nothing short of catastrophic: free to resume its job of bankrupting Queensland, Labor could take succour from the fact it had triumphed at eight of the ten most recent state elections, and lost a ninth — in 1995 — by the narrowest possible margin and only after a court overturned the result in one electorate. Viewed this way, the stunning, emphatic defeat of 2012 would be seen in Labor eyes as a price worth paying, an aberration, and a hiccup in its quest to form the natural party of governance in Queensland.
Ominously, it would also validate — to Labor hardheads — the modern ALP “strategy” of the politics of personal destruction at any cost. Its obsession with destroying Newman is already mirrored in its approach to Tony Abbott federally, and to Denis Napthine in Victoria.
Should Labor be rewarded with a state election win in Queensland, the personal vitriol, ambit defamation and obsession with destroying the personal reputations of Liberal opponents will become entrenched, fuelling the disconnection from politics by an already cynical voting public, which can only reduce the quality of governance in Australia ever further than it has already been debased — in no small part thanks to the efforts of Labor regimes in Canberra and in most of the states.
I will say it bluntly: the LNP has to get its shit together.
A failure to do so might see it crash out of office in its own little bailiwick, but there is too much at stake in the wider sense — for the state of Queensland, for the conservative parties across the country, and for Australia as a whole — for the luxury of the destructive antics it appears determined to engage in to be indulged.
In fact, it can ill be afforded — on so many levels.
Election day in Queensland next year matters. It’s time the LNP started to behave like it.
*I remain an ardent supporter of Optional Preferential Voting: straight-out First Past the Post would be the best option, of course, with whoever wins the most support in a given electorate winning the seat; OPV is the next-best thing, and I stand by that sentiment irrespective of who it advantages, disadvantages, or who agrees with me on this point.