THE ESCALATING FRACAS between backers of dumped Moggill MP Bruce Flegg and the executive of Queensland’s Liberal National Party tested dangerous new political ground last night, with local branch members vetoing the LNP’s preferred new candidate; the increasingly bitter feud threatens to bleed LNP support well beyond Moggill, and could end — literally — anywhere between the Supreme Court and the state’s opposition benches.
Rise and shine campers, it’s Groundhog Day…
Forgive the invocation of that infectiously addictive 1990-something US rom-com, but it feels that way at times when it comes to Queensland’s LNP, the problem of Bruce Flegg, the virtually unloseable Brisbane electorate of Moggill (we’ll come back to that) and how Queensland’s conservatives proceed to and beyond a state election that already looms as a hurdle without their own antics raising the bar any further.
So far this month, we’ve looked at these matters twice already; once on 3 October, when the LNP state executive effectively disendorsed Flegg as its candidate in Moggill, and again last week, when this column made the call that with the scramble for the likely leadership vacancy after the election becoming public and an array of similarly ugly and damaging behaviour exploding into the waiting pages of the Brisbane press, the LNP — very simply — had to get its shit together.
Less than a week later, the portents are not good, and whilst I agree with some of what Flegg’s supporters have had to say in this latest round of embarrassing self-immolation by the LNP, I stand by my call that the decision to dump Flegg — on purely political grounds — was essentially correct.
But the vote of local branch members in the Moggill electorate last night (by the reported margin of 56 votes to 48) to veto the LNP’s preferred replacement candidate, former AMA Queensland president Dr Christian Rowan, is a stunt that threatens to backfire badly on the LNP well beyond the boundaries of the Moggill electorate, and could even trigger events that seal an unbelievable election defeat just three years after the party recorded the biggest state election win in Queensland’s political history.
First things first: depending on your preference, here are the Murdoch story today and the Fairfax offering a fortnight ago, which adequately background readers for the comments I intend to make this morning.
I have never met Bruce Flegg, although I know many of the people around him; the so-called “Western Suburbs Group” to which he belongs was centred on the same part of Brisbane in which I was a member of the Queensland Liberals in the 1990s, and whilst that group and I sometimes locked horns in the past I supported them as often as I opposed them.
Factionally unaligned by choice and by instinct, this group always “suspected” I was an agent of “the forces of dark and evil” as they described the rival bloc within the party centred around controversial former MP Santo Santoro, and whilst I was friendly with Santo, and supported his group from time to time as well, I was never an adherent of it, nor subjected to the belligerent abuse periodically meted out by some within the Western suburbs lot if I couldn’t support Santoro.
I begin thus because that 56-48 margin, ostensibly in Flegg’s favour, represents the current state of play between the two blocs locally in Moggill; the little slice of personal history I have just recounted also provides some clues as to what is driving the players on either side of this self-destructive political bullfight.
Much has been made by the Flegg forces, since his disendorsement by the LNP executive, of the emotive and populist spectre of head office stripping branch members of the right to determine who their candidate would be (with Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney stating memorably that he “strong disagreed” with it) and whilst I agree to a point with their sentiment, the fact is that in joining the LNP when it was created and accepting the terms of the LNP constitution that was adopted at that time, the LNP executive was perfectly within its rights to exclude Flegg from recontesting the seat as an endorsed candidate.
It’s disingenuous to proclaim adherence to “the rules” when things go the way you want them to, but raise merry hell — publicly — when they don’t.
But with a majority of those present at a preselection council in Moggill last night voting “no” to the sole candidate — Dr Rowan — nominations for the seat will now reopen, with both Flegg and Rowan putting their names forward: with the obvious attendant prospect of Flegg being excluded from eligibility a second time, which the LNP’s constitution permits its executive to do.
The scope for this to spiral into disaster is plain to see, but it gets worse.
One of the (many, many) reasons I was completely and resolutely opposed to a merger between the Liberal and National parties in Queensland was that I viewed it as being motivated as an attempt by the Nationals (who were disproportionately driving it under their leader, Lawrence Springborg) to slither back into Brisbane electorates by stealth under the “one party” mantra, as well as providing a mechanism for ex-Nationals to continue to represent seats in south-east Queensland and up the coastline where demographic change — and the absence of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the notorious Queensland gerrymander — meant those state electorates were never going to vote for candidates from a party purporting to be based primarily on rural issues.
To this end, I actually echo the sentiments of Flegg — recorded here in the Fairfax article I’ve linked — that the LNP Executive, stacked with ex-Nationals, has attempted to parachute an ex-National into what should only ever be regarded in its current configuration as an outer suburban Liberal seat: Nationals overwhelming Liberals with their historically greater numbers, which is exactly the danger I warned of in the opinion piece I wrote for the Courier Mail at the time of the merger (and I apologise for including it once again today).
Yet this in no way invalidates LNP procedures; and it in no way provides recourse for Flegg and his mates, with their memberships of the LNP subject to those procedures as I noted earlier.
And whilst I agree that local members should ideally be given a vote, I am also steadfast in my belief Flegg needed to be moved on, one way or another: and with the Western Suburbs Group firmly in control of the branches in Moggill as it has been for decades, the only way to get rid of Flegg was to blast him out — which the LNP quite properly did in accordance with its constitution.
It is at this point that the whole thing threatens to turn into a complete mess; just how much damage it does to the party’s election campaign on a wider basis rests heavily with the Western Suburbs Group and how it decides to proceed.
Already — with statewide (and national) media increasingly focused on Moggill — some of what Flegg has had to say is hardly helpful for a party pilloried relentlessly by Labor as representing “out of touch Tories;” his depiction of Moggill as an area where 1% of the population are medical practitioners, with “senior legal people including Supreme Court judges, senior barristers, lawyers and QCs” also disproportionately represented simply provides subliminal support for the ALP’s message, and invites voters who are less well-to-do in other parts of the state to question why they would vote for the LNP at all when its operatives are so determined to fight over a piece of electoral real estate so clearly more valuable than their own.
The word that has been allowed to filter out by Flegg acolytes — that his margin has increased from 0.9% when he took over from the previous Liberal member in 2004 to 23.9% today — is based on the false premise that Flegg is personally responsible for this increase in Liberal support; the simple (and uncomfortable) fact is that the 50.9% after preferences recorded by David Watson in 2001 came at one of the lowest ebbs of conservative support in Queensland’s history, and this electorate (historically held on margins greater than Flegg’s now) was always going to return to its status as the safest Liberal seat in Brisbane, and by some distance.
It is also virtually unloseable, so strongly ingrained in its DNA is conservative political support; there were those who decried Watson as a terrible local MP (I never thought that) but irrespective of whether such assessments were right or wrong, the fact Moggill withstood the Labor onslaught in 2001 is akin to proof that barring the endorsement of a rapist or a paedophile or a murderer, this is one electorate that is not going to disappear from the Liberal fold.
So let’s hear no more of the indispensability of Flegg as the local MP, or to ridiculous suggestions that Moggill might be lost to the LNP because Flegg has been disendorsed. It won’t be. Not even if Flegg ends up running as an Independent (which I doubt).
None of this changes my view that politically Flegg is finished, yesterday’s man, and whilst he might be a good local MP, he offers nothing in terms of the LNP’s future in the broader electoral sense — for all the reasons I outlined ad nauseum in the 3 October article linked at the top of this one — and on several other occasions previously.
If the Western Suburbs Group were smart, they would find a new candidate to back from within their ranks who might offer 10, 15, 20 years’ service, and who holds out promise of being a potential future Premier: last night’s vote shows, if nothing else, that it retains the numbers to prevail if it can produce a candidate who matches the selling points of Rowan as perceived by the LNP executive.
But clinging to Flegg now, at any cost — when he has already had his “fuck you” moment of triumph over the LNP executive, surviving an alleged and less procedural move to dispense with him three years ago — is likely to get very bloody very quickly if his supporters seek to repeat that feat now.
The LNP is already facing a colossal swing against it at next year’s election; its leader is almost certain to lose his seat; candidates are already jostling to succeed him as Premier (assuming the party survives the election); the threat posed by Clive Palmer, whilst perhaps diminishing if recent polls are any guide, will still nonetheless drain votes from the LNP and complicate its struggle to hold critical seats; and it is obvious to Blind Fred that all is not well in a party racked with disarray, factionalism, a few less-than-loyal MPs, and a penchant for displaying dirty linen in public.
At some point — and it will be imperceptible when it arrives, but the eventual damage won’t be — the blood feud in Moggill, if it continues to escalate and become increasingly bitter and vicious, is going to become a microcosm to the voters of Queensland of everything wrong with their LNP government. When that occurs, the cynical campaign of trite noise being run by the ALP is going to resonate strongly with voters in marginal seats.
This could end up in the Supreme Court, if Flegg’s backers are so inclined; they would probably lose, of course, provided the LNP executive can show it has acted within the authority the party constitution confers on it (which, I’m informally told, it can).
Whether it does or doesn’t, at the very minimum Flegg will now be forever marked as the man his party threw out. If he somehow manages to survive the current round of machinations, he is going to be made the whipping boy for the campaigns of opposing parties across Queensland whether his own constituents are inclined to vote for him or not.
And aside from anything else, the whole Moggill fiasco is just another bloody mess at a time the LNP already has too many of those to be able to afford another.
I don’t know Flegg but I am assured by many people who do that he’s a good, decent bloke, and I’m sure he is; I’m not without sympathy, and my own stance that he should be moved on is certainly not personal in any sense.
It would be prudent of Flegg and those around him to identify someone else to stand in his place, and with their blessing, now they have had the Pyrrhic victory of forcing the reopening of nominations in Moggill.
But a localised meltdown of the LNP infrastructure in Moggill will reverberate across the state, and if the LNP’s task in winning the imminent election is already fraught, such a development might just make the difference between “difficult” and “impossible.”
Then again, perhaps Flegg is the unlikely agent of the disaster I always thought a merged Liberal and National Party would be, and if that’s the case then this was always going to happen somewhere — and sooner rather than later.
Rise and shine, campers.