THE failed move by over-enthusiastic MPs to oust Queensland opposition leader Lawrence Springborg has allowed the LNP to dodge a bullet, for success would have exposed it to potential disaster; even so, that Springborg must be removed is impossible to deny. The LNP must coalesce around ready-made options if it is to reinvigorate itself and be ready for an impromptu state election that could occur with inadequate notice to act once announced.
For reasons we have discussed many times since its not-so-surprising defeat at a state election a little more than a year ago — most recently on Christmas Eve last year — the leadership arrangements of Queensland’s LNP can hardly be taken seriously by a majority of voters in the state’s burgeoning south-east (let alone elsewhere) and the insipid, almost moribund performance of a three-time election loser who has never found his way into the Premier’s office is most unlikely to lead him to that destination now.
It is true that since I published that article eight weeks ago the LNP’s polling fortunes have reversed, now leading the ALP 52-48 on the two-party measure instead of trailing by the same margin, but with this movement barely outside margin of error territory and hardly decisive in a state whose boundaries have consistently favoured the ALP since 1992, Queensland conservatives sit in a world of trouble against a dysfunctional, do-nothing Labor government and perennially now faced with the threat of a state election with no notice should the state’s knife-edge minority Parliament implode.
And with two of its MPs apparently readying to desert state Parliament in search of greener pastures in Canberra, life for the LNP could quite plausibly grow an awful lot worse very quickly.
I have been watching media reports over the past half-week about a spectacularly botched — and spectacularly inept — move to dump Springborg as leader and replace him with Everton MP Tim Mander; to say this is the wrong call on so many levels is to understate the matter, but it is difficult to recall a less professional and/or more amateurish attempt to despatch a party leader in recent years.
Unless, that is, the record of Queensland’s conservatives over the past 15 years is more closely inspected.
But first things first. You’d think the LNP would have learned one lesson at least from the past four years, but apparently not, it seems.
I have opined many times in this column that Mander — sitting as he is on a margin of just 1.8% (or 1,020 votes from an enrolment of 32,600 voters) in a seat that has for 40 years been usually reliable and often safe for the ALP — is too insecurely seated to risk installing him as leader, even if all other considerations mark him out as a suitable candidate (which they don’t): all it would take is for a few thousand ALP voters to be transferred into Everton at the coming redistribution from any or all of the crescent of Labor-held seats that surround his own to make it notionally Labor, and Mander could be bounced out of Parliament even with a swing to him on new boundaries. Even with a statewide swing to the LNP.
It’s as if the debacle of Campbell Newman in the neighbouring seat of Ashgrove and the embarrassment of a party leader and Premier losing his seat at an election never happened.
Yet be that as it may, the hamfisted move by Steve Minnikin and Steve Dickson to tout for leadership votes on Mander’s behalf — irrespective of whether fulsome denials by the latter of any knowledge of the plot are honest or not — is a distasteful and almost obscene development.
News the pair (or others close to them) have been threatening shadow ministers with removal to the backbench (on the stubborn assertion Mander had the numbers when he didn’t) became less belligerent than laughable when it was also revealed overnight that a series of proposed shadow ministry lists were circulated (presumably, and unbelievably amateurishly, in electronic format) and that those “targeted” for retribution if they didn’t toe the line quickly ascertained that multiple lists comprising different names were being hawked around.
Far from engendering any credibility, these and other activities of equivalent stupidity destroyed what chance the plotters might have had to achieve their objectives.
God alone knows — and I say that not in jest, given his past incarnation as a Scripture Union chaplain — how Mander might have fared as LNP leader notwithstanding his precarious hold on his electorate, but if the events of the past few days are anything to go by (and not least on account of those it seems he would have surrounded himself with in key positions had the attempted coup succeeded) then it is safe to say the LNP finds itself having dodged a bullet today.
I would add — being from the mainstream conservative Right, with little time for the lunar fringe further along the spectrum — that it does seem that one of the sales strategies was to portray a Mander leadership as a sop to the wackos on the far Right and especially those bush MPs where…well, where their agendas play better than they do in and around Brisbane. If that is indeed the case, then the escape the LNP has achieved is doubly a cause for relief.
In a highly decentralised state where the urban south-east now commands a majority of the population relative to the rural areas upon which gerrymandered Coalition support was once predicated, the failure of the Mander putsch is a win for reasonable LNP moderates and conservatives alike: again, God only knows what sort of damage a Mander leadership, buttressed by support from those responsible for such appalling tactics and questionable policy objectives, might have inflicted on the party.
That said, the events of the past few days do not alter the fact that Springborg cannot be permitted to lead the LNP to another election unless the party wants to lose it.
“Nice guy, but the voters won’t wear him,” is how one LNP operative put it to me some time ago — and that’s the point.
Since last year’s state election, the minority Labor government’s hold on Parliament has grown increasingly tenuous, with Cook MP Billy Gordon* expelled from the ALP in disgrace, Cairns MP Rob Pyne at war with the world and at best openly disgruntled with deputy Premier Jackie Trad in particular, former Police minister Jo-Ann Miller and Pumicestone MP Rick Williams doing little to curry favour with either the Queensland public or the Katter independents sitting with Gordon on the crossbench, and very little to show for a year in office aside from the resumption of inexplicable spending, the accompanying resumption of a budget haemorrhaging red ink, and a spiteful wont to try to erase the fingerprints of Newman’s government from the state altogether.
With the announcement that former deputy Premier Jeff Seeney — arguably the most reviled political figure in Queensland, and certainly so in the state’s south-east — and Toowoomba MP John McVeigh will seek endorsement in vacant federal seats in Wide Bay and Groom respectively, the prospect of even more instability in state Parliament (and a possible election this year) grows more likely, not less.
In Seeney’s case, his electorate of Callide sits squarely in a region that has exhibited a penchant for electing Independent and/or wacko right-wing MPs in recent years, and even without the dead weight of Seeney standing, any by-election could see the seat lost — and with it, the LNP’s ability to reliably side with crossbenchers to vote down government initiatives would be diminished.
Yet whilst this might appear at first blush to work in Labor’s favour, there is no guarantee that Pyne will pull his head in, and the possibility he will eventually depart the ALP cannot be discounted; I am also reliably told there is at least another Labor MP whose presence in the Queensland caucus is tantamount to a time bomb, and in view of the debilitating effect Labor’s woes have already had on the Palaszczuk government in the past year, another scandal could be just enough to effect its collapse.
In other words, the imperative for the LNP to sort its leadership arrangements out — and to replace Springborg as soon as possible — is stronger than it has ever been.
What the LNP needs is a) a leader from the densely populated south-east, who is b) to the Right of the insidious cabal of western Brisbane moderates whose machinations have caused so much political grief over the past 30 years, but to the Left of the lunatic fringe on the party’s far Right, and who c) is able to project a sober conservative message that delivers constructive outcomes for the cities whilst catering to the bush without capitulating to some of the extreme elements who represent it.
Many times, Clayfield MP Tim Nicholls has been nominated in this column as the perfect choice; former leader John-Paul Langbroek, as a second choice, would be a solid if unspectacular option whose likely time in the sun was ripped away by the ultimately stupid installation of Newman prior to the 2012 election.
Neither of these gentlemen is particularly palatable to the Brisbane moderates, and each comes with drawbacks.
But neither of them carry the drawbacks and baggage that Springborg does, and to say Springborg has yet again failed to set the world on fire is an understatement.
Yes, the LNP requires a new leader and yes, it has to happen sooner rather than later. Yes, the Mander madness of the past few days has been an unfortunate sideshow and yes, it will probably rebound on the LNP when next voter sentiment is measured. But that is not an adequate reason to leave Springborg where he is.
At some stage, the Brisbane moderates are going to have to not just bite their tongues and accept a leader they despise (and believe me, the raw hatred of anything to the right of reactive me too-ism in those circles knows no bounds) but to give him the clear air and support to lead them back into office.
Mander is now fatally damaged and Springborg is finished. In a party with so few options, Nicholls and Langbroek come ready-made and offer a path out of the mire.
A Labor win at a snap election would almost certainly consign the LNP under Springborg to consecutive terms in opposition and restart the clock on a truly woeful record of electoral misfortune for Queensland’s conservatives at the state level.
Already, Labor has governed for 21 of the past 26 years. That dubious reality could easily become 25 of 30** in a heartbeat if the LNP doesn’t get its shit together, and do so quickly.
The more things change in Queensland, the more they stay the same.
*This column is aware Gordon suffered a mild heart attack on Friday. We minute our good wishes for a full recovery.
**Remembering the Goss government was elected in December 1989, and any state election in Queensland this year would inevitably close out a portion of the time between now and December, when the anniversary of that event falls due.