AFTER 14 LACKLUSTRE MONTHS in which he should never have led it to begin with, Lawrence Springborg will face a challenge tomorrow for the leadership of the Queensland LNP; Everton MP Tim Mander has been the first to declare his intention to nominate, and others will follow, but the standout solution would be for the former Treasurer, Clayfield MP Tim Nicholls, to stand and be elected with rural MP Deb Frecklington as his deputy.
Here we are again — just two days after revisiting the Groundhog Day farce that has been the Queensland LNP — with the party’s leadership once more in the public spotlight; this time, a change seems certain, and this column wholeheartedly endorses Clayfield MP Tim Nicholls to stand for the LNP leadership and to be elected.
I maintain a continuing close interest in Queensland politics despite having not lived there for almost 20 years (although I’m there once a week for the moment), and one of the great political frustrations I have often contemplated is how — in a naturally conservative state — Queensland’s conservative parties have come to rival the South Australian, Victorian and (until recently) Tasmanian Liberals for the mantle of the worst-performing non-Labor outfit in the country.
Part of the answer comes in the form of the man who will tomorrow face a challenge to his leadership; Lawrence Springborg — a three-time election loser — has fumbled and bumbled his way through almost half a parliamentary term against a vapid minority Labor government that ought to be on track for an election belting.
Instead, a state election, even with the LNP slightly ahead of Labor, is likelier than not to produce a solid ALP majority, not least on account of the shameful rigging of the electoral system that occurred under Springborg’s nose last month with the reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting tacked onto a bill to enlarge the Parliament without consultation.
The news that former deputy Premier Jeff Seeney — perhaps the most unpopular politician in Queensland, and by some distance — has moved to pull on an LNP leadership confrontation this week is to be welcomed; whatever bitterness may motivate Seeney’s actions these days, the LNP simply can’t continue under a leadership circus that sees one step forward as a victory even as it is being pushed two steps backwards as a consequence.
Labor’s risible move to dump optional preferential voting for nothing more than naked political profit, using Springborg’s own bill as the vehicle with which to do so and without eliciting even an attempt from Springborg to stop it, is merely the latest in a list of own goals, abject surrenders and turgid machinations that now stretches back over a leadership career spanning almost 15 years.
Queensland’s conservatives, in various incarnations as the Coalition and lately the LNP, have now lost eight of the past ten state elections, with the two wins — a brief stint in minority government despite winning 53.6% of the two-party vote in 1995, and the biggest election win in Australian political history in 2012, squandered within a single term — overshadowed by thumping losses in 1989, 1992 and 2006, existential beltings in 2001 and 2004, a “regulation” loss in 2009, and periods in opposition in minority Parliaments after 1998 and last year, although the 1998 loss saw the Coalition reduced to 32 seats and the commandeering by One Nation of 11 seats that it would mostly have won in any other circumstances.
As a litany of failure, in a naturally conservative state, this record is an indictment: and for much of the period in question, Springborg has been central as either the party leader or as a senior, and influential, figurehead.
As thoroughly decent as Lawrence Springborg is, it is time for his tenure at the helm of this underperforming political unit to be summarily terminated: and any protestations that might be offered as a defence about the LNP’s comparatively robust performance at the federal level or on the Brisbane City Council during the same period merely serve to underline just how woeful the state entity has been in that time.
Whilst politics is an eternally fluid business, to date there has been just two challengers for Springborg’s job to come forward: first up is the shadow Education minister, Tim Mander, whose lieutenants spectacularly botched an attempt to install their man in the top job a couple of months ago.
Mander is a good man, whose bona fides for leadership were persuasively argued by senior University of Queensland academic John Harrison in the Brisbane Times in January, and whilst Mander is impressive, there are many factors that can and indeed should rule him out of contention at this time.
One, he is an inexperienced second-term MP who, in his present role as Education spokesman, has hardly set the world on fire; Labor’s minister, Kate Jones, is a poor performer on whom Mander has mostly failed to land a glove. The argument about non-politicians, outsiders and cleanskins is not one the LNP can afford at a time it has already been comprehensively outplayed by an ALP machine that has correctly recognised its opponent as easy meat.
Two, he is insecurely seated, holding his electorate of Everton by a margin of less than 2%; this seat, in Brisbane’s inner north (and adjacent to Ashgrove, temporarily held by former Premier Campbell Newman) has been a usually safe and mostly reliable seat for the ALP for decades and in fact, Mander’s two terms are the only time a conservative MP has held it in that time.
The last thing the LNP can afford is to spend the time between now and polling day answering hypotheticals about who might be Premier if the party wins and Mander loses — it has played that game in the past to sometimes disastrous effect — and it certainly can’t afford to form government, should it win, spending three years answering the same question in relation to an electorate that is almost as problematic for the party as Ashgrove has been since 1989.
With Labor’s reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting, it is doubtful Mander can win Everton at all, unless a massive swing to the LNP appears: something in no way in prospect at the current time, and until or unless it is the forced allocation of preferences (specifically, from the Greens to Labor) would seem likely to kill off Mander’s career whenever he next faces his constituents at the polls.
With an eye to the botched coup attempt presided over by his acolytes only recently, it is questionable in the extreme whether Mander either possesses the temperament or judgement to be party leader and/or Premier, or at the minimum is surrounded by those who are suitably equipped to provide guidance.
And on the almost certain assumption he will not have a seat beyond the next state election, making Mander leader now would be akin to committing political seppuku.
Word continues to emanate from the LNP that former leader (and present deputy) John-Paul Langbroek isn’t interested in the position; and whilst some continue to nominate rural MP Deb Frecklington as an option, the hard cold fact is that the LNP needs a leader from the urban south-east, where a majority of the state’s seats are located: and aside from being a neophyte herself, many of the same limitations faced by the Darling Downs-based Springborg would equally apply to Frecklington, who would nonetheless make a splendid deputy leader, and should be encouraged to stand for that post when leadership positions are voted upon tomorrow morning.
In my mind, the only suitable choice — and the best choice — is the member for Clayfield, former state Treasurer Tim Nicholls.
Nicholls has been unfairly pilloried for too long within the LNP on account of his friendship with Santo Santoro, and this column’s response to those who seek to disqualify Nicholls on this basis is unequivocal.
Certainly, as a minister responsible for many of the less attractive facets of the Newman government — cutting public service numbers, exploring asset sales options and other measures to help balance the books — Nicholls comes with some baggage, although he was only doing his job (very effectively) in straitened financial circumstances.
Yet the simple truth is that almost alone of the known contenders and in a party crying out for real leadership, Nicholls brings the gravitas and experience of a senior minister and the intellectual firepower to go further, and as an affable and personable face his party could do far worse.
Importantly, Nicholls’ seat of Clayfield remains on a margin close to 10%, even after last year’s state election embarrassment: there is no risk the LNP will have to worry about losing its leader in any mild swing against it in Clayfield if it selects him now.
Unlike Mander — four years into a political career, with no ministerial experience — Nicholls offers 16 years’ political experience including 10 in state Parliament, and covering a variety of senior roles in that time.
Teamed with Frecklington, a Nicholls leadership would provide the city-country experience the LNP needs to keep competing Liberal and National chauvinisms in check.
But above all, Nicholls is no fool, and gives every indication of actually wanting to be Premier, which would be refreshing after intermittent stints under Springborg (who never looked hungry) and after Newman, who has privately made it known for some time that he never wanted to be Premier at all.
And Nicholls has real targets to chase: after wearing the opprobrium for doing much of the Newman government’s heavy lifting and donkey work, Labor has trashed the improving position it inherited from him with public service numbers that are rocketing anew, a resumption of Queensland Labor’s debt and borrowing binge, and red ink on the state budget that again runs freely after Nicholls’ valiant efforts to fix it.
In short, Tim Nicholls knows what has to be done and how to do it: I have never met him but years ago knew his sister, and his reputation as a decent man, husband and father precedes him.
And if he has learned anything from Santoro along the way at all, it is likely to have been at least partly a heightened sharpness of judgement when it comes to dealing with people bent on tearing him down, and a refusal to tolerate fools or petty despots.
In difficult times in Queensland, all these things are what is required.
I don’t subscribe to the criticism sometimes made of Nicholls that he lacks vision; like any diligent employee he has a record of knuckling under to the task at hand, and if the dryness of economic affairs earns him mention for being a bit dour then on balance he should probably wear that badge with pride.
Tomorrow’s LNP leadership ballot is about what is right for the LNP and what is right for Queensland, and on both counts the answer is clear.
Springborg deserves credit and respect for his efforts over many years, but he is yesterday’s man, and if he is dispatched tomorrow the LNP must never turn to him for a fifth time if his replacement — whoever it is and for whatever reason — does not work out.
But to the LNP MPs concerned with their party’s future and that of their state, we urge a vote for Tim Nicholls and Deb Frecklington on a combined ticket as leader and deputy, and look forward to Nicholls’ election as Premier of Queensland as soon as an election is held.