IN WINNING leadership of Queensland’s LNP, Tim Nicholls has been given an opportunity to professionalise the conservatives’ parliamentary wing ahead of a state election expected within months; the opportunity comes with risks, and the new team must be on its game: in its messaging, its policies, in the rapid acquisition of real tactical and strategic firepower, and in much sharper responses to the activities of its Labor opponent.
At some point very soon, our focus will move away from Queensland and back onto federal politics, which for the next eight weeks is set, to coin a phrase, to be the only game in town; even so, we have always paid close attention to the political goings-on of the states when appropriate to do so, and in 2016 Queensland has certainly warranted the scrutiny it has attracted.
But first things first: heartiest, and sincerest, congratulations must be offered to new LNP leader Tim Nicholls and his deputy, Deb Frecklington; I have consistently supported Nicholls in this column since it commenced five years ago, and in the years prior to that privately among LNP figures I speak with, and I am delighted he has been given the opportunity to fulfil an unquestioned political talent and achieve his potential to be Premier of Queensland. He deserves the chance his colleagues have entrusted him with, and we wish him the very best of luck.
It is not without reason that in the past few days, Queensland Labor’s dirt unit — and the cabal of spivs and hacks that flood social media with its vapid, disingenuous propaganda — has gone into meltdown, pumping out messages attacking Nicholls bitterly over his time as Treasurer in the Newman government; Nicholls is by far the likeliest senior LNP figure to inflict an election defeat on the Palaszczuk government this year, and whilst it will never admit as much, the Labor Party knows it.
As I pointed out to a couple of them over the weekend on Twitter — and at the risk of being indelicate — they would be trying to kick shit into the eyes of whoever won Friday’s ballot, in any way possible. Yet the vitriol behind the immediate Labor response is real, and with Palaszczuk’s economic record a serious weakness for the ALP to defend, you have to wonder whether the attacks on Nicholls’ stewardship of state finances are a case of just a little too much protestation to be believed.
A particularly encouraging sign that Nicholls will not suffer fools — and is unlikely to easily be hoodwinked — was his declaration that the Katter’s Australian Party would be treated as a political opponent (which is what it is) rather than a “partner” to be coddled and indulged; the Katter crowd is predicated upon hiving off ex-National Party electorates with promises of archaic protectionist policies that are internationally discredited, and which would cause more damage than good if ever revisited: and its most recent act in Queensland was to sell out both the conservative side of politics and the state’s post-Fitzgerald era of clean government to permit Labor to rig the state’s electoral system, and could hardly be described as the act of a friendly and/or responsible entity.
More on that later.
But the reshuffle announced by Nicholls this morning has a lot to like, and whilst some critics have questioned whether the changes were simply a case of rewarding support at the leadership ballot, there is a strong case to be made that the new leader has forged the very best team possible from the personnel on hand.
Several long-term LNP stalwarts who either deliver nothing and/or are, judged objectively, past their use-by dates — Jann Stuckey, Mark McArdle, Fiona Simpson, Ray Stevens — have been dumped to the backbench or left there, and it is hoped these individuals, almost all holding very safe conservative electorates, might be prevailed upon to leave Parliament whenever the next state election is held to inject some fresh talent into LNP ranks after the Newman debacle wiped out so many promising faces almost 18 months ago.
The appointment of Indooroopilly MP Scott Emerson as shadow Treasurer is promising; since its resumption in office the ALP has achieved little in Queensland aside from restarting its debt and spending binge, with the attendant haemorrhaging of red ink from the state budget; a more forensic approach might be just what is required, and as a former journalist, it is to be hoped Emerson will add great potency to the LNP’s message in this critical portfolio.
Nicholls has taken a risk in restoring controversial former minister Ros Bates to the frontbench; on the basis that everyone deserves a second chance, Bates — certainly a talent — now has the opportunity to prove she can deliver without the whiff of scandal that followed her during the Newman era. If it pays off, Nicholls will have reaped a significant dividend. If it doesn’t, he will have no choice but to dump her: stonewalling and digging in won’t be an option.
It will be interesting to watch how Tracy Davis fares in Education against Labor’s Kate Jones; Jones is no world beater, and it perhaps says something that every item of collateral from the confected “local” campaign to “Keep Kate” in 2012 featured authorisations by the ALP’s secretariat in central Brisbane. Jones is a Labor insider, a spiv, an apparatchik — a hack — and not a serious ministerial quantity. Some, including within the LNP’s own ranks, have made similar criticisms of Davis in the past. But vanquished leadership aspirant Tim Mander made few inroads against Jones in the portfolio, and it will be fascinating to see if Davis now fares any better.
Moving former leader John-Paul Langbroek into Health to square off against Labor’s leader-in-waiting, Cameron Dick*, is an astute move; Langbroek is an effective performer with a pre-parliamentary career as a dentist, and should be on comfortable ground. This appointment elicited the first outburst of hubris from the government, with Dick declaring that the LNP’s previous Health spokesmen “hadn’t caused him any trouble” and that he “(didn’t) think Langbroek would either.”
Never mind the fact one of those spokesmen — beaten leader Lawrence Springborg — had to fix the mess Dick left behind as Health minister under Newman.
There are some new faces; the promotion of Moggill MP Christian Rowan, in particular, is encouraging; Rowan was rightly touted even prior to his entry to Parliament as a possible future leader, and it is to Nicholls’ credit that this first frontbench appointment will start to get the necessary experience into Rowan to determine whether such lofty predictions might come to pass. Relative newcomer Jon Krause, installed on the frontbench for the first time in the Tourism portfolio, is also worth watching in the longer run.
Harnessing the unpopular Jeff Seeney as the LNP’s leader of opposition business puts an attack dog into a role that requires one, and should add steel to the party’s performance in Parliament, whilst moving departed leader Springborg to the chairmanship of the parliamentary Crime and Corruption Committee is the perfect place for such an experienced and wholly decent MP to continue to render valuable service away from the strictures of the leadership prism.
This reshuffle positions the LNP well for a likely state election now expected in the aftermath of the imminent federal election, perhaps as soon as September; it makes a sound fist of the task of matching the right people to appropriate responsibilities, and it refreshes the opposition into an outfit with a distinctly hungry look: something it never really had during the 14 months in which Springborg most recently led it.
Significantly, the team bears Nicholls’ unmistakable stamp: a professional outfit ready to get on with the job, and not exactly wanting — like its new leader — for impatience; it will have to be on its game, for Labor in Queensland has feasted on conservative amateurism and incompetence for decades. If there is to be any chance of breaking that cycle now, before it evolves into another decade of defeat and misery for the LNP, the best opportunity to do so is the one likely to be forthcoming in just a few short months’ time.
And this brings me back to the undemocratic outrage of Labor’s restoration of compulsory preferential voting in a subterranean Machiavellian coup that completely blindsided the LNP and arguably triggered Springborg’s downfall.
It is paramount the LNP make it crystal clear that the first bill it puts through the Parliament, if it returns to government this year, will be the restoration of optional preferential voting: this measure was a recommendation from the post-Fitzgerald process of cleaning up decades of corruption and cronyism in Queensland after the Bjelke-Petersen years — not a Labor fix, despite the fact the measure suited ALP interests at the time — and as such, no party in Queensland should have the right to change it without either a referendum or unless the change has been laid out before voters ahead of an election.
What Labor did last month in reverting to compulsory preferences was a blatant and cynical exercise in rigging the electoral system to try to entrench itself in power of the worst possible kind; no consultation, no mandate, and no pretext other than bald self-interest and a cavalier “fuck you” to the system it had itself implemented 25 years ago in the name of transparency. Everyone in Queensland is entitled to be outraged and the LNP is entitled to milk political gain from the grubby exercise. For a party that has spent decades accusing its opponents of corruption and criminal misconduct without a shred of proof, the vote-rigging Labor has engaged in robs it of every scrap of the principle it has correspondingly sought to parade itself as the defender of.
What the LNP cannot afford to do is make itself a one-trick pony; this issue, properly handled, is an ideal instrument with which to channel dissatisfaction with the Palaszczuk government. But the real arguments for voting it from office must come from what it has done (or, as the case may be, not done) with its time in office: a moribund economy, a state budget in a mess, shortfalls across the spectrum of key portfolios, and the promises Labor made, not expecting to have to deliver on them, and subsequently broke.
If Springborg showed the party anything, it is that obsessive tangents can be as politically destructive as the autocratic, inarticulate model of governance practised so adroitly by Campbell Newman, but which completely alienated the electorate.
Making the arguments for a change of government will demand the LNP show it has finally learned to communicate — and do so — effectively with the voting public. No matter how well the seating arrangements have been determined, the issue of mass communication has bedevilled conservative parties across the country for a decade, and arguably poses the LNP’s greatest challenge. Time will tell whether Nicholls is able to resolve it.
*Whenever Cameron Dick’s name comes up, it involuntarily recalls a joke I share with some of my old Queensland LNP buddies; all of us are waiting for the day Labor makes him its leader, for all of us are looking forward to the headline in the Courier-Mail proclaiming that “Labor Gives Dick Head Job.” On account of Nicholls’ ascension to the LNP leadership, that day may have drawn a little closer in the past few days.