The cesspool into which Queensland’s LNP has descended is a complex ecosystem; populated by diverse organisms, its murky depths are the backdrop to an unedifying brawl over the spoils of power. There is one solution, and one only: reformation of the Liberal Party in Queensland.
At the outset, I wish to emphasise that The Red And The Blue has no argument with the legislative agenda of Campbell Newman’s government or with its program of cuts and austerity measures; Queenslanders knew that in discarding the ALP in March, they were electing a government that would take drastic but necessary action to repair public finances and to put Queensland on the path to becoming, again, the powerhouse of economic growth it has traditionally been.
That said, however, Queensland’s conservatives find themselves in office — and in disarray — at the end of what they should be celebrating as their most successful year in four decades.
Instead, the rot afflicting the new Queensland government threatens to destroy it.
It is now my contention that there is really only one solution to what is going on with the LNP and that, simply stated, is to abandon it: for the Queensland Division of the Liberal Party to be reconstituted, the LNP dissolved, and for the Liberals to finally claim what has eluded them since the Party’s formation in the late 1940s — government, outright, in Queensland.
It’s necessary to separate out three issues — the “Flegg factor,” the brawl between the parliamentary and organisational wings of the LNP, and the departure of three LNP MPs — to fully make the case for the change I advocate; I will be especially interested in the comments of Queensland-based readers in response.
Yet unless something is done — and quickly — then Newman’s government, replete with the strongest majority enjoyed by any government in Australian political history, seems destined to lurch through the next two years toward an electoral defeat every bit as stunning as the win it enjoyed a mere eight and a half months ago.
I want to deal with the Flegg issue first, representing as it does an enduring Liberal contribution to the present mess in which the LNP finds itself; Flegg is an irrelevance and a red herring whose exit papers from Parliament must surely be stamped.
On paper, he is an impressive candidate, but in practice a political failure and, to be brutally frank, a liability.
Flegg arrived in Parliament in 2004 to replace the equally impressively-credentialled but gaffe-prone former Liberal leader David Watson in the usually-safe seat of Moggill, which Watson went within a breath of losing to Labor in the landslide of 2001.
Already a two-time loser — as the Liberal candidate for the highly marginal (and winnable) federal seats of Petrie in 1990 and Dickson in 1993, losing both — Flegg’s performance as a Parliamentarian has been less than sparkling.
As Liberal leader, Flegg’s performance on day one of the 2006 state election campaign cruelled the Coalition’s prospects from the outset: questioned by journalists as to who would be Premier if the Liberals won more seats than the Nationals, Flegg’s rambling non-answer gifted Peter Beattie the means with which to raise merry hell over the prospect of Coalition disunity and instability in the event of a conservative win.
In previous discussion of the 2006 campaign, I am on the record as describing then-National leader Lawrence Springborg as a good man whose party had been overtaken by the passage of time; the Nationals in Queensland were no longer relevant to the state’s burgeoning urban population, especially in the south-east.
It is certainly true that the presentation of a National as the alternative Premier was a factor in that 2006 loss. But the culpability for it lies with Flegg, who was proven — at a stroke — to lack the political judgement and smarts required of the leader of a major contemporary political party.
As a minister under Newman, Flegg was both a disaster and a liability; little secret was made of the fact he resented his allocated portfolio of Housing and Public Works.
It’s clear now that even this was an assignment beyond his political capabilities, and his tenure ended amid controversy over alleged moonlighting as a GP and surrounding the propriety of access to his office by lobbyists, and specifically by his son, Jonathan.
Flegg flatly refused to get out of the way for Campbell Newman prior to this year’s election in order to allow the latter a secure seat in Parliament; based on recent events it is very difficult indeed to ascertain any tangible benefit from the retention of his services as the member for Moggill.
And whilst Moggill, on Flegg’s watch, has returned to its usual status as the safest conservative constituency in Brisbane, it is next to impossible to ascribe any of the credit for this movement to Flegg.
Not only did he take on the best patch in Brisbane for the Liberals at a low ebb, but the upward movement in the Liberal vote in Moggill has done little more than mirror statewide trends and the tendency for safe seats to disproportionately accrue votes by the party which holds them.
As a side issue, the preselection challenge from Flegg Jr to the federal LNP member for Ryan, Jane Prentice, must surely now be dead; aside from stirring up additional unrest in conservative ranks (and formalising its spillover into the federal sphere), there is no constructive point in elevating another Flegg to a conservative sinecure.
Dynastic politics are a fact of life across the democratic world, but there is no value to be gained from building dynasties based on the respective merits or otherwise of Bruce Flegg.
This brings me to the departure of three MPs from the LNP — Ray Hopper, Alex Douglas and Carl Judge — and spillover issues involving the also-departed LNP benefactor Clive Palmer and Bob Katter’s mad band, Katter’s Australian Party.
Palmer — with his unfounded allegations of official misconduct by the Queensland government and by individuals within it — has stomped out of the LNP, essentially because he can’t get what he wants from it.
His threat to start a new political party in Queensland would be laughable were it not for the ample funds at his disposal with which to bankroll it.
Destined to fail, of course, but guaranteed to further destabilise the conservative cause, the sort of outfit Palmer seeks to aspire to seems to be predicated on the same type of directionless populism as the endeavours that precede it (think One Nation and the aforesaid mad band of Katter adherents) which are typically based on single issues, or protest for the sake of protest, or a bit of both.
Unlike many start-up political parties, Palmer’s would certainly not be wanting for cash. But in the absence of a cogent, well-constructed and broadly appealing platform, it is just as destined to fall on its face as those that have blazed the trail before it.
These parties achieve very little except to spoil; certainly, none has ever won government anywhere in Australia, and none, ultimately, have ever endured.
Yet they are capable of inflicting great destruction on the entities from which they are spawned, and Palmer — a lifelong conservative — must be aware of that fundamental reality; not least given he was a witness to the destruction of the Borbidge government in Queensland, largely owing to the emergence of One Nation, in 1998.
It’s a fact of democratic political life that two-party systems are almost inevitable, and certainly so in the types of Parliaments Australia elects in its lower Houses* — Independents and minor parties come and go, but even after near-annihilation, the ALP and some form of Liberal/National association always ultimately constitute the main body of elected representation.
Palmer claims that many other LNP MPs would follow Hopper, Douglas and Judge out of the party, and that many of these would join the new outfit he has suggested he will start.
But thanks to some late-night machinations — led by deputy Premier Jeff Seeney — such MPs will find themselves in a party without status; not only must “a party” comprise three or more MPs in Queensland, but as a result of the Seeney changes these MPs must now have been elected under the banner of that party.
As a result, Katter and his band cannot and will not displace the seven Labor MPs as the official Opposition in Queensland; I’m certain this was part of the objective when Hopper jumped ship to join them, and the fact KAP cannot claim the role of Opposition has surely given other prospective recruits pause for thought at the very least.
In the meantime — whether intentionally or not — Palmer is providing a sideshow that is generating considerable attention which, in turn, reflects negatively on the LNP and adds to the sense of crisis engulfing the Newman government.
Television footage of Palmer on the steps of the Parliamentary Annexe with defecting LNP MPs, being spotted at lunch in nearby restaurants with those MPs, and similar “events” might be helpful in raising his profile in advance of a party launch, but the ultimate political benefits they generate will be reaped by the ALP.
And that should give Palmer something to think about.
Yet even in looking at the three MPs who have left the LNP recently, there is little of adequate substance to justify the destabilisation wrought upon their party, and none of the trio represents any great loss to either the LNP or to mainstream conservative politics in Queensland.
Ray Hopper — originally elected as an Independent who quickly joined the National Party — was preselected to his current seat of Condamine in a ballot against fellow LNP MP Stuart Copeland following the abolition of both of their electorates.
I will simply say Copeland was loyal to his party until it knifed him in favour of Hopper, and that he should be re-endorsed in Condamine by the Nationals for the next state election should he continue to wish to serve.
Beyond that, the aptly-named Hopper can be treated with the contempt he deserves.
Judge — member for the naturally ALP-inclined seat of Yeerongpilly — is a likely one-term member present in Parliament by virtue only of the high tide mark of conservative support and who, as one newspaper noted this week, has little ideological synergy with the LNP other than a dislike of the previous Labor government.
And Douglas is the MP whose wife countersigned a complaint by Palmer to the LNP’s organisational wing, seeking the dismissal of Treasurer (and former Liberal) Tim Nicholls from his ministry; grievously wronged Douglas may claim to have been following his removal as head of a parliamentary committee, but his case would appear to be an instance of the old adage “as you sow, so too shall you reap.”
There is an additional issue with Douglas; before the 2006 state election he won his seat of Gaven in a by-election; endorsed as a National and a “Coalition candidate” (read: the Liberal Party capitulated to the National Party) he won Gaven narrowly following the resignation of his Labor predecessor and held it for all of four months, losing it again at that year’s state election.
It is true that he regained it in 2009, again by a narrow margin, and that Gaven (on paper) is now nominally a very safe LNP seat following this year’s landslide.
But Gaven is also the type of seat at which a National Party candidate should never, nowadays, be endorsed, and it is no surprise that it is an ex-National in Douglas who now finds himself at odds with the LNP.
In fact, most of the trouble bedevilling the LNP is based on the Liberal-National divide.
Palmer vs the LNP. Douglas vs the LNP. Ray Hopper vs the LNP. Mutterings from reliable sources about “bushies” (country ex-National Party MPs) being deeply disgruntled with the LNP. The very existence of KAP, started by a National-turned-Independent and bolstered by — you guessed it — more defecting LNP MPs who jumped ship or were pushed post-merger, and of whom only one (Shane Knuth in Dalrymple) was re-elected.
This brings me to the LNP organisation itself.
Whilst registered as a state division of the Liberal Party, the LNP exists, in structure, in a virtually identical form as the National Party that preceded it: a strong organisation with power over the parliamentary wing, backed by a powerful state president in Bruce McIver and a management committee.
It is certainly true that this structure has some merit and has had some success in the presentation of the LNP as a viable conservative force; for example, this column has no objection to the multiple disendorsements in the seat of Broadwater that preceded the 2012 state election, and from a purely operational perspective it has proven to be a lean and efficient outfit.
Yet it is also, in essence, the same structure over which Sir Robert Sparkes presided in the National Party of the Bjelke-Petersen era of the 1970s and 1980s; and whilst it is inarguable that a party’s organisational wing must retain some influence over its parliamentary wing on behalf of the rank-and-file membership, it is the parliamentary wing which must, in a democracy, retain ultimate primacy.
And thus — having regard to all of these issues and factors — I arrive at my overall point: in light of the state of events in conservative politics in Queensland, it is time to abandon the LNP experiment.
Even without Carl Judge, there are between 45 and 47 ex-Liberals sitting in Queensland’s Parliament; clearly, with 45 seats constituting a majority, there is no bar to a reconstituted state Liberal Party forming government.
In Campbell Newman, conservatives in Queensland are led by arguably the most substantial figure to emerge from their ranks in decades, if ever; rather than allow Newman to be trashed and his government crippled, it is in the best interests of both the Liberal Party and the state of Queensland to take the drastic course of action suggested here to enable his government to do the job for which it was elected.
Inevitably, the reformation of the Liberal Party would be followed in short order by the reformation of the National Party (including, I would wager, Clive Palmer).
I see no problem with the National Party reforming, and I don’t even have an issue with the resumption of a Coalition between Liberals and Nationals.
But what I would suggest — strongly — is that any alliance between Liberals and Nationals be drawn in such a way as to permanently preclude the National Party from ever contesting seats over which it has no logical, demographic contemporary claim: the likes of Gaven, for instance, should be a straight Liberal vs Labor contest; similarly, once her career is over, Fiona Simpson’s electorate of Maroochydore should never again be held by a National.
The Liberals find themselves confronted by present circumstance armed with two things they have never had: a leader of Newman’s standing, and the weight of parliamentary numbers.
On account of the latter, Nationals in the past — as recently as the merger between the parties in 2008 — have been ruthless in using those numbers to permanently retain control over conservative state politics, with the direct result that Liberals in Brisbane have been kneecapped in their attempts to take seats from Labor under agrarian-focused National Party leadership.
So it should be now for the Liberal Party.
And were this to happen — a Liberal government constituted by former Liberals already in Parliament as LNP MPs — the slender majority it would take office with could very well be increased at the next election if the platform Newman was initially elected on is delivered in full.
As representatives of the duly affiliated division of the federal Liberal Party, there would be no bar to the reconstituted Queensland Division of the Liberal Party acquiring party status — even after the changes rushed through by Seeney.
The crisis afflicting the Newman government isn’t one of policy and it isn’t one of leadership. It is a crisis of cross-party factionalism that was always going to occur.
With a bit too much self-interest and a bit too much ego into the mix for good measure.
On Flegg, I would simply note that the problem was foreseeable and should have been avoided outright.
That said, Newman is likely to require transfer to a much safer seat in 2015, in part on account of the difficulty Flegg has caused the government to date.
It is to be hoped the rank-and-file Liberals in Moggill are astute enough to choose Newman to represent them next time the Moggill preselection falls due.
*The Queensland Parliament is unicameral (i.e. it has one House only), elected by optional preferential voting in 89 single-member constituencies.