WITH CONTROVERSY dogging re-recycled LNP leader Lawrence Springborg for praising former Premier Campbell Newman at the recent LNP Convention, this column fears that at parliamentary, organisational and membership levels, blaming Newman for its election loss is being used to mask flaws that existed long before he was drafted from City Hall. Making Queensland’s conservatives electable requires more than erasing Newman from history.
When I joined the Queensland division of the Liberal Party in 1990, one of the things by which I was soon struck was the fact most of the people who were prominent in running the party had been at its epicentre for decades; and whilst I am not going to name them — even though drawing attention to the fact at the time earned me the wrath of a powerful junta that I’m probably still paying for 25 years later and 1,200 miles away — it is an unbelievable reality that aside from a key member of that junta who died six or seven years ago, most of those individuals (and most of whom are now approaching their geriatric years) remain in influential (but not necessarily elected) positions in the LNP today.
And whilst I can’t speak to the internal dynamics in the old National Party in Queensland, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that even though some of its public faces changed over the years, most of the key players behind the scenes did not: and in any case, between the two, the Coalition/LNP have managed to eke out two wins — one in minority — from the ten state elections in Queensland since the final election won by Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1986.
But in late 2012 — less than nine months after scoring the biggest state election win in Queensland history, eclipsing even the bloodbath Bjelke-Petersen inflicted on Labor in 1974 — I published the first in a series of articles in this column that collectively and rather baldly stated that the LNP was on track to be defeated at its next encounter with the voting public, which at that time was more than two years away.
Predictably enough, word filtered south that as far as my old “mates” in Brisbane were concerned, I was an idiot who knew nothing: those western suburbs types who I alienated as a teenager and early twenty-something with too much positive energy (which they dismissed as arrogance) were in their own minds vindicated that their moves to wreck my political prospects all those years ago were justified.
Yet as subsequent events have shown, an unequivocal declaration to a friendly Brisbane journalist later in 2012 that the LNP would lose the 2015 state election showed my judgement as rather more astute than theirs, and whilst I hate to be right about events that win elections for the ALP, the LNP was doomed in office almost from the day Campbell Newman took the Premier’s desk in the Executive Building.
(The journalist made a point of ringing me the morning after the election to note the prediction two-and-a-bit years earlier had been right and I thought, for a horrified moment, I was going to be asked to cover Queensland politics as an analyst: I like Queensland and I enjoy returning every so often for visits, but Melbourne is home. Happily, the situation didn’t arise).
The reason I recount all of this is because the problems inherent in the government the LNP formed in March 2012 — just like the problems with at least the Liberal Party in Queensland for as long as I ever had anything to do with it, which predated my membership by some years — were so appallingly obvious at almost a first glance it was and is a source of some amazement that any group of intelligent, supposedly politically talented people could bear to go through the motions of such a counter-productive waste of time.
Don’t get me wrong; I would have done just about anything (legal) for the Liberal Party in those days, and even after some in that awful western Brisbane junta made it clear — directly and indirectly — that I was to be driven out and destroyed at all costs, I still strove to serve it in whatever capacity I could.
But when I see reports from respectable people claiming to have diagnosed the causes of the LNP’s defeat this year — and then find out from an internal source that the real report* is basically a noisier and nastier version of the same thing that simultaneously still misses the mark whilst enjoying the silkily sexy status of secrecy — and then learn independently that the goal of “hanging as much on fucking Newman as possible” to provide a scapegoat was the objective in some cases of those who were instrumental in persuading a good Lord Mayor to embark on a career in state politics that he didn’t really want as their salvation, it’s pretty clear Queensland conservatives have learned nothing.
In this sense, re-recycled LNP leader Lawrence Springborg was right — albeit a bit too brave for his own good — to positively acknowledge and praise Newman before the LNP faithful at their State Convention at the weekend.
It is true that Newman was arrogant, autocratic, polarising and sometimes highly impersonal: and whilst none of these qualities is particularly appealing in high doses, the fact remains he wasn’t elected to win a beauty pageant.
It is also true that as the captain of his team, he came to personify public resentment and hostility toward the LNP in a way few leaders — even those beaten at elections — truly manage to do. Paul Keating’s name comes to mind. Gough Whitlam’s, too. So does that of John Cain in Victoria, although he battled off into the wilderness rather than stand and face the wrath of the enraged Victorian electorate in 1992. Or even Jeff Kennett, the Liberal Premier who made Melburnians feel warm and content and confident in their booming, majestic city but was brought undone by regional voters who were incensed at being likened to “Melbourne’s toenails.”
But to group Newman with these examples is unfair: when the LNP was elected, Queensland was in a mess, and fast heading toward the now-traditional, time-honoured end destination of long-term Labor governments of becoming a debt-addled economic basket case. In the circumstances, nobody would be wildly popular fixing it, and Newman himself certainly copped a disproportionate share of the fallout.
I don’t intend to dig extensively into the murky depths of the abyss of which the LNP is now balanced upon the edge; by virtue of its election loss that was as narrow as it was totally unexpected (by most) and completely unacceptable, there is in fact some merit in a degree of circumspection when the prospect of a return to office may come sooner than some believe.
But the simple truth is that if Newman is to blame, so is the LNP organisation, the party’s MPs, the advisers thrown out of the ministerial wing when the election was lost, and the members — or, at least, certain groups of members — all of whom, if they were honest, are just as culpable over the defeat as their beaten leader.
And whilst he’s enjoying some positive (and deserved) press at the moment, the fact Lawrence Springborg is leading the LNP at all is a symptom of a clueless and directionless party that doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near government, for now at least: that a three-time election loser with precisely zero appeal to voters in marginal Brisbane seats is the best the LNP can put up speaks volumes, and it isn’t Springborg himself — an excellent fellow — that I’m being critical of.
Courtesy of the ridiculous coup that installed Campbell Newman as LNP leader from outside Parliament in the first place, former leader John-Paul Langbroek — a solidly competent, if unspectacular, eventual Education minister — more or less had his viability as a leader summarily trashed by the coup conspirators.
Spooked by an illusory spike in the Bligh government’s opinion numbers, certain individuals jumped to the thoroughly misguided conclusion that Langbroek couldn’t guarantee an election win. Well, guess what? Nobody can, until the votes have been cast and counted. I think Newman is one of the most substantial figures to emerge in conservative politics in Queensland in decades. But how much better off the LNP might have been with a solidly competent, if unspectacular, Premier is pretty obvious in hindsight.
Former Treasurer Tim Nicholls — a class act indeed — has been comprehensively trashed for no better reason than his friendship and his association with controversial powerbroker Santo Santoro. I don’t know Nicholls but I have known Santoro for years, and — whilst I was never “in” with his group in the way some were — and despite the fact Santo is as human and mistake-prone as the rest of us, the hysteria and rhetoric and bullshit about him that is and was peddled by his opponents fails to match the reality. It always did.
Former Transport minister Scott Emerson seems to have been a future leader whose time never was; none of the people I speak to see him as a plausible contender, and with safe Brisbane seats at a premium, he should probably be moved on.
But aside from these gentlemen, the fact the LNP’s only other “contenders” are second-term MPs re-elected very narrowly in usually reliable ALP seats is damning; Tim Mander could only be made leader by moving him — at the risk of sounding like a broken record — into one of the party’s few safe Brisbane seats, whilst Ian Walker (arguably the more substantial of the pair, and in a seat that should be rusted onto the LNP in Mansfield, but isn’t) holds his electorate, like Mander, by just a few hundred votes.
With rural MP Springborg at the helm, it’s not hard to see the LNP’s remaining marginal seats in Brisbane at grave risk of falling to the ALP at the next election in the absence of any serious anti-Labor backlash; in turn, that would mean — having by then spent 21 of 26 years in opposition — that the LNP had substantially failed to regenerate its leadership stocks, and those it retains within its ranks (Langbroek and Nicholls) have been perhaps fatally injured by their own party’s antics.
It’s true that some of the Newman government’s policies — the so-called VLAD legislation, for example — unsettled people, even frightened them; and no government obliged to enact deep cuts in public expenditure, as Newman’s was in the face of the mess left behind by Labor, is going to be everyone’s favourite.
But — and this is becoming an old story where governments formed around the country by conservatives are concerned — Newman’s government proved utterly incapable of selling them; certainly, a lot of noise was made in the name of “communications” and disseminating information, but nobody would seriously argue those efforts were in any way effective, or competent.
In fact, poor judgement and a distinct lack of political professionalism was everywhere, right from the outset, where the Newman government was concerned; the early scandal involving former MP and controversial Liberal identity Michael Caltabiano could be regarded as a virtual proxy for the scandal that quickly descended on the Borbidge-Sheldon government soon after it took office in 1996, when it appointed disgraced Bjelke-Petersen era figure Allan Callaghan to a plum bureaucratic post: nobody is suggesting that Caltabiano is a crook, as Callaghan was, but the appointment was that poorly judged.
It continued through the Scott Driscoll affair; and whilst any party can have the misfortune to find a rotten apple in its barrel — especially one with nearly 50 new MPs — the length of time it took to act on Driscoll, and to remove him from the LNP even if expelling the grub from Parliament would always take longer, sent a shocking signal to the Queensland public.
It was the same story with Peter “The Plonker” Dowling, who — upon being discovered in photos taken in a parliamentary office with his dick in a glass of wine, and sent to his mistress — should have been instantly and summarily expelled from the LNP; instead, the party allowed him to continue on under its banner for 18 months after the scandal broke, and even a ridiculous review of his status for this year’s election by the LNP state executive in late 2014 “permitted (Dowling) to proceed to preselection” in a pompous, toothless, and entirely damaging charade that failed to excise a political liability on the spot — the failure to do so earlier notwithstanding.
These are just a couple of pointers to the fact that standards — in the decent sense — were not a high priority for the LNP. Newman cannot be blamed for all of them.
In fact, preselection reviews were late in a long, long series of woeful demonstrations of abysmal judgement by the LNP in office; the decision to similarly allow controversial former minister Ros Bates to “proceed to preselection” — a bloody ridiculous, jumped-up phrase — further signalled to the electorate that LNP disciplinary processes were a farce, and that sloppy or questionable behaviour would be tolerated and subject to no more than a sham trial or, in Driscoll’s case, firm action that gave every appearance of being reluctantly undertaken in the face of sustained public outrage over a period of months.
To be clear, a lot of what I am talking about is based on perception; but the simple fact — like it or not — is that perception counts very heavily in politics.
Yet the thing that quickly tipped me off to the LNP’s likely mortality was Bruce Flegg, the MP who should never have been allowed to contest another election after the disgusting amateurism he displayed as Liberal leader in 2006.
The controversy that quickly embroiled him as a minister in 2012 over his lobbyist son’s unauthorised access to his ministerial office was foreseeable, avoidable, and spoke to the ingrained political ineptitude I am talking about; that Flegg was dispatched to the backbench shortly afterwards didn’t matter a tin of beans, for the damage — in public estimation — was done.
The LNP seemed to ignore the fact that it was more or less the same outfit in which the Borbidge-era Attorney-General, Denver Beanland, ignored a censure vote in Parliament to defiantly continue in office, and whilst replacing Beanland at the time would not have seen the Borbidge government fall, it set a despicable precedent that the LNP’s enemies were eagerly awaiting a repeat of under Newman. For the ALP and its noisy outrage machine, the Flegg debacle provided it, and the rancour the episode attracted in the press provided Labor an early fillip.
The ALP couldn’t believe its luck. Yet by the end of the LNP’s first year in office it had lost two ministers — one before he was even sworn in — and endured the fallout from Caltabiano’s ill-advised appointment, a gift that continued giving for Labor well after the immediate furore died down.
At the very least, the LNP executive did have the balls to try to disendorse Flegg last year — a move that should have been undertaken ahead of the state election in 2009 if Flegg couldn’t be persuaded to get out of Parliament: so incompetent was his performance as Liberal leader in 2006 it is fair to assert there was no value whatsoever in the retention of his services, and his blue-ribbon seat of Moggill was hardly in danger of being lost with a different candidate carrying the conservative flag.
Yet the fact it took three attempts to get rid of Flegg sums up practically everything that was wrong with the LNP during its time in office; thanks to his western Brisbane “maaates” (who have always put fidelity to each other ahead of the exercise of genuine political nous, if they ever had any), Flegg defied his disendorsement by the LNP machine which — whaddayaknow — quickly climbed down and “permitted the candidate to proceed to preselection” after all.
I’m reliably, but unverifiably, informed that new Moggill MP Christian Rowan only won the ensuing preselection ballot thanks to the votes of LNP executive members who participated, and the fact Flegg’s buddies stuck fat by him even at the eleventh hour is an indictment on them.
Meanwhile, Queensland voters — and those in Brisbane in particular, who had taken more than 20 years to fully re-embrace a conservative state government — were revulsed by what they saw unfold.
I could go on, but the LNP’s state election defeat in January had far, far more to do with other elements in the party than just Newman, but I suppose if the notion that crucifying a scapegoat somehow makes it all go away Newman must have been an irresistible target for some of the less scrupulous and in some cases hypocritical hatchet men who needed a diversion, and quickly.
The LNP was built, in short, on a fusion between the National Party’s authoritarian organisational model and the Liberal Party’s more democratic membership participation structures — an obvious incompatibility — and behind closed doors, each blamed the other for engineering the January defeat.
None of that had anything to do with Newman at all.
I’m told State Convention resolved some aspects of this, empowering the membership and making the organisation more accountable to it. Whether any of this makes one jot of difference remains to be seen. Ominously, however, the state President who presided over the whole thing, Bruce McIver, remains in his position with his tenure in the post renewed.
That said, nobody could accuse the party’s head office of running a professional campaign in 2015.
Even the decision to go to the polls at the end of the school holiday period — described in the Borbidge-Sheldon review as “arrogance” when in fact, it was a desperate attempt to outrun decaying opinion polls that were finally suggesting defeat for the government — hammered fresh nails into the Newman government’s coffin, and the hands that drove them home were not (as some suggest) Newman’s alone.
Whichever way you cut it, the basic truth is that the LNP — incredibly, after 14 years in opposition, and 20 of the previous 22 — was simply unready to govern when it was elected.
For that, the same people who have run Queensland’s conservative parties for decades are very heavily culpable but as ever, none of these people ever find themselves driven away from the circles of decision making and influence within the LNP.
The fact Campbell Newman wasn’t even on the state political circuit at all until about nine months before the election that swept the LNP to office in a landslide makes it obvious there is a limited amount as to how much he can be made a scapegoat for.
And as competent as his government might have been (which, broadly, it was, despite its extreme unpopularity), many of the functions around media and personnel management, communications, political strategy, organisational effectiveness and the like — which might have made a difference to its eventual political fortunes — were, almost without exception, the responsibilities of other people.
No effective capacity to negate the bellicose onslaught of ALP abuse was tangible. No strategy was devised to counter its use of union stooges masquerading as emergency services workers at by-elections. It could be argued that the success of the unions’ stunt in Queensland emboldened similar activities in Victoria and contributed directly to the defeat of another conservative government in another state. The strategy is apparently being adapted and readied as I write by union thugs for use against the Abbott government. The LNP’s handiwork and its consequences by no means stop at the Tweed River.
By the time Clive Palmer stomped out on his crusade to destroy the LNP because he couldn’t control it, a lot of the damage was done; but Palmer — himself a veteran of decades’ involvement in Queensland politics — would have been ruthlessly obliterated by the National Party machine had he done what he did in Bjelke-Petersen’s day. By contrast, the LNP proved almost utterly incapable of any meaningful response, to the point snivelling grubs like Alex Douglas who were lured out of the LNP by Palmer were themselves able to compound the political damage Palmer undoubtedly inflicted.
And again, nobody can lay the blame for these shortcomings at Newman’s feet.
I think, despite whatever assertions are made to the contrary, that back room “hard” heads in the LNP lost sight of the fact that despite its gargantuan majority, the huge win in 2012 was harvested from a primary vote of 49%: by contrast, the Bjelke-Petersen avalanche in 1974 saw the National and Liberal Parties pull in 60% of first preference votes between them. The 2012 win merely saw outright support for the conservatives return to the level they achieved in 1995, at which time it failed to yield a majority thanks to rigged boundaries. And just like 1995, that 49% vote proved surprisingly soft.
Now in opposition and theoretically needing just a couple of seats to return to government, the old Nationals have their man back in the saddle — whether because the party really wants it, or because the self-inflicted damage to the LNP’s other contenders is too great to overcome — and this, too, suggests the party has learnt nothing from its time in the wilderness. Bushies do not attract votes in Brisbane. It might be cruel but it is true.
Yet just like Groundhog Day, Springborg is back. He is in dubious company; the only leader of a major party anywhere in the country to lose three elections and later win office was the Country Party’s Frank Nicklin in Queensland in 1957 — and only then on account of one of Labor’s self-destructive splits. It is no wonder the LNP’s present strategy seems to be to get back into office through a change of government on the floor of Parliament rather than at an election.
But really, the LNP isn’t in much better shape than it was after the 2009 state election, or even 2006: a raft of talented MPs have come and gone from Parliament — David Crisafulli, Lisa France, Jack Dempsey, Rob Cavallucci, to name a few — whilst the party boasts just a handful of Brisbane seats over and above its pitiful haul in 2009, and holds them by the collective margin of just a couple of thousand votes.
In the meantime, that cabal of ageing western suburbs Liberals — in addition to their similarly moribund counterparts from the National Party — continues to wield all power inside the LNP, and whilst I’m told State Convention skewed the balance away from the organisation and put more power in the hands of the membership, such proclamations are probably no more than the empty crap that has been heard all too often in the past.
If the same vigour and energy with which Santoro has been pursued over the years were devoted to rooting out dinosaurs who arguably had little to offer the conservative parties to begin within — let alone for decades — then perhaps something might have been learned from the embarrassment that was their second term in office in Queensland from ten attempts.
But such an overhaul would require largely unelected purveyors of power, prestige and patronage to surrender their stranglehold over the spoils of almost uninterrupted defeat, and whilst such baubles are in the bigger scheme of things worthless, in the eyes of those who hold them they convey far greater value than nothing.
In fact, dispensing with the obsession with doing hatchet jobs on each other and cutting their noses off to spite their faces by driving good people away for no better reason than superficial disagreements over policy, personality and strategy — and focusing on doing what they’re supposedly there for, which is fighting the ALP — would do wonders in terms of knocking the LNP into some kind of professional outfit rather than the amateurish joke it is almost invariably exposed as being.
The passage of time does different things to different people; in my own case I grew up, deserted the rabble of Queensland conservative politics when I was 25, and got on with other things.
As fatuous and disrespectful as it sounds, it’s debatable as to whether a raft of people, older, richer, and better connected than I am, have ever grown up: and the proof lies in the fact the party they have controlled for so long, whether jointly or severally, is once again mired where it seemingly belongs — in opposition.
I haven’t bothered to name names; it isn’t worth the time or effort of the people involved launching pointless defamation proceedings that would inevitably fail, just for the look of doing so, nor my time defending them. Everyone has better things to do with their time or at least, that’s the theory.
But they know who they are, and if they were honest — brutally, viscerally candid about the fruits or otherwise of their handiwork — they would know that Campbell Newman is near the bottom of any list of people who should be blamed for the debacle that was the LNP in power, and that they should instead seek answers in a mirror.
*Despite my best subterranean efforts, I never managed to acquire a copy of it: although to be clear, my interest arose from curiosity only, for it is impossible to believe the “secret” report was any more perceptive of the LNP’s defeat than the public one. There is no offence or disrespect intended toward Rob Borbidge or Joan Sheldon; God knows how they were even able to frame the report they did, given the pressure that existed to crucify Newman. The truth would have been too much to expect — if, that is, anyone at the LNP really wanted it at all.