Queensland: Flegg Dumped In Win For Common Sense

A BITTERSWEET triumph of good sense over the bonds between “maaates” was won by Queensland’s embattled LNP yesterday, with Bruce Flegg dumped — on the third attempt — as its candidate in the safe seat of Moggill; the selection of AMA figure Christian Rowan means Moggill will be held by a likely minister and possible Premier. Exactly what to do with Campbell Newman, however, remains unresolved just weeks from a tough election.

The preselection meeting in the Queensland state seat of Moggill yesterday afternoon — at which former Liberal leader Bruce Flegg was finally, and belatedly, disendorsed — represents a great win for good common sense, and whilst this acrimonious sideshow in Queensland politics has seen local buddies pitched against the contrary directives of the LNP’s central office, it is beyond question that yesterday’s result was the right one.

This column has given quite some coverage to the proceedings in Moggill, disproportionately pivotal to the state of health of Queensland’s conservatives in Brisbane as the seat is: firstly in October, when the LNP executive exercised its right under the party’s constitution to exclude Flegg from seeking preselection, and subsequently when the local branch members in Moggill vetoed the LNP’s preferred candidate, former AMA Queensland head Dr Christian Rowan, instead demanding a ballot at which Flegg was allowed to stand.

Now, on the third go — with Dr Flegg and Dr Rowan going head to head — the job is finally complete, with Rowan defeating Flegg as the LNP’s candidate for Moggill.

Throughout this process, I have been careful to separate out the politics from the personalities; Flegg is a good guy, very likeable, and it is entirely understandable that his allies and friends in the LNP branches in Brisbane’s west would stick to him as glue as they have — to the end — in an admirable but politically misjudged display of loyalty.

Yet as I outlined in the first of the October articles I’ve re-linked today, Flegg has been the recipient of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to political opportunities as a federal candidate (twice), state leader of the Liberal Party, and as a minister: all of which, viewed objectively, ended in abject failure.

Indeed, Flegg’s ill-fated leadership of the Liberals was arguably the single factor that derailed the Coalition’s state election campaign, on day one, back in 2006; his gaffe in a press conference that day over who would be Premier if the Liberals won more seats than the Nationals was unforgivable, and should have terminated his career in Parliament the day after the election was held.

Instead, he will have limped on for almost nine additional years by the time the polls open at next year’s state election and again, nobody could argue he was deprived of opportunity.

Moggill — traditionally the safest conservative seat in Brisbane, and usually held with well over two-thirds of the two-party vote — is not an electorate the LNP can afford to indulge a time-server with; more to the point, the looming carnage, as Campbell Newman’s government is brutalised (and perhaps beaten) at its first re-election attempt, dictates that a secure electorate such as Moggill should be held by someone who is part of the LNP’s future and not a reminder of its past.

In this sense, the decision to endorse Dr Rowan to replace Flegg is an inspired one; this is an outstanding candidate with a lifelong link to the electorate as a resident, and a man who will almost certainly serve as a minister and — in time — perhaps as Premier of Queensland.

Importantly, as a doctor and former head of the AMA in Queensland, he brings to Parliament intimate first-hand knowledge of an area that traditionally bedevils conservative parties — health — and offsets the loss to the LNP of Dr Chris Davis, who quit his seat of Stafford earlier this year in protest over health reforms.

This episode has been an ugly one, marked by the confrontation between the local branches in Moggill and the LNP’s head office; it has almost certainly contributed to the political damage to Newman’s government; and marks out the differing objectives of the branches (still mostly dominated by moderate ex-Liberals) and the party’s executive (controlled by conservative ex-Liberals and ex-Nationals).

It is difficult to point the finger of blame conclusively at one of these groups over the other; the executive acted in accordance with the party’s Constitution to prevent Dr Flegg standing for re-endorsement in the first place and the branches acted in accordance with the Constitution by exercising their right to veto this.

Still, it goes without saying that this nasty little soap opera could have been handled far more adroitly by all concerned. The fact it wasn’t means that the LNP still has some work to do if it is serious about the degree of professionalism it claims to bring to Queensland politics, which was one of the justifications for merging the state Liberals and Nationals in the first place.

That said, this is a bittersweet triumph for the future of the LNP; it belatedly cauterises a suppurating sore that threatened to bleed and pustulate all the way up to polling day, and this grotesque spectacle will be one less thing for the party to worry about as the campaign proper begins in the new year.

But it leaves the issue of what to do with Premier Campbell Newman unresolved, and that opens a whole other (and perhaps bloodier) slate of issues for the LNP to navigate.

It now seems certain that Newman will lose his seat in Parliament; the “Moggill option” is now not simply closed off, but sealed shut with the preselection of Dr Rowan yesterday.

Newman has repeatedly insisted he will not countenance moving to another, more winnable electorate.

Yet the LNP refuses to publicly contemplate who its leader, in the event Newman exits Parliament, might be; and I think — weighed against the nasty, petty, and downright dishonest campaign Labor is certain to fight in Queensland anyway, without volunteering this kind of fodder for it to work with — that it needs to resolve this question, and to resolve it quickly.

Putting up deputy Premier Jeff Seeney won’t do; he is so unpopular as to be a virtual hate figure in Brisbane and the south-east, where half the state’s seats (and those most vulnerable to Labor) are located.

Health minister Lawrence Springborg is a great bloke, but he has already lost three elections as leader, has been a controversial minister, and his Southern Downs background is arguably (and unfairly) a bar to him carrying a reasonable haul of electorates in the south-east as leader.

Local Government minister David Crisafulli needs time, former leader John-Paul Langbroek is said not to be interested, Ray Stevens is cooked, and Transport minister Scott Emerson’s name — which I have heard muttered in a leadership context — should probably be muttered in any other context, but not that one.

I have said in this column many times that the obvious and best successor to Newman — Treasurer Tim Nicholls — is also, by exclusion, the only choice of any substance or merit that is open to the LNP and, should Newman’s date with the voters indeed end his tenure in Parliament, it is Nicholls the party should turn to.

But all indications from the LNP’s bunker are that it will play the “simply stand firm” game that is reaping such brilliant political dividends for the Abbott government at present: it will insist Newman will win in Ashgrove, that the LNP will be re-elected, and that life will carry on after polling day — if not, perhaps, with the swollen backbench it presently boasts.

The reality is that this kind of approach will not play well with Queensland voters, who will be receptive to the mother of all scare campaigns built around Seeney that the ALP is readying in its silos for launch.

It is also — to be entirely blunt — totally delusional.

The resolution of the Moggill debacle is welcome, overdue, and a positive move forward. But the LNP has bigger problems to worry about.

Newman — and who might replace him — is now the biggest, and the most publicly glaring, of the lot.