LNP Leadership: Tim Nicholls The Best Replacement For Springborg

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.

Grow up.

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.

 

Queensland LNP: Just End The Circus, And Dump Loser Springborg

IT MATTERS NOWT that the LNP is four points up on Labor in polls, when this margin at an election — courtesy of guaranteed extra Greens preferences that will flow to the ALP after its reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting — would consign the LNP to defeat. In allowing Labor to steal such an important strategic victory without so much as a yelp, Lawrence Springborg has shown once and for all he is a loser. It is time for his colleagues to act.

It seems like Groundhog Day this morning, as I publish a quick article before disappearing back into the tasty pile of work that has kept me quiet in this column for most of the past fortnight; once again — for the umpteenth time since a state election less than 18 months ago — we are talking about the leadership of Queensland’s Liberal National Party, and once again (surely? finally!), we call on LNP MPs to undo a mistake that should never have been made in the first place.

For most of the past 15 years — personally presiding over three of the LNP’s four defeats in that time as leader (from a total of five state elections) — Lawrence Springborg has assiduously sought the role of Premier of Queensland.

Not merely confined to elections in 2004, 2006 and 2009, Springborg was also nominated by the backroom rabble that decides such things at the LNP as their preferred replacement for Campbell Newman had the latter won the state election in January 2015 but lost his seat of Ashgrove, and ever since that event — which tipped the LNP out of office in a hung Parliament — the party’s primary objective seems to have been to seize power by way of a change of government on the floor of Queensland’s unicameral Parliament, circumventing both the need to win an election and Springborg’s proven lack of appeal to Brisbane voters.

To say an entitlement mentality to the Premiership exists, at least on the part of Springborg’s backers, is an understatement.

Ten days ago — in an appalling display of political naiveté that bordered on rank stupidity — Springborg allowed a LNP bill to add four seats to be added to the 89-seat Queensland legislature to be shanghaied by the Palaszczuk government as a vehicle with which to restore compulsory preferential voting in Queensland.

Just 18 minutes’ notice of this undemocratic outrage was served up by the Labor Party, which has seen fit to rig elections in the Sunshine State in its favour with no consultation, no debate, and no arguable public support, given more than 60% of voters now take the “Just Vote 1” option initially popularised by former Premier Peter Beattie in 2001.

In a clear case of the disproportionate relationship between a cherished objective and the punitive opportunity costs of realising it, Springborg — on discovering the bill to add the four extra electorates so desperately sought by rural LNP MPs, which would appear in the south-east but have the ripple effect of making their own electorates slightly smaller, had been hijacked by Labor — failed to even try to withdraw or scuttle it.

Instead, the LNP’s “brains” trust had MP after MP line up to waffle and rant and filibuster in what was an open-and-shut fait accompli, with the ALP having done a secret deal with Katter party Independents to wave the change through.

In making no attempt to even get the bill withdrawn from the notice paper, Springborg is at best complicit in the restoration of a measure with little or no public support, and with no rationale other than the cynical fixing of elections in Labor’s favour, and at worst must be regarded as the agent of the LNP’s continued tenure in opposition for a very, very long time.

It is a classic example of the “one step forward, two steps back” mode of “leadership” that has marked Springborg ever since he first became Leader of the National Party in 2003.

Greens voters — whose votes will now be fully distributed — have increasingly chosen over the past decade to allocate fewer and fewer preferences to the ALP (or anyone else) in Queensland.

But compelled to number every square on the ballot paper, it is delusional to think any anger in the Greens’ quarter will translate into a slew of extra votes for the LNP: the Greens may indeed prefer optional preferential voting in their quest to win seats in Parliaments across Australia, principally at Labor’s expense. But forced to choose between Labor and the conservatives, the 80-20 split in the ALP’s favour that typically characterises Green voting patterns is a certain bet.

It’s only an estimate, but this probably means that not only does the LNP now need a primary vote of at least 45-46% to win state elections in Queensland, but the bulk of this vote must come from Brisbane and the urban corridors around it where Labor and the Greens have collectively been strongest over the past quarter of a century.

So much for the value of four extra seats in Parliament, secured at the price of virtually permanent electoral disadvantage.

It doesn’t matter that Springborg, outraged, has promised to abolish CPV if elected: the next conservative government in Queensland (whenever it comes) will do that, and will face no electoral repercussions for doing so.

The problem is that Springborg is a proven election loser with zero appeal and little support in Brisbane outside the little Liberal cabal in the western suburbs (whose judgement has been proven defective at best over a period of decades) and is incapable of inspiring sufficient voters in and around the capital to even vote LNP in the first place, let alone take enough seats off Labor to form government.

And it doesn’t matter that Springborg — decent beyond measure, to the point it shames a large cohort of his colleagues — genuinely wants to serve and to make Queensland a better place.

Decency — a virtue this column has long lamented in its near-total absence from politics these days — is not to be dismissed lightly. But other attributes like political judgement, strategic nous and raw political appeal are critical in the quest for electoral success, and on these measures, Springborg has repeatedly proven thoroughly deficient.

As I have written in the past, it is perhaps a cruel blow that this rural MP from the state’s granite belt is widely dismissed in Brisbane and surrounding districts as a cow cocky and a hick with little relevance to their own lives, and unfair that this appears an insurmountable barrier to electoral success the capital.

But in the post-Bjelke era — with no gerrymander to triple the weight of rural votes against those in Brisbane — it has grown virtually impossible for an unpopular rural MP to lead Queensland conservatives to power at an election, and this reality has been ignored and/or dismissed by ex-Nationals and their rump of adherents in Brisbane for decades, to the LNP’s enduring detriment.

At the last state election contested by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Brisbane accounted for 26 of Queensland’s 89 seats; today, that figure has risen to 38. Part of this growth is the result of dismantling the gerrymander and part of it is the effect of population growth and drift to the city, but whatever the cause, it is clear the LNP cannot now win a state election without winning in Brisbane.

Liberals and Nationals collectively won 15 of 26 in Brisbane in 1986, but the National Party won office thanks to the slew of gerrymandered rural seats containing half the number of voters (or fewer) than were enrolled in each of the 26 seats in the capital.

At the last state election, the LNP’s return in Brisbane was nine seats; at the elections Springborg previously contested as leader it was one, two and five respectively. It isn’t difficult to see why the LNP is in opposition today, and why it stayed there for so long after losing office in 1998.

The bottom line — however much it must rankle some — is that the LNP will never win a state election with Lawrence Springborg leading it.

The LNP needs a leader from Brisbane or, at the minimum, from the corridor that comprises Brisbane, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.

Current deputy, former leader and Surfers Paradise MP John-Paul Langbroek — tossed aside in the deal that saw Campbell Newman installed as leader from outside Parliament — would have won the 2012 election had the backroom “brains” trust not lost its nerve after the 2011 Brisbane floods gave Labor a temporary spike in opinion polls, and Langbroek (who has received support from this column in the past) has enjoyed something of a political renaissance as Springborg’s deputy.

Ironically, Langbroek would probably still be Premier today had the Newman move never occurred.

Yet he risks the permanent destruction of his political prospects in clinging staunchly and trenchantly to Springborg now; loyalty is as admirable as decency, but I remind people that once it hit the iceberg the Titanic sank anyway. The LNP arguably hit its own iceberg last month with its hamfisted response to Labor’s CPV stunt. In any case, Langbroek is privately said to be uninterested in returning to the LNP leadership.

Much has been made of the leadership potential of Nanango MP Deb Frecklington; an unquestioned talent, Frecklington is — in political terms and in the broader sense — a spunk, to use the vernacular, with the brains, the looks and the temperament to be a senior political player.

But Frecklington is limited by the same irrelevance to voters in the Brisbane corridor that so hobbles Springborg. She is, however, an ideal candidate for the deputy leadership, offering city-country balance, which explains why the potential candidates to replace Springborg are both trying to line her up on a joint ticket.

And speaking of those contenders, the member for Everton, Tim Mander, shouldn’t even be in the mix: archly conservative as he may be, the failed move by his lieutenants to install him earlier this year was so amateurish, and so badly bungled, that Mander would be an easy target for Labor as LNP leader.

In any case, his seat — usually safe-ish for Labor, and held for the LNP now by less than 2%, or 1,000 votes in an electorate of nearly 30,000 — will almost certainly be lost in the absence of a large statewide swing to the LNP that right now is nowhere to be seen, the party’s latest 52-48 poll leads notwithstanding.

The LNP today faces a choice: being blown about by its petty and internecine squabbling, or to read both the electoral map and the political mood, and to act to decisively aright its fortunes in what will almost certainly be an election year: Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is unlikely to hold off much longer if LNP bickering continues to provide the backdrop to an opportunity to secure a likely second term in government.

It is time to desist with the cannibalisation of its own from purely factional and personality-driven motives; the fact some in the party continue to speak to, and are friendly with, disgraced powerbroker Santo Santoro should not be the automatic political death sentence western suburbs Liberals have spent decades trying to turn it into.

Some in the LNP need to wake up to the hard, cold reality that Labor and the Greens — and not itself — is its true political enemy.

And the longer the present circus under Springborg’s leadership is permitted to endure, the more Queenslanders (and the rest of us in what Bjelke-Petersen once characterised as the Degenerate South) will laugh at the LNP and simply refuse to take it seriously.

Clayfield MP and former Treasurer Tim Nicholls, with Frecklington as a running mate, offers the LNP a way out of its malaise that would make a serious contest of any early state election, with the real prospect of returning to office, as opposed to the fairy dust of honourable defeat being peddled yet again by Springborg and his adherents.

The way forward for the LNP is obvious; the question is whether the party has the bottle to pursue it and more importantly, the single-minded hunger for office required to stick to it.

Queensland’s conservatives have now racked up eight defeats in the space of ten state elections. Unless they comes to their senses now, a ninth will soon follow.