THE DECISION by Cairns MP Rob Pyne to dump on Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and quit the ALP might hearten conservatives with a cursory glance at Queensland’s hung Parliament, but they would be unwise to get carried away; with the Premier openly fingering the election trigger, if the LNP is forced into a campaign with Lawrence Springborg at the helm it faces three more years in opposition. The time to act — once and for all — is now.
Up in Queensland (where I am today for the day, coincidentally), the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Over the past six months, the subject of the leadership of Queensland’s LNP has occupied this column’s attention repeatedly (and you can access the past few articles chronologically here, here and here); unable to select a suitable replacement for Campbell Newman in the wake of the state election debacle a little over a year ago, the LNP has arguably squandered opportunity after opportunity to take Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government apart, and now — it seems — it might just be too late.
During a troubled year in office that has seen it plagued by scandals as MP after MP generated unwanted headlines — Billy Gordon, Rick Williams, Jo-Ann Miller, Rob Pyne et al — and which has seen the ALP notch few achievements other than the methodical erasure of key Newman government measures, the minority Labor outfit has managed to average about 52% across reputable polls that have been conducted during this time, and even the involuntary departure of Gordon over a domestic violence scandal and the savage tantrum thrown by Pyne have been unable to seriously damage it.
Swirling rumours about Labor leadership coups in favour first of Health minister Cameron Dick and later deputy Premier Jackie Trad have come to nowt, and the departures of Gordon and Pyne have — to date — failed to bring the government down, despite the ALP now being reduced to just 42 MPs in the 89 seat Queensland Parliament: the same number as the LNP.
Readers know (and if you don’t, the links I’ve provided to past publishing today will quickly fill you in) that whilst I like Lawrence Springborg enormously, I am convinced he will never lead the LNP to government via a general election; he has already had three cracks at it in 2004, 2006 and 2009 and failed, and if another state election is pulled on any time soon, he will fail again.
Some in the LNP seriously think a change of government might occur on the floor of Parliament, as it did in 1996, but there are key differences that make such an event unlikely — if not impossible.
For one thing, the Speaker — Independent MP Peter Wellington — is likely to have no truck with helping to install a conservative government; he has shown this in the past, including in 1998 when his vote was instrumental in enabling Peter Beattie to form a minority regime, and his utterances in the aftermath of last year’s election suggest he is no more inclined to do so now.
For another, two of the remaining four crossbenchers are ex-ALP MPs who common sense would dictate are not going to engage in sweeping the LNP back into office; the tenure of both on the public purse is likely limited to the balance of the current parliamentary term, and what slender prospects for re-election either might have as Independents are probably not going to be helped by siding with the enemy, as it were.
And whilst the two Katter MPs might appear friendly to the LNP, both sit in electorates that would otherwise be held by the National arm of the LNP, and depend for their legitimacy to an extent on differentiation with the conservative party that would not be helped by installing it within shouting distance of a possible fresh election.
Even so, there are clear signs Queenslanders may be returning to the polls soon anyway; Palaszczuk is making no secret of the fact a snap election is a live option, and with the fraught state of the numbers in Parliament and the clear scope for more unwanted surprises to leap out of the Labor closet, going to the people and going soon is probably the best strategic choice open to Palaszczuk.
There is some talk in the Brisbane press that Governor Paul de Jersey might refuse an election request, coming less than 18 months after the last; I say this is highly unlikely, for the timing of elections is the preserve of the Premier. If Palaszczuk drove out to Government House this afternoon and advised one, there would be no point in de Jersey inviting Springborg to form a government. He couldn’t.
And in any case, even if he could, the resulting administration would be so unstable, and so likely to collapse at a moment’s notice, that Palaszczuk would be armed with a convincing argument that an election would be in the best interests of stable governance to incorporate into her advice to the Governor.
If de Jersey were to refuse an election request, there would be merry hell made of it by republicans, Labor-aligned constitutional law specialists, and the ALP itself, even if a referendum to fix terms at four years is in the offing. Ironically, the present situation is a textbook illustration of why fixed four-year terms are to be avoided in Queensland (and everywhere else) like the pox, but I digress.
With Palaszczuk’s position in the polls easily indicative of at least a solid chance of re-election with at least a few seats’ majority — and the dominance over Springborg on the “preferred Premier” measure — it doesn’t take a psephological genius to conclude that whilst elections can always throw up surprises, the likeliest outcome of any state election now is that Labor would be returned with at least an extra half a dozen seats.
And this need not be the case.
I have included the links to the three past articles for readers today, in part, because the arguments against Springborg being permitted to contest another election as LNP leader are substantially made in those pieces, and I urge anyone who hasn’t read them before to revisit them.
Of course, a ham-fisted and botched attempt was made just last month to install the wrong MP, insecurely seated and at risk of losing his seat at an election, in Springborg’s place: the LNP can be thankful it dodged that particular bullet, as I argued here a fortnight ago.
But just because the attempt to replace Springborg failed does not mean the enterprise should be abandoned altogether.
The LNP has a powerful case to put to the people of Queensland; provided the rough edges are knocked off the legacy of its three-year stint in office, the party achieved much under Campbell Newman, and the LNP’s challenge is to own those achievements whilst demonstrating it has learned the lessons that saw it ejected unceremoniously from government after a single term.
Since that event, the ALP has resumed the high spending, high waste, high debt habits of the Beattie-Bligh years, with nothing to show for the money; the traditional conservative advantage on economic management is very much the LNP’s to own, manipulate, and press home.
But as we have discussed many, many times, the Queensland of 2016 is very different to the one that 30 years ago re-elected a National Party Premier from the bush on heavily gerrymandered boundaries; rather than simply making up the numbers as some kind of set of steak knives that comes on top of 30-35 regional seats already in the bag the day an election is called, the south-east now has a majority of the seats in the Queensland Parliament, and the LNP is unlikely to win an election — under Springborg or anybody else — without a leader from the burgeoning urban south-eastern corner.
Time — and opportunity — have been squandered on Springborg, and more often than just now; after all, the LNP on his watch proved incapable of mustering any more than eight seats in Brisbane (or less than a quarter of the total) on any of the three occasions he stood for the Premiership. There is no compelling reason to believe an election now would be any different. In fact, there are at least three Brisbane seats the party holds (Everton, Mansfield and Mount Ommaney) that would be unlikely to survive any election that generated a swing to Labor and a second term for Palaszczuk.
Whether his replacement is Tim Nicholls or John-Paul Langbroek, or perhaps the pair of them in a one-two combination as leader and deputy — or either of these gentlemen, teamed perhaps with regional MP Deb Frecklington as deputy — the one thing I’m almost certain of is that unless the LNP gets its shit together and deals with its leadership question once and for all, a new election that provides Labor with a second term in office is at most just a few months away.
There are clear reasons for Palaszczuk to go soon: any interference she can run with a likely July federal election can only help Labor’s federal prospects; Campbell Newman’s name is in the media as a potential replacement for the retiring Theresa Gambaro in the seat of Brisbane; and of course, if you have the numbers, you use them — and Palaszczuk’s solid position in most polls may have endured the past 12 months, but only a fool would gamble on it enduring for the remainder of the scheduled three-year term.
It is time for the LNP leadership pantomime to be terminated. Too much time and energy has been expended on the directionless indulgence of the fantasy that the “father” of the LNP will be its saviour. No clear ascendancy has been generated by the party’s most experienced MP. The LNP faces the very real threat of a rout if it does not install a new leader, and soon.
The time to act is now.