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.


Queensland: Flegg Disendorsement Right Call By LNP

THE DECISION THIS AFTERNOON by the LNP hierarchy in Queensland not to endorse sitting Moggill MP Bruce Flegg for the imminent state election is absolutely the correct call; Flegg — a veteran candidate over more than 20 years — has been given opportunities by the Liberal Party and the LNP that he has failed to deliver on in return. Whilst some will quibble about process, Flegg will not be missed by the LNP. His utterances this evening prove it.

This column has conducted an intermittent, unapologetic and concerted campaign for the disendorsement of Moggill MP Bruce Flegg by Queensland’s Liberal National Party for several years, and the news out of Brisbane this evening — that the LNP did precisely that this afternoon — is laudable, entirely justified, and long overdue.

It is true that in calling for Dr Flegg to be abandoned as the conservative candidate in Moggill — the safest non-Labor state seat in the Brisbane area — I have been just as adamant that its replacement candidate should be Premier Campbell Newman; that may or may not occur, and since we last talked about it on Sunday, Newman has recommitted (again) to going down fighting in what appears a doomed bid to hold his present seat of Ashgrove.

But whether Newman stands in Moggill or not, today’s decision should not be construed as personal, although there are already indications Flegg will present it as exactly that.

My comments this evening really have nothing to do with Campbell Newman at all, and the LNP’s decision to dump Flegg is the only one it could make in weighing a range of factors such as his performance as a candidate, MP, minister and leader, his age, his likely political future, and the value of the seat he occupies — potentially at the expense of a better candidate to hold it.

Flegg has been provided with opportunities by the Liberal Party — and the LNP — that the conservative parties do not dispense with reckless abandon, and which the overwhelming majority of their members will never enjoy.

In 1990, he was the party’s candidate for the critical marginal federal seat of Petrie; needing a swing of 1.4% to win, Flegg lost ground, with Labor’s Gary Johns re-elected with a 1% swing toward him; to be fair, Queensland swung heavily to Labor in 1990, which probably entitled Flegg to another chance.

This came three years later, at the 1993 federal election won by Paul Keating, but at which Queensland swung back toward the Coalition; at this election Flegg was endorsed in the new seat of Dickson (held by unpopular Attorney-General Michael Lavarch). Owing to the death of a candidate, a supplementary election for this seat was held about a month after the federal election, effectively gifting Flegg’s campaign a by-election environment in which to operate.

Despite all of this — and needing a modest swing of 3.2% for victory — Flegg again fell short, achieving a swing of just 2.9% against Lavarch.

In contesting Moggill in 2004 after the previous MP, David Watson, retired, it is true that Flegg took over a seat that had been held by less than 1% of the two-party vote at the 2001 Queensland state election.

But that state election was the biggest ALP win in over half a century, with the National Party decimated and the Liberal Party almost wiped out, and Moggill — an 80/20 seat for the Liberals for most of its existence (including when earlier known as Mt Coot-tha) — was always going to again become extremely safe for the conservatives irrespective of who their candidate was.

So let’s hear no more about the high level of electoral support “enjoyed” by Flegg: like the LNP’s decision today to dump him, it wasn’t personal. Voters in the areas of Brisbane his seat covers have always supported non-Labor candidates, and mostly supported them very strongly indeed.

As Liberal leader at the 2006 state election, Flegg arguably derailed the entire Coalition election campaign on its very first day with his inability to answer a question from journalists as to whether he (or the Nationals’ Lawrence Springborg) would be Premier if the Liberals won more seats than the Nationals: an unlikely proposition indeed at the time, but nonetheless an easy question to answer for a savvy and competent individual standing in Flegg’s shoes that day.

The brouhaha over whether Flegg had been offered “an inducement” or not to stand aside for Campbell Newman in 2012 meant that Flegg was always going to be permitted to serve out a final term in Moggill; it was the only way to comprehensively refute the allegations of corruption that were being thrown around the LNP (and more widely by ALP apparatchiks) at that time.

And his stint as Minister for Public Works and Housing in the early days of Newman’s government was brief, disastrous, and a salutary illustration of the fact Queensland dodged a bullet the day Flegg squandered his only opportunity to lead it as Premier.

All of this has served to mark Flegg out as a dead man walking, and had the LNP failed to terminate his endorsement today, then serious questions would have to be asked about just how professional that party really is.

Flegg — who will be 61 by the time the coming state election is held — is obviously not going to return to the Newman ministry; logic and common sense dictate that he will have no leadership role to play when the LNP returns to opposition (whenever that is), and it stands to reason that even if he made it that far, there is no ministerial post waiting for a 70-something in the first-term lineup of the next conservative government, perhaps 15 years away or longer from becoming a reality.

In this context, Flegg has well and truly passed his use-by date.

I know some will argue he is a good, effective MP; I don’t live in Moggill and I never did when I lived in Brisbane, so I can’t comment. But I would make the point that providing good local representation and acting as an effective state MP are not skills exclusive to Bruce Flegg, and just as Moggill residents have been well represented in the past, they will be well represented by conservative MPs in the future.

I would suggest that over at least a quarter of a century, the Liberals/LNP have been more than loyal to Flegg, which makes his protest today that he had given “ten years’ loyal service” a trifle irritating.

It is also disingenuous, conveniently overlooking his status as a serial loser in winnable marginal seats: a track record few others are allowed to return from, and which suggests that deprived of his blue-ribbon ticket to George Street in Moggill, Flegg might not have ever made it to Parliament at all.

There will be those locals in Moggill — and, of course, LNP branch members loyal to him on factional grounds — who will protest the “anti-democratic” nature of his removal; it will be an outrage, a disgrace, part of a sinister plot, and blah blah blah. Some will publicly state they will never vote for the LNP again. Most of those will nevertheless do exactly that once confined to the privacy of the polling booth.

The simple fact is that all political parties must renew themselves, and with such a prime LNP seat apparently wasted on a man who has not been starved of opportunities by Queensland’s conservatives, there is a broad responsibility the LNP must discharge in ensuring its parliamentary composition is the very best it can achieve — both for the present day, when it sits in government, and for the future.

As I said at the outset, readers can see that most of what I have said has absolutely nothing to do with Campbell Newman at all, although it is at this point I would observe that a Premier with an election win to his credit presents a stronger claim to such a seat than does a career backbencher destined to serve out his time in Parliament in relative obscurity.

Two other sitting MPs faced the LNP executive today, in the same process Flegg did, with both being permitted to contest their preselections, although one — the aptly named member for Redlands, Peter Dowling, who shot to international notoriety after sending a picture of his penis immersed in a glass of red wine to his mistress — is said to be unlikely to win a local preselection ballot.

But whether he (or Ros Bates, an MP from the Gold Coast) return to Parliament under the LNP banner or not, the party’s constitution gives it the right to undertake the review process Flegg was subjected to today, and in joining the LNP and in serving it as an elected MP, Flegg himself agreed to submit to the rules and processes that govern the party’s operation under that constitution.

There has therefore been no abuse of process, and no witch hunt. Again, given his record of non-delivery on the opportunities he has been given over many years, the LNP could be said to have been extraordinarily patient.

For all his talk of loyalty, Flegg has already flagged the possibility of quitting the party; for all his talk of not being “a spoiler,” Flegg allowed the prospect he would sit on the crossbench for the rest of his term — where he would be a lightning rod for LNP dissent — to fester when he met journalists this afternoon. For all his talk of not acting out of spite, Flegg refused to rule out contesting Moggill as an Independent, standing against the party he claimed to still be proud to represent.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, he has spent the afternoon and evening presenting himself as a champion of local branch members, and lashing out at the “faceless people” of the LNP. It’s been well worn as a final stance of defiance by others who have found themselves in a situation resembling the one that befell Flegg today. It is also disingenuous, facile, and abjectly pathetic.

The simple fact — as unpalatable as it will be for those who do not wish to hear it — is that Bruce Flegg will be no loss to the parliamentary LNP, and his constituents in Moggill should be well pleased that with a new parliamentary representative will come the opportunity to secure a new effective local voice in government for many years to come.

I may be a harsh judge, but Flegg is a political liability the LNP can well do without, although like any political party, he’s hardly Robinson Crusoe on that score.

But at the end of the day, it is the LNP who has made the right call, and acted correctly, in excluding Flegg from LNP endorsement for the looming election: and whilst that may be a bitter pill for some to swallow — and for Flegg himself — in this instance, the greater good is best served by what has transpired.

In the end, Flegg — by all accounts a good doctor and astute businessman, and said to be quite a decent fellow — has been lavished with the kind of political opportunities most people can only dream of; in almost every case, he has singularly and spectacularly failed to deliver. And whilst the whole thing may be about to end for him, he can at least reflect that whilst he failed to ascend to the heights he probably aspired to reach, he was at least able to make it as far as the scaling ladder in the first place: even if, in the final act, the ladder was kicked out from under his feet.