Smackdown: LNP Blocks Macfarlane Defection Bid

THE OBSCENITY of Ian Macfarlane’s attempted switch to the National Party — just weeks after seeking and receiving endorsement as a Liberal, whilst engaging in subterranean negotiations to defect — has been correctly torpedoed by the Queensland LNP, in a win for good sense that avoids a dangerous and insidious precedent. Macfarlane had threatened to quit politics if this outcome eventuated. He should now feel free to do his worst.

At the bottom line, Ian Macfarlane won the seat of Groom in 1998 as a Liberal Party candidate — backed by that party’s money and resources, and supported by that party’s members — and even though the Liberals and Nationals merged in Queensland seven years ago, Macfarlane’s debt to the Liberal Party for enabling him to have a political career at all is a continuing one.

As readers know, I have followed this issue with complete disgust and unbridled outrage ever since it broke a couple of weeks ago; extensive discussions with Liberals (and rather a few Nationals) across the country have shown my own reaction is hardly unique, although the opinions I’ve heard from those I’ve spoken to range from sheer fury among Liberals at the utter bastardry that has been attempted, to much hilarity that anyone would try to stop Macfarlane making good his threat to stomp out of politics if he didn’t get his way, and to some Nationals who are aghast that the sleight of hand and deceit underpinning the “coup” attempt were undertaken in the name of their party, which they feel has been sullied.

This afternoon — in a win for common sense, decency, principled politics, and what is right — the state executive of the Queensland LNP slapped down Macfarlane’s attempt to dump on the Liberal Party in a switch to the Nationals that was apparently motivated by disappointment over the loss of his ministerial post, and the half-baked idea he was an appropriate candidate to reclaim it through grubby and dubious means.

It disturbs me that the outcome of the vote of the 26-member state executive was by the narrowest possible margin — 14-12 — and in my view, the 12 who voted to allow Macfarlane’s defection ought to go away and have a good, long, hard look at themselves.

It doesn’t matter that Macfarlane’s local branch members voted 4-1 to sanction his defection; after all, since the Liberals and Nationals merged, Groom is one of a myriad of electorates across Queensland in which ex-Nationals outnumber ex-Liberals at the membership level, but one where voter preference in recent years has been for a Liberal MP in three-cornered contests rather than a National.

It might be human nature for ex-Nationals to support something that accords with their historical party allegiances, but it doesn’t automatically follow that they are right.

If the Nationals — as opposed to Macfarlane — had prevailed, it would have confirmed every suspicion held by Liberals in Queensland about their motives in merging the parties in the first place, and the fact an ex-National now sits in the LNP’s safest state seat in Brisbane underscores the breach of trust such an outcome would have constituted: if the merger was simply cover for a National Party land grab, as many of us suspected, it was completely unacceptable. The acquisition of Groom by using a disgruntled backbench Liberal MP as a cat’s paw would send the signal to Liberals in Brisbane that their interests would be better served back in their own, eponymous party.

Fortunately, that has been averted as well.

What is unquantifiable for now is the bad blood and hostility that will linger in the wake of what has been a tawdry, unsavoury affair, and whilst Macfarlane has received the only sanction his intentions merited, the scope for recriminations and squabbling is all too real.

For something that wasn’t even an option until his “friend” Malcolm Turnbull sacked him from the ministry, the opportunity cost of Macfarlane’s dalliance with the Nationals may yet prove high; it is inconceivable this move could have been attempted for any other reason than seeking to reclaim a ministry through the back door, and it is to Turnbull’s credit that he signalled, as I demanded yesterday, that Macfarlane would be unacceptable as a candidate for any additional ministry the Nationals might be entitled to if his defection attempt had succeeded.

When all is said and done, “Macca” — as Macfarlane is known by his mates — isn’t such a bad bloke.

But his behaviour over the three months since Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, and since losing his ministerial position, has rightly enraged virtually every active, committed Liberal in the country, and has left everything to be desired on a great many levels.

The unbelievable crassness of the enterprise is underlined by the statist, quasi-Marxist, pseudo-socialist performance he turned in as “Industry Assistance” minister that apparently and pompously helped legitimise his proposed course of action to himself, but which in truth showed him up as an irrelevance, and incompatible with a government of free enterprise, free markets, and small government.

It was also a public relations disaster for the government, although to be fair, some of the blame for that lies with the Prime Minister’s Office as it existed under Abbott, and the defective communications apparatus that operated on its watch.

Even so, Macfarlane is no loss to the ministry, be he a Liberal, National, or anything else. The subterfuge and intrigue, apparently contrived to get him his job back, was reprehensible.

Today’s vote by the Queensland LNP was the only possible outcome consistent with principle and decency in politics. To have sanctioned the Macfarlane move would have been to set the terrible precedent that an individual comes before the party, and that any disaffected failure could retrieve his or her fortunes simply by holding their party to ransom and selling it out to any other available bidder.

It also shut down the prospect of the LNP being rent asunder into separate Liberal and National parties, at a time when unity is paramount in one of the Coalition’s strongest states, and in the immediate runup to a federal election that is almost certain to be held in March or April.

To that end, if Macfarlane holds good to his threat to quit politics and does so with immediate effect, it isn’t even likely to force the government into the potential embarrassment of a by-election.

All of these things were the likely consequences of Macfarlane getting his way. Common sense and saner heads have prevailed. One insignificant MP has been prevented from causing serious and perhaps irreparable damage to the federal Coalition. If he has wounds to lick, he has only himself to blame.

If Macfarlane now wishes to act on his threat to walk away from Parliament altogether in a fit of pique, there remains only one thing to say.

Go for your life, Ian.

 

Insidious Dog: Macfarlane Must Not Be Given A Ministry

IF ALLOWING Liberal dog Ian Macfarlane to defect to the Nationals is unavoidable — we’ll know tomorrow, when Queensland’s LNP upholds or scuppers a blessing given by his branch members — he must not, in good conscience and based on performance, be given a ministry. Macfarlane deserves scorn and contempt. A well-resourced Independent should regard him, and his seat of Groom, as fair game if the LNP implicates itself in his treachery.

Whilst I have great affection and respect for our friends over at the National Party, readers know very well the contempt with which I view political disloyalty and treachery, especially where self-interest, personal gain and delusional ambition are involved; in any case, and as far as I am concerned, the Nationals are having someone’s backside wiped on them in the distasteful process being played out on the Darling Downs at present, and if ejecting Ian Macfarlane from the Coalition altogether is impossible, the next best thing is to marginalise the bastard completely — and to ensure the country isn’t once again encumbered by having his dubious services as a minister inflicted upon it.

I have been reading the Courier-Mail this morning, which is carrying a story that suggests (as we already knew) that if Macfarlane’s defection is permitted to stand by the Queensland LNP’s state executive, the National Party will be entitled to an additional Cabinet post at the expense of the Liberal Party, and whilst this may be an unavoidable outcome of the bastardry Macfarlane has seen fit to engage in, he cannot and must not be allowed to secure that Cabinet spot for himself.

What it also suggests, however, is that the LNP will roll over and allow Macfarlane’s act of treachery to stand, which speaks to some of the very real objections I had to the amalgamation of the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland in the first place — specifically, the consequent ability of ex-Nationals to use their superior grassroots numbers north of the Tweed to ride roughshod over ex-Liberals if and when desired — and which I spelt out in an opinion piece in the same newspaper at the time.

To be sure, what is going on in relation to the prized conservative electorate of Groom right now is and was a foreseeable repercussion of that stupid merger, and it has the potential to cause tremendous instability and political trouble not just in Queensland, but to adversely affect Coalition relations across Australia.

This has been a tawdry, noxious affair, and it isn’t even finished yet; nobody will publicly confirm it, but it does rather seem that at least part of Macfarlane’s motivation was to help prop up Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce in the ballot for the National Party leadership if, as expected, Warren Truss retires from the post early next year.

I have been a long-time advocate and supporter of Joyce, and it must be said that if this is true, he has lowered his colours; if the reports that he made overtures to fellow Queensland Liberal Scott Buchholz to also defect to the Nationals for the same reason are correct, then he has well and truly lowered his colours indeed.

There are those in the National Party who dislike Joyce, or at the very least, regard him as “unsuitable” to lead their party; that, of course, is a matter for National MPs to resolve among themselves when the time to do so arrives.

But aside from the fact he is alleged to have sought to import leadership votes from the Liberals, Joyce offers the National Party something it hasn’t had for decades: brand recognition. Public visibility. National awareness (no pun intended). And a profile that permeates not just the regional and provincial centres that continue to sustain the National Party in the first place, but one that can penetrate marginal electorates in the outer suburbs of capital cities and extend the appeal of the party.

If the stories of Joyce’s vote-gathering activities are true, let it be shown that my disapproval has been expressed.

Even so, it would be political lunacy for the Nationals to replace Truss with anyone other than Barnaby Joyce.

There is a story that has been doing the rounds over the past week or so — dormant for now, but not quite extinct — that Macfarlane himself could replace Truss, and aside from the grotesque prospect of the Nationals surrendering their leadership to an interloper and turncoat, Macfarlane as National Party leader would be tantamount to providing grounds for the Liberals to dissolve the Coalition agreement and govern in minority, at least until next year’s election.

(After all, even with Macfarlane’s defection, Liberals would still hold 75 of the 150 lower house seats: and as I put it to an associate during the week, who did not disagree with me, Liberals would probably win between a third and half of the National-held seats if freed from the Coalition agreement and allowed to stand against them: bye bye National Party, although that’s a discussion for another time).

But either way, this brings us back squarely to the merits or otherwise of Macfarlane — as we discussed last week, here and here — and just as he is utterly inappropriate as a potential “leader” of the National Party, he is also a completely inappropriate choice to fill one of its allocated ministerial slots.

Liberals, if his defection is sanctioned by the LNP, can scarcely object to the Nationals being given an additional Cabinet berth; the defection of Nationals Senator Julian McGauran to the Liberals a decade ago was used as the pretext to take a Cabinet spot from the junior Coalition partner by John Howard, although Howard did see to it that the Nationals’ overall frontbench representation remained unchanged.

Some of the sting was taken out of that episode, however, by McGauran declaring he wasn’t interested in a ministry: he just wanted to serve out the remainder of his term as a Liberal. It’s a mitigating precedent Macfarlane would do well to follow — voluntarily or involuntarily.

Yet “Minister for Industry Assistance” Macfarlane — whose botched and spectacularly inept performance in the Abbott government made him a candidate for disendorsement altogether, if objectively assessed — cannot and must not be restored to the ministry now, let alone to Cabinet.

For starters, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — who exhibited the good sense to dump his friend to the backbench when his first ministerial line-up was announced — should show some backbone and some bottle, and flatly refuse to allow Macfarlane to serve in his government; the circumstances of Macfarlane’s infiltration of the National Party alone are more than enough to justify such a position, and his quasi-socialist, interventionist, market-distorting approach to his last ministerial post merely underlines just how unwarranted a promotion would be now.

There is the small matter of the abhorrence and repugnance of Macfarlane’s political conduct, which I regard as little better (or different) to that of turncoat South Australian state Liberal MP Martin Hamilton-Smith, who went off and jumped into bed with the ALP, and those who missed it can see what I thought of that particular piece of handiwork here.

The article I linked to earlier from the Courier-Mail raises “fears” within the National Party that it won’t have a Cabinet minister from Queensland after Truss retires as a justification for entertaining Macfarlane’s behaviour; I say those fears are based on a false premise — he’s not suitable to hold high office as a Liberal, and the idea he is any more suitable to do so as a National is fatuous — but in any case, someone like Matt Canavan from Queensland would be a far more appropriate beneficiary of the extra Nationals spot than Macfarlane.

And if Canavan is deemed unsatisfactory, for whatever reason — and if he is, then that reflects on LNP preselection standards and processes more than anything — then elevating Macfarlane is a poke in the eye to interstate Nationals who thoroughly deserve promotion when the opportunity arises.

Bridget McKenzie from Victoria is, in my view, at the top of such a list, but Darren Chester, Luke Hartsuyker and Fiona Nash would all be justified in feeling aggrieved if passed over for a dud and an opportunistic party-hopper like Macfarlane.

To me, it doesn’t matter that LNP branch members in Groom overwhelmingly voted to approve Macfarlane’s party-hopping; their ranks are heavily skewed in favour of the National Party, and to the extent that vote is relevant at all, it is merely to highlight what was wrong with the amalgamation of the conservative parties in the first place.

There is no principle that can vindicate what Macfarlane, re-endorsed as a Liberal just last month by largely the same people, has done, and it cannot be said the branch members have voted “on principle” now. They have simply seen the opportunity to pilfer a seat from the Liberals and taken it.

The last line of defence against Macfarlane — and an opportunity to instil any decency at all in this process — now rests with the LNP’s state executive.

And for what it’s worth — now aged 60, hardly a long-term prospect, and armed only with a ministerial record under Tony Abbott that would make interventionist socialists blush — I don’t think Macfarlane offers any value to the Coalition whatsoever, irrespective of what party he thinks will best serve his own prospects for advancement.

If being a National Party backbencher is the least odious outcome possible, then thus it should be, but the LNP now has a moral and ethical obligation to halt the Macfarlane “buggernaut” in its tracks.

For, frankly, what it is being asked to sanction is nothing less than an act of political buggery.

In the final analysis, Macfarlane is an endorsed Liberal candidate who has opted to stand for someone else, and as far as I’m concerned that makes him fair game: he’s already standing against the party whose endorsement he secured just a few weeks ago.

If that endorsement was obtained under false pretences to enable him to spit in the Liberal Party’s eye, which seems likely, then in my view he’s owed nothing: the finer points of the Queensland LNP’s subterranean mechanics notwithstanding.

A well-credentialled independent conservative candidate standing against Macfarlane in Groom — able to attract donations and resources locally — would merit the support of those voters who share the disgust of many in the LNP and the Liberal Party across the country, and who find the machinations in which such a mediocrity and ministerial failure has chosen to indulge himself repugnant at best.

But should such a candidate fail to emerge, the only appropriate vote in Groom at the coming election, for non-Labor voters, is an informal vote: and if that means the classic blue ribbon Darling Downs seat has to spend a term in unfriendly hands to flush the insidious Macfarlane out of Parliament once and for all, then so be it.

The LNP state executive should carefully consider the ramifications of its actions before it votes on Macfarlane tomorrow, and at the very minimum it should look beyond the obvious option of using ex-Nationals to poke the Liberal Party in the eye, just because it can.

 

Queensland: Informal Vote Better Than Supporting Macfarlane

IF QUEENSLAND’S LNP makes itself complicit by endorsing the subterranean, treacherous, so-called “coup” that saw failed minister Ian Macfarlane announce a switch from the Liberal Party to the Nationals this week, voters in his seat of Groom would be best advised to vote informal. Macfarlane is a merit-free liability who directly contributed to the woeful record of the Abbott government. He does not deserve to remain in Parliament.

Readers well know my views on loyalty and standards in the political sphere, and my lack of compunction in tearing to shreds unprincipled creatures who bite the hand that feeds them where my own party is concerned and dump on it for personal purposes, as I did here for example.

Whilst there are many of us in the Liberal Party whose tolerance of Malcolm Turnbull as leader will endure only for as long as it takes for his reversion to form (circa 2009) to become complete most of us would never walk out on the party, which we understand will be around long after Turnbull has had his time in the sun and his ego-slaking stint as Prime Minister has concluded.

Some will of course leave, and that is to be expected.

When their ranks, however, include members of Parliament who have benefited from the party’s ability to fund their campaigns, the cohesive brand that carries them to office over poorly-resourced Independents and the forces of the Left, and the sweat and shoe leather of the rank and file (on whose back local and national wins by the Liberal Party are carried), the only direction they have a right to head in is out the door — and away from Parliament, until or unless they are able to stand again under a different banner, and receive the endorsement of their constituents for doing so.

The issue of “brand” may, to some, be a moot point in this case, given the LNP in Queensland is a merged entity of the state’s Liberal and National Parties, but I contend that far from dumbing down the matter of Macfarlane’s treachery, this only makes it worse: and with an eye to the National Party’s future across the country, stands to heighten it if his act of bastardry against the Liberals is permitted to stand. We will come back to that a little later.

But whilst I have in fact canvassed the prospect of conservative Liberal supporters voting for the National Party in the Senate in protest over the ascension of the Left-leaning Turnbull as a Liberal Prime Minister, we’re talking about ordinary voters, not Liberal Party members or its elected representatives; and in any case, if there is to be any kind of desertion of the Liberal Party as a backlash against Turnbull, I’d much prefer it if that protest went to the National Party rather than some band of fruit cake right-wing wackos, Labor, or — God forbid — the Communist Party Greens.

At least in the states the Nationals run Senate candidates — Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales — those votes might be kept in the Coalition fold. At least, where Queensland’s LNP is concerned, voters could ascertain which Senate candidates propose to sit as Liberals if elected and which as Nationals, and decide their votes accordingly.

But where a Liberal member of Parliament is concerned, I contend no such latitude exists.

Regular readers will recall that I opened fire on Macfarlane on Thursday when news of his apparently self-obsessed, revenge-driven, pompously grandiose party switch became public; I do not intend to back off, and as far as I am concerned there is no value to be realised from even retaining him in Parliament, let alone bicker over whether he should sit as a Liberal or a National.

But as I omitted to mention during the week in that hurried, lunchtime post (but which has been noted in the press today) it was only a matter of weeks ago that Macfarlane’s endorsement for next year’s election — as a Liberal Party candidate — was finalised, and at the very minimum I think Thursday’s revelations render that preselection null and void.

In my view, it doesn’t matter (as some have reported) whether the local branches in Groom would “accept” Macfarlane’s switch of party or not: to be preselected as a Liberal, and subsequently seek to use that endorsement as cover to switch allegiance to the Nationals, is one of a number of abuses of Coalition process that seem implicit in what Macfarlane is up to.

Yes, he comes from an agricultural background that ostensibly sees him fit well with the National Party, as a farmer and former president of the Queensland Grain Growers’ Association; no, this does not legitimise his decision to skulk out of the Liberal Party to join the Nationals in the aftermath of his (deserved) dumping from the ministry, after 17 years as a Liberal MHR elected six times by the resources and recognition provided by the Liberal Party as an entity.

And it is safe to assert that he actually owes the Liberal Party for the fact he has had a parliamentary career at all; at his first election — in 1998 — the National Party candidate was outpolled by One Nation in a three-cornered contest, and was eliminated from the count earlier than One Nation during the distribution of preferences.

There is no reason to believe that a different Liberal candidate, boasting a comparable agricultural/farming pedigree to  Macfarlane’s, would have failed to be elected in 1998: and if Macfarlane had stood for the Nationals in Groom in 1998 rather than for the Liberals, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about him, so any suggestion he is absolved from the kind of debt of loyalty to the Liberal Party I am alluding to is a nonsense.

Then again, perhaps he only stood for the Liberals rather than the Nationals in 1998 in the first place because winning was more important than principle. If so, then it merely bolsters the arguments against him now.

And as we have already discussed, this failed “Minister for Industry Assistance” who was content to first continue to shovel out billions to a car industry that was not viable, in cahoots with unions who saw the money only as a tool by which to extort more from business and ultimately government, and secondly to shovel out money to a division of a company that made half a billion dollars in profit last year, has no case now, based on merit or performance, to be manipulating the Coalition agreement to return to a frontbench role by switching parties.

Such an exercise in gaming the Coalition to get his own arse back into a ministerial chair is another of the abuses of Coalition process I am talking about.

But the very notion that this could set Macfarlane up as a potential National Party leader (and the leverage such a move would provide the so-called “anyone but Barnaby” rump within the National Party) not only constitutes a third potential abuse of Coalition process, but raises the prospect of the Nationals self-immolating because some of their ilk cannot see the wood for the trees.

The party of Page and Fadden and McEwen and Anthony — with the possible exception of Tim Fischer — has lacked strong, popular leadership with broad appeal beyond the bush for decades; after the slow drift of rural populations to the coastal cities, it is probably the single greatest factor in the continued decline of the National Party politically from its peak in 1975.

Barnaby Joyce might not be particularly liked by all of his colleagues, but out in the wider electorate — even, perhaps especially, in larger towns and capital cities — Joyce is a well-regarded, if polarising, figure: his ascension to the National Party leadership would provide the party with a profile and a voice it really hasn’t had since Doug Anthony retired in 1984. It is no overstatement to suggest that a Joyce leadership would be the best thing to happen to the Nationals in at least 30 years.

Macfarlane as leader, by contrast, would make a semi-coherent self-obsessed promotion chaser — with no tangible grounding in principle or loyalty — merely the latest pushover for the Liberal Party to kick around from arsehole to breakfast.

Make no mistake: if Turnbull can sack his “friend” from the ministry (which, I reiterate from Thursday, actually shows a modicum of sound judgement by the Prime Minister), he can walk all over him as a Coalition partner if and when he has to.

In any leadership calculation, Macfarlane is a lightweight to whom any serious consideration given is an utter joke.

But it shouldn’t come to that.

Given Macfarlane’s preselection for Groom was only decided a short time ago — and given popular consensus in National Party ranks is that their “Scottish” coup was being planned months ago — I think it is fair to say Macfarlane sought and received re-endorsement as a Liberal on a false premise.

The only proper course for the LNP to follow is to declare Macfarlane’s endorsement null and void, reopen nominations for Groom, and conduct a further preselection process that may or may not seem him chosen as a National to contest the seat.

Anything else, I’m afraid, is tantamount to giving the green light for disaffected losers like Macfarlane to act as laws unto themselves, denying better people opportunities to serve won through legitimate and proper processes, and permitting self-important failures like Macfarlane to risk the integrity and cohesion of the conservative political firmament just because they were (correctly) dismissed — having proven themselves political liabilities through their own performance.

In truth, Macfarlane doesn’t even merit a seat in Parliament at all, and if the events of the past few days truly reflect his idea of acceptable standards of personal conduct, then quite frankly, fuck him.

There are plenty of better people than Macfarlane floating around the LNP branches on the Darling Downs who would potentially make excellent members of Parliament; it is now incumbent on the LNP hierarchy to reopen the Groom preselection and allow them to stand. Its constitution gives it the power to do so, and it set a precedent for the use of that power a year ago as it (rightly) manoeuvred to get rid of Bruce Flegg from the state seat of Moggill.

Should fresh preselections see Macfarlane emerge unscathed, opponents would have to abide by the result.

But if the LNP refuses to act at all — and Macfarlane is permitted to get away with the outrageous, self-interested act of treachery and bastardry he has committed — then Groom voters, who have elected Liberal MPs (usually in three-cornered contests against the Nationals) for almost 30 years would be within their right to simply vote informal, and this column is prepared to do everything possible to help ensure Macfarlane’s defeat if allowed to run as a National without another vote of the local party membership.

 

FU, PM: Macfarlane Defection May Not Be The Last

THE NEWS former “Industry Assistance” minister Ian Macfarlane will shift to the National Party should surprise nobody; Macfarlane — a poor performer under Tony Abbott, and representing a Darling Downs electorate — faced limited prospects under Malcolm Turnbull: Macfarlane’s usefulness in government is an oxymoron. It gifts the Nationals another MP and another electorate, but he may not be the last conservative to desert the Liberals.

Let’s not mince words: The defection of Liberal backbencher Ian Macfarlane to the National Party could hardly send a clearer message to the Prime Minister than if he had simply fronted Malcolm Turnbull and said “fuck you” to his face.

And the fact the move is happening at all illustrates just how deeply antagonism towards Turnbull is still running among Liberal Party conservatives, with Tony Abbott being pilloried for articulating a different position in the ISIS threat to Turnbull’s line in recent days, and murmurs over Turnbull’s historic shortcomings as a leader beginning to seep from the proverbial “walls with ears.”

Another brutal example of conservatives’ anger with the way Turnbull’s ascension occurred yesterday, with the leaking of a story to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that one of the government’s Boeing business jets had made the round trip from Canberra to Perth to collect the partner of Foreign minister Julie Bishop at a cost of some $30,000 to taxpayers: not the handiwork of happy inmates.

Macfarlane represents the Darling Downs-based seat of Groom, for decades a National Party stronghold until the Liberals won it in a by-election in 1988; as was pointed out to me this morning by “a friend,” his action in defecting to the Nationals also obliges whoever eventually follows him in Groom to sit with the National Party in Canberra under the Queensland LNP’s rules on such things, so this act of vengeance against the Liberal leadership change gifts both an MP to the Nationals now and another seat to them on an ongoing basis.

At first blush — and we will, of course, learn more as the story unfolds — Macfarlane’s actions appear to have been meticulously thought through and planned with pinpoint precision, for the Fairfax press is reporting that the Nationals will probably be entitled to an additional frontbencher at the Liberals’ expense; it not only puts Macfarlane in line for a thoroughly undeserved return to the ministry (and I will come back to that) but also to potentially serve as deputy leader to Barnaby Joyce if he replaces Warren Truss as leader, as expected, after the looming federal election.

Fairfax reports Macfarlane as “a long-time supporter of Malcolm Turnbull” who voted for the new Prime Minister at the leadership ballot in September; I have to say his subsequent dumping from the ministry showed some astute judgement on Turnbull’s part, but it doesn’t seem that Macfarlane shared that view.

At time of writing (2pm, AEST) there are whispers fellow Queensland Liberal Scott Buchholz is also set to defect to the Nationals: we’ll see how that plays out before remarking on it any further.

Broadly, there are two comments I would make.

First, that for a party seemingly presented with an opportunity to widen and broaden its appeal and base following the dumping of Tony Abbott and the swing left that seems inevitable to occur under Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberals, recruiting Macfarlane is an odd development: this column has pilloried him as “Industry Assistance” minister under Abbott, with his desire to work with unions to save jobs by shovelling more government subsidy money at the car industry, and by then agitating to throw even more largesse at other businesses (read: the Coca Cola-owned SPC) despite the loss-making SPC sitting in an ownership structure that netted half a billion dollars’ profit last year.

Accusations of conservatism are not taunts Macfarlane is going to be burdened with at any time soon, and for the conservative modern-day Nationals, he seems a poor fit. Then again, the real prize was probably Groom anyway, so they can afford to indulge him: and in any case, every Liberal MP who defects to the Nationals reduces the numerical imbalance between the parties by two, so they probably reckon they can accommodate a passenger or two along the way.

And this leads to the second comment: that really, really pissed-off Liberal party conservatives have a straightforward way of protesting against Turnbull — with their feet — open to them.

I know we raised the prospect yesterday of conservative Liberals tactically voting National in the Senate as a kind of passive protest against Turnbull, but Macfarlane has shone a spotlight on a more potent — and, where Turnbull’s interests are concerned, more politically dangerous — way of saying “FU, PM” on the way out the door.

I don’t expect, at this stage, to see a wholesale defection of Liberal MPs to the National Party.

By the same token, I don’t expect Macfarlane (and Buchholz if he follows suit) to simultaneously be the start and end of the exodus, either.

The unrest among conservatives over Turnbull’s judgement, his verbosity, and his approach to Foreign matters is growing — and in addition to their residual dislike of Turnbull’s social and environmental policy objectives, the potential for some kind of boilover to occur is rising swiftly.

Yet perversely, Macfarlane’s defection may take some of the sting out of the storm that has broken again this week over Special Minister of State Mal Brough and, on balance, provide a little smoother sailing for Turnbull as the parliamentary year draws to a close.

Even so — and without speculating about any names, for now at least — other conservative Liberals could well follow Macfarlane’s lead in jumping the fence to join the junior Coalition partner.

What might make it interesting is whether any of them are metropolitan-based lower house MPs, ceding as they would chunks of Liberal turf to the Nationals.

Either way, Turnbull and the government will easily weather one or two defections, but any more than that would be a bad look, and half a dozen or more, whilst nowhere near enough to hand control of the Coalition to the Nationals, would put an unquantifiable but nonetheless sizeable dent in Turnbull’s authority — and the government’s standing in the electorate.

I have in the past advocated Macfarlane being a target for disendorsement ahead of next year’s election; now he is gone from the Liberal Party altogether, and as a law unto himself unrestrained by any meaningful consideration of the Liberal Party’s welfare, he may well have triggered a process that could destroy its legitimacy as a party of government.

Not bad for a spiteful one-fingered salute, but Macfarlane’s usefulness as a member of any government — as I indicated at the outset — is an oxymoronic concept at best.

 

Former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss Dead At 63

BY NOW most of Australia has heard the news that former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss has died today, aged just 63, three weeks after the passing of his idol Gough Whitlam; the former Premier deserves acknowledgement for some worthy reforms in Queensland, but sober consideration of the shortcomings of his government — and its legacy — should temper the torrent of praise and adulation his passing continues to elicit.

First things first: I was genuinely moved this morning to learn that former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss had died after a decades-long battle with cancer, aged just 63; younger than both of my parents (and elected Premier when younger than I am today), the ebb and flow of time sometimes manifests itself in unpleasant ways, and in unfortunate and untimely events such as this one.

Despite being a proponent of “the other side” and representing an early first-hand experience of “real Laborites,” readers know I am emphatic that members of Parliament of all political persuasions are to my eyes human first, and adherents of whichever political creed they follow after that; and in the case of Wayne Goss, I am eager to extend my condolences and very best wishes to his family at what I am sure is a very difficult time indeed.

Yet this ALP trailblazer — Labor’s first Premier in Queensland in 32 years, and whose election (by his own declaration) ended forever the Bjelke-Petersen era — leaves behind a mixed legacy: some good, some not so good, and some ghost stories best left untold.

I met Goss in 1989 six months before he won the state election that December: as a senior student, I organised (on separate occasions) visits by Goss and by Liberal leader Angus Innes to our high school; Innes was a personal friend, but it was the first (and only) time I had met Goss, and whatever reservations I had about him politically, I can honestly say that I found him engaging, perfectly charming, and a highly intelligent speaker and conversationalist.

Even so, I’m not going to indulge either Goss’ memory or the staunch band of slavering sycophants out in force tonight with any drivel about lights at the end of tunnels, silly catchcries about the “Goss Gloss,” or a lot of the other rubbish that has already consumed far too much space in news portals not just in Queensland, but across the country.

But by the same token, I am neither going to catalogue the successes of his government, nor — out of respect — itemise its failures, aside from noting that in spite of the best PR efforts now being orchestrated to the contrary, the latter list would be considerable, and perhaps longer in the end than the former.

The Goss government was a modestly effective outfit that quickly became engorged on the same trappings of office it pilloried its predecessors for indulging in, and what might have been a shiny new beacon of public administration in 1989 was a discredited entity that had well and truly lost touch by the time it slid from office six and a half years later.

Its defeat came despite “fair” electoral boundaries introduced on its watch in 1992 which, to this day, retain a bias toward the ALP of somewhere between 2% and 4%: an indictment on a regime elected on a promise to make elections in Queensland fair and transparent.

And in addition to launching such objectionable and loathsome specimens as Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd on an unsuspecting Australian public, I contend Queensland Labor from that time onwards carries a heavy responsibility for shaping much that is wrong with Labor politics — and Australian politics more generally — now.

Its vicious brutality and its culture of petty, narcissistic populism — coupled with a penchant for photo opportunities and an unreasoning mentality of never being wrong — are all traits that find their modern genesis in the operation conducted by then ALP state secretary Wayne Swan to elect Labor in Queensland in 1989 for the first time in 32 years, and which have subsequently infected the ALP nationally and poisoned to a great degree the politics of this country and the esteem in which it is held by a battle-weary electorate.

To give credit where it is due, it must be acknowledged that much of the entrenched infrastructure of institutionalised corruption, which had been allowed to fester in Queensland under the Bjelke-Petersen government, was demolished on Goss’ watch; in its place was an attempt — sincerely contrived, I believe — to restore honesty and transparency to public administration in the Sunshine State.

Sometimes it succeeded, and sometimes it didn’t.

But his government was nowhere near as good as its proponents might argue; and in many cases where great success has often been credited, reality has been found short of the mark.

It is to be hoped that Goss — first diagnosed with a brain tumour 17 years ago — is able to rest in peace.

But unlike Whitlam, his legacy does not warrant the great magnanimity and goodwill the passing of the former Labor Prime Minister elicited; and whilst not unsympathetic to those around him — including his former colleagues, and even those whose politics I viscerally detest — I cannot bring myself to pen any kind of eulogy to his record in office.

Rightly or wrongly, the Goss government did what it was elected to do, and in the chief interests of those who voted for it. Beyond that, it did few people any favours. On the former count it did no more than was expected of it, and on the latter nothing to warrant any accolade of greatness or inclusivity.

And it certainly made no attempt to heal the raw wounds and divisions in Queensland from the tumultuous final years of the 1980s which immediately predated its ascension to office.

 

AND ANOTHER THING: Wayne Goss was elected as Premier at a state election in Queensland on Saturday 2 December 1989; he was not — as has been widely  written in the publications of both Fairfax and Murdoch today — elected on 7 December: that was the day he was sworn into office, along with his ministers. To the journalists responsible for this basic error of fact (and/or for copying each other’s work) I simply have to say this. GET IT RIGHT!

 

Moggill Debacle May Seal State Election Defeat For LNP

THE ESCALATING FRACAS between backers of dumped Moggill MP Bruce Flegg and the executive of Queensland’s Liberal National Party tested dangerous new political ground last night, with local branch members vetoing the LNP’s preferred new candidate; the increasingly bitter feud threatens to bleed LNP support well beyond Moggill, and could end — literally — anywhere between the Supreme Court and the state’s opposition benches.

Rise and shine campers, it’s Groundhog Day…

Forgive the invocation of that infectiously addictive 1990-something US rom-com, but it feels that way at times when it comes to Queensland’s LNP, the problem of Bruce Flegg, the virtually unloseable Brisbane electorate of Moggill (we’ll come back to that) and how Queensland’s conservatives proceed to and beyond a state election that already looms as a hurdle without their own antics raising the bar any further.

So far this month, we’ve looked at these matters twice already; once on 3 October, when the LNP state executive effectively disendorsed Flegg as its candidate in Moggill, and again last week, when this column made the call that with the scramble for the likely leadership vacancy after the election becoming public and an array of similarly ugly and damaging behaviour exploding into the waiting pages of the Brisbane press, the LNP — very simply — had to get its shit together.

Less than a week later, the portents are not good, and whilst I agree with some of what Flegg’s supporters have had to say in this latest round of embarrassing self-immolation by the LNP, I stand by my call that the decision to dump Flegg — on purely political grounds — was essentially correct.

But the vote of local branch members in the Moggill electorate last night (by the reported margin of 56 votes to 48) to veto the LNP’s preferred replacement candidate, former AMA Queensland president Dr Christian Rowan, is a stunt that threatens to backfire badly on the LNP well beyond the boundaries of the Moggill electorate, and could even trigger events that seal an unbelievable election defeat just three years after the party recorded the biggest state election win in Queensland’s political history.

First things first: depending on your preference, here are the Murdoch story today and the Fairfax offering a fortnight ago, which adequately background readers for the comments I intend to make this morning.

I have never met Bruce Flegg, although I know many of the people around him; the so-called “Western Suburbs Group” to which he belongs was centred on the same part of Brisbane in which I was a member of the Queensland Liberals in the 1990s, and whilst that group and I sometimes locked horns in the past I supported them as often as I opposed them.

Factionally unaligned by choice and by instinct, this group always “suspected” I was an agent of “the forces of dark and evil” as they described the rival bloc within the party centred around controversial former MP Santo Santoro, and whilst I was friendly with Santo, and supported his group from time to time as well, I was never an adherent of it, nor subjected to the belligerent abuse periodically meted out by some within the Western suburbs lot if I couldn’t support Santoro.

I begin thus because that 56-48 margin, ostensibly in Flegg’s favour, represents the current state of play between the two blocs locally in Moggill; the little slice of personal history I have just recounted also provides some clues as to what is driving the players on either side of this self-destructive political bullfight.

Much has been made by the Flegg forces, since his disendorsement by the LNP executive, of the emotive and populist spectre of head office stripping branch members of the right to determine who their candidate would be (with Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney stating memorably that he “strong disagreed” with it) and whilst I agree to a point with their sentiment, the fact is that in joining the LNP when it was created and accepting the terms of the LNP constitution that was adopted at that time, the LNP executive was perfectly within its rights to exclude Flegg from recontesting the seat as an endorsed candidate.

It’s disingenuous to proclaim adherence to “the rules” when things go the way you want them to, but raise merry hell — publicly — when they don’t.

But with a majority of those present at a preselection council in Moggill last night voting “no” to the sole candidate — Dr Rowan — nominations for the seat will now reopen, with both Flegg and Rowan putting their names forward: with the obvious attendant prospect of Flegg being excluded from eligibility a second time, which the LNP’s constitution permits its executive to do.

The scope for this to spiral into disaster is plain to see, but it gets worse.

One of the (many, many) reasons I was completely and resolutely opposed to a merger between the Liberal and National parties in Queensland was that I viewed it as being motivated as an attempt by the Nationals (who were disproportionately driving it under their leader, Lawrence Springborg) to slither back into Brisbane electorates by stealth under the “one party” mantra, as well as providing a mechanism for ex-Nationals to continue to represent seats in south-east Queensland and up the coastline where demographic change — and the absence of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the notorious Queensland gerrymander — meant those state electorates were never going to vote for candidates from a party purporting to be based primarily on rural issues.

To this end, I actually echo the sentiments of Flegg — recorded here in the Fairfax article I’ve linked — that the LNP Executive, stacked with ex-Nationals, has attempted to parachute an ex-National into what should only ever be regarded in its current configuration as an outer suburban Liberal seat: Nationals overwhelming Liberals with their historically greater numbers, which is exactly the danger I warned of in the opinion piece I wrote for the Courier Mail at the time of the merger (and I apologise for including it once again today).

Yet this in no way invalidates LNP procedures; and it in no way provides recourse for Flegg and his mates, with their memberships of the LNP subject to those procedures as I noted earlier.

And whilst I agree that local members should ideally be given a vote, I am also steadfast in my belief Flegg needed to be moved on, one way or another: and with the Western Suburbs Group firmly in control of the branches in Moggill as it has been for decades, the only way to get rid of Flegg was to blast him out — which the LNP quite properly did in accordance with its constitution.

It is at this point that the whole thing threatens to turn into a complete mess; just how much damage it does to the party’s election campaign on a wider basis rests heavily with the Western Suburbs Group and how it decides to proceed.

Already — with statewide (and national) media increasingly focused on Moggill — some of what Flegg has had to say is hardly helpful for a party pilloried relentlessly by Labor as representing “out of touch Tories;” his depiction of Moggill as an area where 1% of the population are medical practitioners, with “senior legal people including Supreme Court judges, senior barristers, lawyers and QCs” also disproportionately represented simply provides subliminal support for the ALP’s message, and invites voters who are less well-to-do in other parts of the state to question why they would vote for the LNP at all when its operatives are so determined to fight over a piece of electoral real estate so clearly more valuable than their own.

The word that has been allowed to filter out by Flegg acolytes — that his margin has increased from 0.9% when he took over from the previous Liberal member in 2004 to 23.9% today — is based on the false premise that Flegg is personally responsible for this increase in Liberal support; the simple (and uncomfortable) fact is that the 50.9% after preferences recorded by David Watson in 2001 came at one of the lowest ebbs of conservative support in Queensland’s history, and this electorate (historically held on margins greater than Flegg’s now) was always going to return to its status as the safest Liberal seat in Brisbane, and by some distance.

It is also virtually unloseable, so strongly ingrained in its DNA is conservative political support; there were those who decried Watson as a terrible local MP (I never thought that) but irrespective of whether such assessments were right or wrong, the fact Moggill withstood the Labor onslaught in 2001 is akin to proof that barring the endorsement of a rapist or a paedophile or a murderer, this is one electorate that is not going to disappear from the Liberal fold.

So let’s hear no more of the indispensability of Flegg as the local MP, or to ridiculous suggestions that Moggill might be lost to the LNP because Flegg has been disendorsed. It won’t be. Not even if Flegg ends up running as an Independent (which I doubt).

None of this changes my view that politically Flegg is finished, yesterday’s man, and whilst he might be a good local MP, he offers nothing in terms of the LNP’s future in the broader electoral sense — for all the reasons I outlined ad nauseum in the 3 October article linked at the top of this one — and on several other occasions previously.

If the Western Suburbs Group were smart, they would find a new candidate to back from within their ranks who might offer 10, 15, 20 years’ service, and who holds out promise of being a potential future Premier: last night’s vote shows, if nothing else, that it retains the numbers to prevail if it can produce a candidate who matches the selling points of Rowan as perceived by the LNP executive.

But clinging to Flegg now, at any cost — when he has already had his “fuck you” moment of triumph over the LNP executive, surviving an alleged and less procedural move to dispense with him three years ago — is likely to get very bloody very quickly if his supporters seek to repeat that feat now.

The LNP is already facing a colossal swing against it at next year’s election; its leader is almost certain to lose his seat; candidates are already jostling to succeed him as Premier (assuming the party survives the election); the threat posed by Clive Palmer, whilst perhaps diminishing if recent polls are any guide, will still nonetheless drain votes from the LNP and complicate its struggle to hold critical seats; and it is obvious to Blind Fred that all is not well in a party racked with disarray, factionalism, a few less-than-loyal MPs, and a penchant for displaying dirty linen in public.

At some point — and it will be imperceptible when it arrives, but the eventual damage won’t be — the blood feud in Moggill, if it continues to escalate and become increasingly bitter and vicious, is going to become a microcosm to the voters of Queensland of everything wrong with their LNP government. When that occurs, the cynical campaign of trite noise being run by the ALP is going to resonate strongly with voters in marginal seats.

This could end up in the Supreme Court, if Flegg’s backers are so inclined; they would probably lose, of course, provided the LNP executive can show it has acted within the authority the party constitution confers on it (which, I’m informally told, it can).

Whether it does or doesn’t, at the very minimum Flegg will now be forever marked as the man his party threw out. If he somehow manages to survive the current round of machinations, he is going to be made the whipping boy for the campaigns of opposing parties across Queensland whether his own constituents are inclined to vote for him or not.

And aside from anything else, the whole Moggill fiasco is just another bloody mess at a time the LNP already has too many of those to be able to afford another.

I don’t know Flegg but I am assured by many people who do that he’s a good, decent bloke, and I’m sure he is; I’m not without sympathy, and my own stance that he should be moved on is certainly not personal in any sense.

It would be prudent of Flegg and those around him to identify someone else to stand in his place, and with their blessing, now they have had the Pyrrhic victory of forcing the reopening of nominations in Moggill.

But a localised meltdown of the LNP infrastructure in Moggill will reverberate across the state, and if the LNP’s task in winning the imminent election is already fraught, such a development might just make the difference between “difficult” and “impossible.”

Then again, perhaps Flegg is the unlikely agent of the disaster I always thought a merged Liberal and National Party would be, and if that’s the case then this was always going to happen somewhere — and sooner rather than later.

Rise and shine, campers.

 

WA: Nationals Almost Win Chair Sniffer’s Seat In By-Election

A BY-ELECTION YESTERDAY in the seat vacated by former Western Australian Treasurer and “chair sniffer” Troy Buswell has seen the Liberal Party run very close by its National Party partners in the ultra-conservative electorate of Vasse; despite the absence of a Labor candidate, the result underlines the fall from public favour of Colin Barnett’s government, and serves as a warning to the WA Liberals near the halfway point of its second term.

A seat like Vasse is the kind of electorate that is unlikely to ever fall to Labor, which is part of the reason the ALP did not stand; even so, the Coalition government of Colin Barnett — re-elected 18 months ago in a landslide — will take much from the by-election in Troy Buswell’s seat, with the Liberals suffering a huge swing to the National Party that almost saw the seat change hands.

The foibles and misadventures of the outgoing member for Vasse are well known, with Buswell making international headlines some years ago after it emerged that as Liberal leader he had sniffed the chair of female colleague; since that time, Western Australians also learned that he had had an affair with another colleague, yet the Liberal Party won office in 2008 (in minority under Barnett) and a second term last year. On both occasions, Buswell increased his majority in his own seat.

Whatever else might be said about his antics, Buswell’s enduring popularity seems beyond question.

Yet a boozy drive home in his government car from a wedding in February, during which he badly damaged several cars in a number of incidents, and his subsequent resignation from Cabinet may have changed that; then again, the revelation he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder may have ameliorated this.

But one way or another, his departure from Parliament has almost cost the Liberals his seat, in a result that underlines the dissatisfaction with Barnett’s government that has taken root so quickly after its thumping election win last March.

Readers can access the statistical analysis from ABC election guru Antony Green here.

Barnett’s Liberals will be relieved to have held the seat; trailing in opinion polls for much of the year that show the Premier to be little more popular than former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at her nadir, there was a very real risk this seat would fall to the National Party’s Peter Gordon.

It is difficult to conclude the by-election confirms the apparent spike in Communist Greens support in WA, with their candidate taking 18% of the vote; whilst the Greens polled strongly at the repeated Senate poll and record similar figures in most published polling of late, the fact Labor did not contest Vasse is hardly conclusive when it comes to claims of the “rise” of the Greens in the West.

At the risk of being flippant, the idea of the Greens winning responsibility for a seat that contains my beloved Margaret River, its pristine surf beaches and splendid wineries, sends a shudder down my spine. At the minimum, this result shows they remain a long, long way short of such a breakthrough.

Yet in a contemporary atmosphere of conservative state governments being subjected to absolute shellackings at by-elections over the past couple of years, this result in Vasse continues the trend; and it serves as a warning to Barnett, who must find some way to restore his government’s appeal ahead of a state election that — unbelievably — is just two years away.

In other electoral news yesterday, a vacant Labor seat in the Northern Territory legislature was retained by the opposition Labor Party, albeit with a swing against Labor of more than 4%: perhaps an indication that the tide has turned, and that the troubled CLP government is faring a little better than generally thought.