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United they’ll stand

28 May 2008 834 views No Comment

REFORMIST and modernising are not words usually associated with the Queensland Nationals, an organisation often still associated with the excesses of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era, writes Ross Fitzgerald.

Yet in guiding the push to merge the state Nationals and the Liberal Party, Queensland Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg is proving to be a reformer and moderniser of non-Labor politics at a state and, possibly, a national level.

Unlike the rest of Australia, in Queensland the Nationals remain the dominant partner in the Coalition by a ratio of two to one, with the Liberals holding a mere eight seats in Queensland’s 89-member one-house parliament.

Yet against all the evidence, some Queensland Liberals claim they can gain more state seats than the Nationals.

This is nonsense. Since Federation, the Queensland Liberals have never come close to ousting the Country-National Party. Indeed, Springborg enjoys more support in metropolitan areas than any state Liberal member.

Once, Bjelke-Petersen Nationals reigned supreme in Queensland, sometimes in Coalition and sometimes not. Labor was confined to perpetual Opposition, its leaders fighting long-standing internal battles.

The notorious Queensland zonal electoral system helped keep Labor at bay, but internal dysfunction was the root cause of its ceaseless electoral defeats.

Then, in 1981, Peter Beattie, an ambitious union upstart, became state secretary of the ALP. As a result of federal intervention, entrenched factional warfare was gutted, the organisation reformed and Beattie is credited with making the Queensland Labor Party electable.

Today the shoe is on the other foot. Labor has governed Queensland for all but two of the past 19 years, with the Nationals and Liberals trapped in perpetual Opposition, fighting outdated battles with each other instead of concentrating on a common foe.

Where once a voting system heavily weighted in favour of country and far western electorates entrenched the Bjelke-Petersen government, now optional preferential voting allows Labor to win 66 per cent of the seats on the back of 47 per cent of the vote.

Despite previous setbacks, Springborg has tenaciously pursued his aim to merge the non-Labor parties into a single conservative force. If successful, this would end the cold war between the Nationals and Liberals, resolve seat disputes and policy differences, and prepare the groundwork to attract better quality candidates.

John Howard and Mark Vaile torpedoed Springborg’s last merger attempt. But now the conservatives are in Opposition federally and looking to the states to rebuild their tarnished electoral stocks.

Federal backing for a Queensland merger publicly materialised a fortnight ago when Brendan Nelson and Liberal president Alan Stockdale said they had no objection to a merger in Queensland, confirming they had been involved in or kept abreast of every development. Then on Monday the federal Liberal Party and Nationals presidents revealed they had given their approval to the road map for unity that has resulted from months of negotiations between the state presidents, Gary Spence and Bruce McIver.

A refreshing change followed for Queensland Liberals, whose party has been seen, justifiably, as factional and undemocratic. Rank-and-file members will be posted ballot papers this week so they can vote on the merger.

One would think that by now the need for a single conservative party in Queensland would be a no-brainer.

Yet there is still opposition within the Coalition’s ranks. Senators from both parties, who owe their positions to factional allegiances, are uneasy or openly antagonistic about any structural change that threatens their endorsement or placement on a Senate ticket.

More important, there is the spectre of a new state president of the Liberal Party who may not be totally supportive of a united conservative party. Defeated former Howard government minister Mal Brough has openly declared he wants the Queensland presidency, a move that may be more about relaunching his political career than a plan to resurrect conservative politics in the Sunshine State.

Liberals elect their state president this weekend. Brough at first proclaimed indifference to a merger but belatedly professed support. As the Queensland Liberals gather for their annual convention they should embrace the words of party founder Robert Menzies, who wrote: “We were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary.

This coming weekend is critical for the Queensland Liberals. The only hope of defeating Labor in Queensland is for them to merge into a new, progressive, middle-ground party. This would provide electoral momentum for conservative forces. But if the Liberals and the Nationals continue to bicker, there is no chance of defeating the ALP in Queensland for decades.