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Mal Brough: Hero to zero

26 July 2008 921 views No Comment

IN the space of a month, former Howard government minister Mal Brough has gone from being touted as a possible conservative saviour in his home state of Queensland to being a potential conservative wrecker.

A little over a month ago, Brough stormed back into public life when he romped home in a ballot for the presidency of the Queensland Liberal Party. But that’s where his triumph ended. Brough had made a mark for himself as the straight-talking, military trained politician who led the politically popular intervention into the Northern Territory’s indigenous communities.

With the Queensland Liberal and National Parties on the cusp of merging, this was president Brough’s hour to prove he had a different skill set; as an organisational chief he now required attributes such as diplomacy, consultation and finessing. The job proved to be beyond him and his public failure has cast doubts on his future in politics. To put it simply, Brough has gone from hero to zero.

Make no mistake, the merger between the Queensland Liberal and National parties will take place at this Saturday’s special joint convention in Brisbane. And so it should, as under Queensland’s optional preferential voting system, a united conservative party is the only way that the state ALP under Anna Bligh can be defeated at the next state election.

In essence Brough badly mishandled the politics of the merger, when as newly elected Queensland Liberal President, he threatened to stand in the way of the merger unless he could be guaranteed the presidency of the new party, without even a ballot.

Brough made the critical mistake of emailing his letter of demand, or letter of obstruction, far and wide across Queensland and Australia, even directly to Brendan Nelson’s office. Foolishly, Brough left the “properties” on the email. This revealed that a key factional player in Queensland, who had been determinedly against the merger, was actively involved in the draft.

This person is Brisbane solicitor Ian Prentice, the one-term Queensland state MP who a quarter of a century ago embarrassingly lost his inner-city safe Liberal seat of Toowong to the Nationals.

The emailed letter, demanding rank-and-file members be denied a vote, was a strangely inept move by Brough, given that he had won the presidency of his party on the basis that he wanted to make sure that the constitution of the new and merged Liberal-National Party “valued its members more”.

It was also a strange move given that the rank and file membership of the Liberal Party in Queensland had already been sent ballot papers for a merger; had already voted with an astonishing 86 per cent in favour of a merger; and had done so in the full knowledge that the constitution for the new party would allow all delegates a joint vote at convention for the inaugural president of the united conservative party.

Brough’s last-minute obstruction didn’t only threaten the merger but it threatened to split the Queensland Liberal Party, with two-thirds of its state MPs indicating that, if necessary, they would walk and join Opposition and National Party Leader Lawrence Springborg, who has been the main force behind the merger.

The truth is that Queensland conservatives are overwhelmingly behind a single, united conservative party: 97 per cent of the Nationals membership voted to merge, along with 86 per cent of the Liberals.
This is why Liberal Party federal president Alan Stockdale was dispatched from Melbourne to try to unravel the Brough mess and ensure the merger went ahead.

Remarkably, when asked how he had voted in the Liberal Party’s ballot on the merger issue, incredibly Brough admitted: “I didn’t vote in the plebiscite at all.”,
Even more damningly, his own party’s state executive, many of whom had been hand picked by Brough, reportedly voted by a margin of 42 to five to ditch Brough’s demands and ensure that a special convention to merge the parties went ahead at the end of July.

When Brough took on the state Liberal presidency, the organisational work to achieve a political merger had been largely completed by state Nationals president Bruce McIver and Brough’s presidential predecessor in the Liberal Party, Gary Spence. All Brough needed to do was sit patiently for two months, materialise at a ceremony with gold-nib fountain pen in his hand, sign the formal merger agreement, beam a smile into the television cameras and be written into Queensland history as being a part of a great political reform.

But he has managed to utterly mess that up. All the polls indicate that in next year’s state election, a united Liberal-National party led by Springborg would be in with a fighting chance to knock off the 10-year Labor Government led by fledgling Premier Anna Bligh, who was bequeathed the job by Peter Beattie.
The federal Liberal Party rightly understands that its stocks in Canberra rest on rebuilding its organisation in the states. And while many may be jittery about a merger in Queensland, most understand the need to road test a model that may well work nationally.

However, what is growing increasingly obvious is that Brough’s role in any federal conservative renaissance is far less certain than it was a fortnight ago, before he self-destructed under the watchful gaze of the national media and, more importantly for Brough, his former federal colleagues who had been casting their eyes north of the border in his general direction.