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LNP gives Bligh cause for worry

4 September 2008 852 views No Comment

AT the same time as Kevin Rudd’s popularity with electors remains solid, Labor is starting to hit glitches at a state level; a near-death experience in the Northern Territory and knife-edge polls in Western Australia show political incumbency is no longer an unambiguous advantage.

In the Sunshine State, Queenslanders are almost exactly one year away from a scheduled state poll. But already Labor insiders are working through the pros and cons of calling an early election.

Party pollsters following the Northern Territory and West Australian campaigns reveal that voters weren’t annoyed only by the early elections but by the flimsy pretexts on which they were called. What Labor operatives saw as a crafty strategy to catch the Opposition unawares seems to have rebounded on the incumbents.

Hence the political dilemma in which Queensland Premier Anna Bligh finds herself. Last week, the newly merged Liberal-National Party’s daily exposure of the state’s failing health system in parliament made front-page news in the state and led all television and radio bulletins. After the departure of Peter Beattie, Bligh – who had been bequeathed a 14-seat majority – was doing well until, early this year, Lawrence Springborg returned as Opposition Leader.

Knowing that Springborg’s attempts to merge the warring state Liberal and Nationals had failed twice before, Bligh took every opportunity to claim that a merger would be a test of Springborg’s leadership. The problem for Bligh is that Springborg pulled off what many had thought was politically impossible. As yet, the united conservative party may not have delivered a single road or hospital bed, but it has confirmed Springborg as a tenacious leader. Suddenly, the next state election looms as a winnable contest.

Labor in Queensland has been used to dealing with two bitterly divided conservative parties; it would not have wanted to confront 40-year-old Springborg leading the LNP.

The truth is that I was one of very few political commentators to predict that the Liberal/National Party merger would occur. Now the very same naysayers are claiming that disaffected Queensland Liberals will form a different party to rival the NLP. The reality is that, despite some bluster, even these recalcitrant Liberals have asked the party’s federal president, Alan Stockdale, to defer debate about whether or not to register the LNP federally until after the next Queensland state election. To do otherwise would be political suicide.

Last week, it became Labor’s turn to look divided. When the beleaguered Minister for Police, Judy Spence, was asked how embarrassing overseas travel plans reached the media, she admitted the letter was leaked from the Premier’s Department.

If Bligh calls an early election to head off the resurgent conservatives, she knows she faces a barrage of voter cynicism and anger, especially as she has publicly supported fixed four-year parliamentary terms in a state that presently has three-year non-fixed terms.

The crucial reality is that to oust Labor, the LNP has to win back those previously Liberal-held seats in Brisbane and the outer suburbs.
Springborg, who left school at 14, and who at 21 was the youngest person to be elected to state Parliament, is a capable performer. But he needs to be taught how to use the media, especially television, more effectively, to appeal to Brisbane metropolitan voters and also to electors in the provincial cities.

In this, Springborg could learn from two leading Queensland premiers – the ALP’s E.G. (Red Ted) Theodore, who left school at 12 to work as a labourer, and Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who left school at 13 to toil full-time on the family farm.

The year after he was elected to state Parliament in 1909, aged 24, Theodore took elocution lessons from a Brisbane actor, Harry Borradale. For 18 months he studied pitch, grammar and syntax, which he leavened with his natural theatricality. In state and later federal parliament, Theodore delivered his increasingly effective speeches in a carefully prepared fashion, marking stress points in red pencil on his speech notes to aid his modulation.

In late October 1970, having nearly lost the leadership of the Country Party, Bjelke-Petersen realised that if he were to remain premier, he needed to improve his image and consolidate his electoral appeal. From 1971 to 1979, he was coached by his astute press secretary Allen Callaghan to use the media to his advantage.

This included how to avoid answering tricky questions and how to effectively feed the (media) chooks.
It was Callaghan who transformed Bjelke-Petersen into a premier who could out-talk almost any journalist.
As a legacy of previous disunity and a lack of focus, conservatives now hold only two out of 35 Brisbane and metropolitan seats.

Yet a combination of effective policy and media appeal could turn things around quite quickly. Years of state government neglect of crucial infrastructure such as water, roads and public transport have left many Brisbanites disillusioned.

If Springborg can effectively sell a credible solution for mass transport options, including solving the city’s road congestion, the LNP’s fortunes could rapidly improve with urban and suburban voters.

It appears that a significant proportion of Queensland voters are tiring after 10 years of state Labor Government promises, and many electors prefer different political parties to be in charge of state and federal parliaments. What last year seemed impossible – a non-Labor Queensland government – may come to pass next year under a revamped Lawrence Springborg.