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I was wrong on LNP

24 March 2009 1,003 views No Comment

IN recent years I have supported Lawrence Springborg as the best person to lead the newly merged conservatives to victory in the Queensland state election. Last Saturday, I was proved wrong. The Liberal National Party hasn’t been able to connect with voters in southeast Queensland, which is absolutely necessary if the ALP is to be defeated in the state.

Springborg, a farmer from the Darling Downs, was unable to persuade voters in Brisbane and metropolitan seats that the LNP was not essentially the Nationals under a slightly different name.

This is particularly important, as many Liberal-leaning voters, especially in southeast Queensland, remember the assault mounted on liberal values and the state Liberal Party by Joh Bjelke-Petersen. As a result, many metropolitan voters still harbour great resentment against the Nationals, and therefore against the LNP.

The extent to which the LNP’s defeat was due to Springborg’s leadership and what role the nature of the merged party played in it are critical issues that the conservatives need to ponder. Certainly, Malcolm Turnbull and those federal Liberals who before this state election result might have supported a similar merger on a national scale will have to think again.

The big problem for conservatives in Queensland is the optional preferential system of voting. This means that about all Labor has to do to defeat two separate conservative parties is to run a “just vote 1” campaign, as Peter Beattie successfully did before the birth of the LNP.

In the future, the party will need as its leader an urbane and urban-based person who can appeal to Brisbane and other metropolitan voters. At the same time, the party will need to attract or retain the 20 to 25 per cent of voters alienated from the main political parties who in the past voted for One Nation.

Who this leader might be is far from clear, given the lack of talent among conservative MPs in the state. One ray of hope for state conservatives is former ABC and The Australian journalist Scott Emerson, the new member for the Brisbane seat of Indooroopilly. Emerson will appeal to a wide range of voters in southeast Queensland, but he needs to serve at least two terms before he could be considered a viable candidate for any leadership position.

The Queensland election victory is a great result not just for Anna Bligh but for Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan. Focusing on jobs and the economy was clearly a strong vote-winning strategy for the incumbents. Plaudits should also go to Bligh’s canny chief of staff Mike Kaiser, who previously guided Morris Iemma to victory in a NSW election that was considered all but unwinnable for the ALP. Kaiser is one of the great Svengalis of Australian politics. To complement Bligh’s promise of 100,000 new jobs, he orchestrated a powerful negative advertising campaign, just as he did in NSW against Liberal Party leader Peter Debnam. The Queensland ad campaign effectively undermined public confidence in Springborg as a reliable economic manager, especially in such tough economic times.

Despite pollster predictions of a cliffhanger, the reality is that Labor should have won easily. When Beattie retired as premier, Labor’s primary vote stood at 50 per cent. Moreover, Beattie had refused to increase the number of seats in the unicameral parliament, and the resultant redistribution favoured Labor. Thus, Bligh went into this election campaign with effectively 63 of the 89 seats, a very strong political position only 17 months before an election.

Bligh also inherited Australia’s most significant long-term infrastructure plan from Beattie and his capable director-general Ross Rolfe, who retired as head of the Premier’s Department only weeks before Beattie in 2007. The plan dealt with Queensland’s enormous growing pains and interstate migration, which were putting huge pressure on the state’s infrastructure. By the time Bligh took over as Premier, considerable work had started. To make things easier for Bligh politically, Beattie, who had dominated the Queensland political landscape for a decade, did not stay on in parliament after retiring as premier.

However, nothing can detract from hard-hatted Bligh’s formidable performance in the campaign. No one can doubt her courage in the face of adversity. As Swan said on Saturday night, she proved herself as “tough as teak”, She, Kaiser, Rudd and Swan must be extremely pleased at the unenviable situation conservative forces now face in Queensland. A rock and a hard place, to be sure.

If conservatives stick with the LNP, they face enormous problems, as former Nats dominate the party but don’t understand or appeal to metropolitan voters. If they return to two separate conservative parties, it is essential that they don’t run against each other in any seat, otherwise Labor will win the seat and the state.

Published in The Australian March 24, 2009