Tuesday, October 26, 2010

LNP's balancing act as they head to drover's dog election win

The Liberal National Party held a shadow cabinet meeting in Roma last week where they re-committed their support to the Surat Basin resource region at the centre of the $30b mining approvals given by Environment Minister Tony Burke last week. The fact the Queensland Liberal National Party is in favour of the massive coal seam gas developments might usually be assumed at a matter of course. The party has been pro-development in most of its guises through the years.

But the ruling Bligh Government is also in favour, desperate for what they will earn in royalties from the deals. The Opposition has been forced to play the green card in order to make a point of differentiation. They are adding their voice to concerns about the groundwater released during the gas extraction and possible damage to the water table. But the position hides tensions: the Nationals half are comfortable digging in for the farmers who grumble about wells on their properties while the more Liberal end of town wants to see the deals with China sealed as soon as possible.

There is a good reason for this haste; they want to be in power when the money arrives. Bligh’s trickery and the loss of Prime Ministerial power has left Labor on the nose in Queensland. The LNP won 21 out of 30 Queensland seats in the 2010 Federal election. Queensland too will go to the polls in either late 2011 or early 2012. If all recent polls are to be believed, the LNP will win in some comfort. The party will need to adjust to the mindset of government over the next 18 months as it lords over the Queensland political scene and grapples with what kind of administration it wants to be.

The LNP is a hybrid party formed in mid-2008 after a long and difficult birth. Uniquely the Nationals were always the bigger entity in Queensland and their members were enthusiastically in favour of merger. After four straight defeats to Labor, they were anxious to regain power by any means. But the Queensland Liberals were much more divided with the right faction in favour but the moderates opposed. John Howard categorically rejected the idea of a stand-alone Queensland amalgamation in 2005. In 2006 Senator Barnaby Joyce pronounced the last rights on it in 2006 saying because it looked and smelled like a dead duck, it probably was one.

But two events in 2007 conspired to put the dead duck back on the agenda. When the Liberals did not contest Brisbane Central after Peter Beattie resigned, it angered the Nationals and even Liberal's own Deputy Leader Mark McArdle who publicly admitted they had failed the people of the electorate. Then in November, the Federal Coalition lost the election and Howard lost his seat. The biggest obstacle to merger was gone. When Lawrence Springborg replaced Jeff Seeney as Nats leader in January 2008, he pressed forward the amalgamation agenda over the head of opposing Liberals.

They outmanoeuvred their opponents in several key ways. Firstly they got the Federal MPs onside by guaranteeing them pre-selection for the next election. Secondly the two party presidents (who were both in favour of merger) conducted polls of branch members which found an overwhelming majority in favour of merging. Thirdly the new party would become the Queensland division of the Liberal Party and an affiliation with the federal Nationals.

Nats President Bruce McIver set a timetable for amalgamation calling a constitutional convention for 26 July 2008 to make a decision. Pro-merger Libs agreed to meet on the same day. Two days before the appointed date, Lib state council narrowly voted to postpone, but the pro-merger faction went to the courts and secured a Supreme Court judgement to ensure it went ahead. At both conventions on 26 June, the merger was approved. McIver was elected president and former Libs state president Gary Spence became deputy. Springborg was anointed leader of the combined entity with McArdle his deputy. It wasn’t until eight months later the Federal Council of the Liberal Party ratified the new LNPQ as its Queensland Division.

Electoral desperation had driven the two parties together but it did not pay immediate dividends. Anna Bligh clung to power in the 2009 state election despite losing eight seats. Springborg resigned after his third defeat and handed over the reins to former dentist John-Paul Langbroek. Langbroek is an ex-Liberal and his succession wasn’t an easy one, winning possibly by as little as one vote.

Almost 18 months later, the rumblings in the cabinet room continue with Infrastructure and Planning spokesman David Gibson resigning from the frontbench after Langbroek called for a ministerial reshuffle without first consulting colleagues. Tim Nicholls, who Langbroek defeated for the top job, is not ruling out a challenge.

But Nicholls is just noise. Only one of two people can become Premier in the next Queensland election and Nicholls is not one of them. Given Labor’s latest catastrophic polling in Brisbane, neither is Anna Bligh nor anyone in the party that might overthrow her.

In what is shaping up to be a drover's dog election, the next Premier of Queensland will be either JP Langbroek or Lawrence Springborg. The “Borg”, as he likes to be known, remains extremely powerful as deputy and the unofficial head of the Nationals wing of the party. But three defeats have shown he is not trusted in the metropolitan areas. It is up to the more likeable Langbroek to step up in the next 18 months to show he is Premier material.

I saw signs of it when he made a major speech here in Roma last weekend when the Shadow Cabinet met in town. Springborg was notably absent, but the rest of Langbroek's cabinet had the steely determination of a party about to seize government and were looking seriously at the problems that will bring. Langbroek's style is consensual but philosophical differences means the marriage of the Nats and Libs remains fragile. Langbroek will be looking for the smell of victory to keep them away from the divorce courts in the shorter term.

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