An extraordinary week in Queensland State Opposition politics has ended with Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman being catapulted to LNP leader despite not being in parliament. The current leader and his deputy, John-Paul Langbroek and Lawrence Springborg, resigned their positions today leaving Jeff Seeney as “leader of opposition business” in parliament. Newman prompted their resignations by declaring two hours earlier he would stand for the Brisbane seat of Ashgrove held by Labor Climate Change Minister Kate Jones. Newman said if successfully preselected for that seat, he would challenge Langbroek for the leadership. Seeing the writing on the wall, Langbroek fell on his sword. Newman’s elevation to leader-in-waiting as a non-MP is unprecedented in Australian politics. (photo: Tony Moore)
Premier Anna Bligh reacted to the news at a media conference by accusing Newman of abandoning the people of Brisbane and she also hinted at an early election. “What I see in Campbell Newman is a man who when his city faced its worst disaster, when families across our suburbs are in shells of homes, Campbell Newman decided to cut and run when people needed him most,” Bligh said. “What I say to the people of Queensland is that I will never cut and run when you need me.”
Bligh used the phrase “cut and run” five times in the interview setting the tone for a likely plan of attack during the election. With three year terms in Queensland, the next election is due by 2012. But with Council elections mandatory in March 2012, the likelihood was always that Bligh would go early to avoid any residual taint from the loathed forced council amalgamations of 2007. Tanking in the opinion polls in 2010, Bligh’s stocks rose with the rivers during the 2010-2011 Queensland flood and cyclone crisis when there was almost universal praise for her leadership, while Langbroek was perceived to be missing in action.
While recent polls showed Bligh’s approval rating more than doubled to 60 percent, they also showed the LNP would still comfortably win the election with a 55-45 lead in 2PP terms. Bligh was preferred premier, but despite the floods it was still looking like a proverbial “drover’s dog election”.
The only question would be who would get to be drover. The internal campaign against Langbroek had been brewing for some time and came to a head earlier this month when MPs complained the organisation had not yet endorsed a single sitting MP for the next election. LNP President Bruce McIver claimed this was merely procedural, but MPs were not convinced.
One MP told The Courier-Mail the relationship between Langbroek and McIver had deteriorated significantly. Yesterday, Langbroek was reported calling for the faceless men in the party to resign. “Faceless men” has long been a metaphor in Australian politics for those who count the numbers in backrooms, and in this case it was a clear reference to McIver.
Labor gleefully upped the ante on the weekend when Treasurer Andrew Fraser said McIver offered an illegal inducement. He asked the Crime and Misconduct Commission to look into suggestions LNP president Bruce McIver offered Bruce Flegg a top job in London if he quit his seat of Moggill so Newman could be parachuted into state politics. Fraser said it was an offence under section 87 of the Criminal Code to promise a public office holder a favour or benefit.
Fraser’s allegation remains to be tested, but it blew apart any hope of Newman taking a safe seat. Hence the announcement today about Ashgrove where Kate Jones won in 2009 with a margin of 7.1 percent on Green preferences. She won’t be easy to unseat. Queensland’s optional preferential voting makes preferences difficult to predict but Kate Jones as climate change minister can expect a good preference flow. According to Andrew Bartlett today, “the Greens will have a good candidate in Ashgrove who may well also be announced fairly soon”.
Bartlett admits it is to Newman’s credit he is not being parachuted into a safe seat. Newman will be relying on his own personal popularity to carry him over the line. It has been a while since Newman was Australia’s most senior Liberal (that honour was taken in turn by WA Premier Colin Barnett then Victoria’s Ted Baillieu and next week by NSW's Barry O’Farrell) but it was always in his blue blood that Brisbane would not be big enough for his ambitions.
His mother Jocelyn was a Tasmanian Senator and minister in the first two Howard Governments and his late father Kevin was a Tasmanian MP and a minister in the Fraser Government. Campbell followed Kevin into the army and then into politics.
He was elected Brisbane Mayor in 2004 and comfortably retained his position with a big win in 2008. His second win also helped cement a Liberal victory in the council elections.
In December 2010 he finished fifth in a competition to find the best mayor in the world behind Mexico City, Oklahoma City, Riace (Italy) and Surrey (Canada). Testimonials for Newman praised his vision, drive and passion. These will be qualities he will need in abundance if he is to steer the LNP to victory in the next election from outside the gates of parliament.