As this morning’s Australian reports, one of the disputed Liberal preselections in New South Wales is the Senate ticket, in which the Prime Minister, despite himself coming from the right, is trying to keep the left’s incumbent Marise Payne in the number three spot against a right-wing challenge.

But that at least makes sense in terms of party unity. Much more strange is Queensland, where Howard is continuing his efforts to promote the Nationals at the expense of his own party.

It doesn’t seem to have been covered in the southern states, but The Courier-Mail reported on Friday that he had held direct talks with “senior Queensland Nationals” in the effort to secure a joint Senate ticket.

This is a long-running saga; two months ago, Howard was quoted saying “Although it’s got its difficulties, I’m still working on it and I’m still hopeful”. Now he has apparently upped the ante, offering to refrain from contesting three lower house seats in return for the Nationals accepting the number three position on a joint ticket.

The odd thing about this is that the Nationals are being offered one benefit – a clear run at the new seat of Flynn (the other two seats, Capricornia and Kennedy, are safe for their incumbents) — in return for accepting another benefit, namely a guaranteed Senate spot. The Liberal Party has nothing to gain from either.

The Courier-Mail reports that “some in the Nationals believe” the third Senate seat is “potentially unwinnable”, but that’s hard to credit. For the Coalition to not win three seats would require a swing of 14% to the ALP, or a big increase in the Hanson/One Nation vote, or Hanson/One Nation preferences being directed to Labor. Not likely.

It’s much more probable that the Nationals’ Ron Boswell would miss out if they run a separate ticket; if the Nationals’ vote fails to improve, the Liberals could win all three seats. Howard, a doctrinaire Coalitionist, is actually fighting against his own party’s interests.

So why have the Nationals turned down the offer? My guess is that they know the joint ticket won’t happen anyway (because the Queensland Liberals, understandably, are solidly against it), so they’re stringing out the negotiations as long as possible to try to disrupt the Liberal campaign.

As Kevin Rudd might put it, they’re playing with the Prime Minister’s mind.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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