I’m not certain if anyone held up a sign with the inscription “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” before Brendan Nelson signalled he would intervene in the Queensland Libs’ leadership farce, but he’ll quickly discover what it feels like to be in purgatory, if not hell.

For those who haven’t been following the Sunshine State shenanigans, the long delayed coup against state leader Dr Bruce Flegg was attempted in short order after the dust cleared from the federal massacre. And then it was attempted again. And again. And again.

It’s probably unnecessary to retell this tale of woe in all its intricacies lest this story reach Dante-esque proportions. Suffice it to say that the Liberal parliamentary party is deadlocked four MPs to four MPs on whether Clayfield MP Tim Nicholls should sip from the poisoned leadership chalice. Two of Flegg’s supporters aren’t necessarily even his supporters, but are backing him to thwart the forces of the Santo Santoro/Michael Catalbiano faction at all costs.

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Over the last week, there’ve been threats of legal action from Flegg, a clumsy attempt by state president Warwick Parer to change the party rules to allow him a casting vote, admissions from Flegg that he never should have been leader at all, and leaked revelations that he tried to stand down in the middle of last year’s election. And that’s just the start.

On Friday, Flegg was promising to lock all the eight MPs in their party room in Parliament House as if they were in a Papal conclave. But it’s questionable whether anyone would be outside watching for a puff of smoke indicating that the Libs had a leader. The Courier Mail has been treating this game as the high farce that it is, running an online poll which found an overwhelming majority of readers would prefer Mickey Mouse as Liberal leader to any of the MPs on offer.

Although there are supposedly ideological differences between the moderate Flegg and the right wing “Sicilian faction”, as the remnants of the once dominant “Western suburbs group” call the mob supporting Nicholls, what Queenslanders are bemusedly watching has nothing much to do with political ideals and everything to do with a culture of payback and squabbling over the tiny spoils of permanent opposition which has now become truly pathological.

Once upon a time, the Libs offered Brisbane voters a reasonable alternative to the country-based Nats, but over the last few years, they’ve helped Labor turn Brisbane into one big red patch on the electoral map with their incessant faction fighting. John Howard was inclined to turn a blind eye to this mess, because he comforted himself with the fact that the federal Libs were performing well. But now, with Labor holding at least half of the Queensland seats, and Brisbane becoming a red city federally as well as in the state House, it badly needs sorting.

It may be that the good Doctor Nelson’s incipient media tart habits led him to promise to dive into this quagmire. But in doing so, he’s set himself a significant yardstick by which to judge the strength of his leadership. If he can’t sort out the medieval affray being fought out by his Queensland troops, he may end up in the same plight as his brother medico in Brisbane – relevant only for comedy value.

It’ll be interesting to watch what the doctor prescribes for this seemingly terminal patient.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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