As the newly resurrected Nationals leader meanders around Queensland having a conversation with the voters (he can’t call it a listening tour because Peter Beattie got there first), Lawrence Springborg might well be thinking that he might have done better to stay in Brisbane and listen to what his Coalition partners were telling him about his dream of a “United Conservative Party”.
Effectively, Springborg’s new party was buried the day after he returned to the leadership when four Liberal Senators, led by frontbencher George Brandis SC, gave it the public kiss of death. The promise Liberal parliamentary leader Mark McCardle gave him of an “eminent persons group” meant very little, so little that McCardle joined every other delegate at last weekend’s State Council in voting to put negotiations on hold – ostensibly to allow the party to fight the Brisbane and Gold Coast local government elections (due on March 15) without distractions.
The Nats shouldn’t have to think too hard to conclude that the implication of this is that the Libs believe that the new party is electorally unappealling. And they shouldn’t think either that the idea will get a run later on. Delay is equivalent to rejection.
The Nats’ trump card is supposed to be the prospect that they will go ahead on their own with a new party and appeal to “like-minded conservatives” to join. If this is just a longwinded way of rebranding their party, no-one will care very much. If, as member for Mirani, Ted Malone, mused last year, it’s a way to draw One Nation and its splinter groups into the mainstream fold, they can kiss any hopes of election victory goodbye. If it’s a mechanism to draw a number of marginal Liberal MPs, frustrated by their prospects in their own deeply factionalised party, into the Nationals fold, it certainly won’t promote unity.
Springborg’s other argument for urgency is the prospect that Anna Bligh will call an early election to capitalise on the feuding on the conservative side of politics. She won’t. A redistribution is overdue, and the Queensland Electoral Commission has put it on the back burner until the local government elections can be held – the first under the new boundaries Beattie pushed through last year (which the astute political junkie might recall were supposed, according to John Howard, to spell political doom for Kevin Rudd). There’s nothing like a redistribution to start the Nats and the Libs brawling over seats, and if the conservative political cycle is stuck in an eternal return as it appears to be, probably failing to agree and running candidates against each other. Bligh also needs time to bed down her own popularity, distinguish herself from Beattie and get infrastructure in decent shape.
There’s one very big lesson in all this mess for the state and federal conservative oppositions. The lack of coverage for Springborg’s “conversation with Queensland” reflects the fact that he has very little to actually say beyond the united conservative party notion. Far from longing for such a prospect, voters are either disinterested in or turned off by an inward looking focus – as Simon Crean who wasted his leadership on party reform might recall. Whatever direction salvation lies in for both state and federal Tories, it sure isn’t in amalgamations and reviews. Word to the wise – policies might help.