The official Liberal line about the merger you have when you’re not having a merger was that it was necessary to delay even the establishment of an “eminent persons group” until after the Brisbane and Gold Coast elections on Saturday. Eminent persons, along with all other Liberals, were presumably too busy campaigning for Campbell Newman.

It’s now becoming clear just what sort of a furphy this postponement was.

The colour of the cat that’s been let out of this particular bag is easily discernible from the pronouncements frontbencher George Brandis has been making about the Borg’s dream of a “United Conservative Party”. Brandis isn’t alone, of course, in putting a favourable spin on Campbell Newman’s landslide win in Brisbane, but he is just about alone in trying to spin the Libs’ awful performance in their first local government outing on the Gold Coast.

Members of the existing dis-united Liberal Party have reacted predictably to the Gold Coast disaster. Fingers are being pointed at the unpopular State Director, Geoff Greene, and the none too subtle point that Campbell Newman ran his own campaign has been pointedly made. Questions are being asked about the resources plunged into “Team Tate”, and local Liberals kicked out of the party for running against endorsed candidates haven’t been shy in making their feelings clear.

Airing the party’s dirty laundry in the wash-up of the Gold Coast defeat is predictable. Less predictable is Brandis’ desire to spin a message that might have made sense had the Libs done well. One of the key points of contention between the State Libs and the Nats has been over seats on the tourist strip. Once a Nationals bailiwick, demographic change has seen both Labor and the Libs successfully encroach on their traditional territory over successive state elections since the early 90s.

A good Liberal performance in the local elections – where party labels have previously been absent from the ballot – would have reinforced the argument that the Gold Coast was a blue bit of the state, and that the Liberal brand had superior selling power in urban Queensland.

Of course, it hasn’t quite turned out like that.

But Brandis’ performance really does show that the road to a United Conservative Party in Queensland is probably a dead end, as far as many Liberals are concerned. John Howard, in some ways rightly, copped a lot of criticism for failing to intervene in the tortured and byzantine internal politics of the Sunshine State Liberals. There is no doubt that something needs to be done to put the party back on its feet.

It may well be that, despite his own ambivalence about the Liberal brand, Campbell Newman proved a point about the electability of a basically centrist Liberal administration. Voters might agree in theory that a single conservative party is a good thing, but results and policy matter a lot more.

That might be a lesson Brendan Nelson might profitably ponder when he sits down to chat to Queensland’s eminent persons over cornflakes. That, and the fact that it’s unwise to stake your leadership on an amalgamation so publicly condemned by one of your own prominent frontbenchers.

Peter Fray

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