The Liberal-National merger is being portrayed by Lawrence Springborg as unstoppable, and much of the media has bought into that, especially after the carefully-managed announcement last weekend by Queensland Liberal president Gary Spence and his Nats counterpart Bruce McIver, that a draft merger proposal had been agreed. Brendan Nelson’s indication that Federal Liberal support was no longer contingent on a Federal merger will reinforce this.

But Queensland federal Liberals say the merger remains in serious danger of being knocked backed by the Queensland Liberal party membership, which is to consider the Spence proposal next month. The Queensland membership has been portrayed by pro-merger forces as overwhelmingly supportive of shacking up with the Nats, but that’s pure spin.

One Federal Liberal says the membership vote will be close, and could go either way.

“It’ll split 60-40, but which way I don’t know.”

The basic proposal for the new Liberal National party is said to propose a 100-strong council elected by divisions across the state, led by a 10-person board. Current MPs would be “grandfathered” and retain preselection. The party would be a division of the federal Liberal Party. Becoming a division of the Liberals will requires federal Liberal approval, and the proposal will therefore be carefully assessed by federal Liberal lawyers. The proposal could yet fall over on financial and legal grounds, but you’d have to assume these would be overcome if both sides want it.

Springborg claims the new party would be a “moderate, middle of the road political party” but moderate Queensland Liberals like Senator Sue Boyce are deeply concerned that the new party will be significantly more conservative than the Liberal Party.

They’re dead right. The proposal is a National takeover. The Nats membership base in Queensland is 10,000 strong compared to the Liberals’ 4000-odd. Moreover, the proposal calls for the Nationals’ regional constituency to be “fully enfranchised” in the new structure, which sounds like code for that great National party tradition of a gerrymander.

The merger is also being heavily backed by mining billionaire Clive Palmer, a former Nationals state director, who has supported the merger financially. Palmer is close to Queensland Federal Liberal Michael Johnson, and has funded some of Johnson’s extensive overseas travel. Last week, Johnson hosted a debate between Springborg and merger opponent George Brandis.

Springborg may present as urbane and affable, but the reactionaries, rorters and rent-seekers who comprise the heart and soul of the National Party will be in charge.

The mystery is why, when people in the south-east corner of Queensland refuse point-blank to vote for the Nationals now, any Liberal thinks they’ll vote for “Liberal Nationals”, led by a Nat and controlled by the Nationals membership.

“It’s because they’re desperate to win,” said one Liberal.

“They’ll do anything.”

While the numbers are different, a federal merger would represent a similar shift to the right for the new conservative force. This is why many Liberal conservatives are gung-ho for a merger but moderates like Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne are opposed. The progressive strain within the Liberal Party has been repressed since the ascension of John Howard and the party dries in the 1980s.

Howard’s departure represents the best opportunity in a generation for the Liberal Party to return to its more progressive tradition.

A merger with the Nats will kill that off yet again.

Peter Fray

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