The extent of the cooperation between collaborationist forces within the Queensland Liberal Party and the Nationals taking it over has been neatly exposed by Greg Roberts in The Australian today. According to both a senior National and Mal Brough, Brough’s proposal that Shane Stone come in as a compromise president for the new Liberal National Party was rejected by the Nationals because Stone was unacceptable to Liberal factional chief Santo Santoro.

For those who came in late, Santoro, who found a way to breach even John Howard’s minimalist ministerial code of ethics and had to resign in disgrace last year, heads the conservative faction within the near-dysfunctional State Liberal party. As a powerbroker, Santoro has had a less-than-successful time of it following his fall last year.

First, progressive Queensland businesswoman Sue Boyce took his Senate vacancy. And at the end of May, Mal Brough defeated Santoro nominee Gary Spence for the party presidency. Some Liberals wondered whether Santoro’s reputation as a factional heavy hitter might have been overblown.

But the merger with the Nationals offers a path back to power for Santoro. For a start, he’s more ideologically aligned with the country cousins than with many moderate Liberals, although ideology is probably the least of the issues at play here.

And while the merger will be a Nationals takeover because of the relative numbers of members and the regional gerrymander the Nationals have insisted on in the draft Constitution, the new party’s organisation offers Santoro and his allies the opportunity to seize back organisational control from their moderate enemies.

Thus Gary Spence’s nomination for the presidency of the new party — which may now be supported by the Nationals. With Lawrence Springborg as Parliamentary leader and a preponderance of the party membership, the Nationals occupation forces may be relaxed about having a collaborationist to provide the pretence that the merger is something less than a conquest. After all, it worked for the Germans in France.

Santoro didn’t lose out totally back at the state conference in May, however. He was awarded honorary life membership of the party. According to party sources, Spence, who replaced Warwick Parer as party president when the latter resigned in March while Brough was overseas, nominated his ally and pushed through the award at the conference, eliciting boos and walkouts.

As honorary life member of the Liberal Party, Santoro will become the same for the new party — and under the draft constitution, that opens up a number of roles. It means he will automatically be a member of the State Council of the new party (and therefore a State convention delegate) and automatically a member of the Disputes Committee that would hear preselection and membership disputes, as well as entitled to be on the Candidate Review Committee that will vet nominations for preselections. His position of influence within the new party is already assured.

It’s still the formal Liberal position that a failure to resolve the presidency issue means the weekend’s merger frolic will be delayed. Nationals say that they’ll just charge ahead with a new party anyway and take several Queensland State Liberal MPs — commonly said to be 4 — with them.

It’s not clear what they’ll call it in the absence of Liberal cooperation, given the merged party is supposed to be called the “Liberal National Party”. But there’s also likely to be a reaction if the merger does proceed, from Liberal moderates deeply opposed to it. Their reaction might surprise everyone.

Peter Fray

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