Is it too early in the year for a leadership story?

In the wake of yesterday’s item on problems within Liberal National ranks, an anonymous source claimed that the LNP Shadow Cabinet meeting on 19 January had been given over to debate about Lawrence Springborg’s “small target” strategy, and that there were elements of the party who thought Jeff Seeney might make a better go of challenging Anna Bligh. Just in case, the source assured us, Labor had prepared an alternative strategy in the event Seeney gets up. Springborg, whose electoral record as leader stands at 0 out of 2, rolled Seeney for the leadership of the Nationals just over a year ago.

Mischief-making, perhaps. Swapping leaders at this stage would be an impressively suicidal move for the LNP, but stranger things have happened. Just ask Colin Barnett.

The LNP doesn’t need a leadership fight to make itself look silly. It’s managing that reasonably well without one. There are minor matters like its Hoon Watch stunt, where residents can print out a form, fill it in with details such as “length of time, length of skid and marks” and… take it to a police station (memo LNP: there are such things as phones these days). Its online list of candidates is also out of date. There was also Tuesday’s ill-advised trip by Springborg, accompanied by Malcolm Turnbull, to Fortitude Valley Centrelink, where Turnbull was heckled and a Centrelink client exposed himself — or, as press reports put it, a “p-nis was exposed” — to the presumably bemused politicians.

That sort of thing is bad luck, rather than bad management, but too many such moments of ridicule and leaders can start to take on an ineffable air of silliness, which is politically terminal, especially if, like Springborg, they like to get around in a bus with a giant picture of themselves on the side. Springborg yesterday was also reported to have struggled to answer on what exactly he would do about the financial crisis, which reinforces the policy-lite perception.

More seriously, Springborg’s office has a problem with Greg Roberts of The Australian and has blacklisted him. Roberts is a senior journalist who has consistently been the most acute reporter of the merging of the conservative forces in Queensland, (and his analysis of the NSW Government’s ethanol mandate is none too shabby either). A senior Springborg adviser, Jake Smith, called Roberts “a slimy little liar” several years ago following the disastrous 2004 election, and appears to have maintained the rage ever since.

Bad luck for Roberts, you might say, since Springborg won’t return his calls. In fact, it’s bad luck — bad management — by Springborg, who refuses to follow up any stories broken by Roberts. Roberts has produced a series of damaging stories about Anna Bligh’s tired and out of touch administration, which Springborg refuses to pursue (see today’s yarn on Bligh’s use of jets. The worst example was his unwillingness to follow up in Parliament allegations about Queensland Water Commission chair Elizabeth Nosworthy’s conflicts of interest.

There’s little politicians can do when the press declares war on them, fairly or unfairly. But declaring war on the press rarely works, and certainly not from Opposition, unless you’re so far ahead in the polls you can do what you like. That certainly doesn’t describe Springborg’s position currently. The Queensland ALP is nowhere near the dysfunctional state of their NSW colleagues, but the next Queensland election is taking on an air similar to that of the NSW election in 2007. And we know what followed from that.

Peter Fray

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