There’s plenty of post-election analysis in the press today, but it all amounts to one thing, more or less: the moderate Queensland Liberals, who opposed the creation of the LNP or wanted a genuine merger, were right all along.
A 3.5% swing is, in the end, a poor justification for the Nationals’ takeover of the Queensland Liberal Party. The complete subordination of the Liberals to the National Party machine — right down to Young Nats dumping Liberal Party property from their HQ at a rubbish tip — aided and abetted by the craven acquiescence of Federal Liberal President Alan Stockdale, was supposed to be the price of victory over the hated ALP machine. Even with the Bligh Government weak, hopelessly factionalised and rushing to an early election, the Nationals barely made inroads in suburban and metropolitan Queensland.
The problem, of course, was exactly that it was a takeover, and not a merger. Moderate Liberal members bailed out, or refused to work on the ground for the party. And voters weren’t fooled — certainly not by the name, as if calling the party “LNP” would hide the fact that it was a Nats operation. Brisbane remains terra incognita for the boys from the bush.
If the Nats hadn’t set out with malice aforethought to eliminate all trace of the Queensland Liberal Party from the new entity, including by driving out the highest-profile Liberal, Mal Brough, they might have had a serious chance. Indeed, a Mal Brough-led party might now be celebrating a remarkable victory, led by a man acceptable to Brisbane and Gold Coast voters and transplanted southerners.
One commentator today opined that if Mal Brough had wanted to lead the party, he should have been a candidate in the election. Apparently forgotten is that the Nationals humiliated and savaged Brough during the merger. “Where’s Mal? Where’s Mal?” gloated Springborg after the vote to unite the parties last year. It wasn’t just because of Brough’s opposition to the merger, it was because the Nats and Liberal right-wingers knew he had the leadership substance to take the fight to Labor — substance a two-time loser like the Borg could only dream about.
The merger was as much about obtaining power and settling scores within the conservative side of Queensland politics as it was about beating Labor. The Nats wanted to blot out the Liberals; the Santoro group within the Liberals collaborated with them to blot out the moderates.
Too late now. A de-merger would make the conservatives a laughing stock. One LNP member put it perfectly to Crikey:
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I hate to say it … BUT … splitting back to a nominal Lib and Nat divide, will just make us less attractive and look incredibly self absorbed. I believe we almost got there, on pure “it’s time” factors … the difference was credible, and saleable leadership.
So the merger must be made to work, which means — however improbably — the Nats ceding power to the Liberals, and finding a leader who can go to Brisbane and not look like he’s a visiting hayseed. The favourite, Tim Nicholls, is a Santoro-aligned Liberal that moderates dislike, but thereafter the talent pool gets shallow very quickly. Moreover, in the time-honoured Queensland fashion, there’ll doubtless be at least one, if not more, changes of leadership on the conservative side between now and 2012.
The problem is, more than a few Liberals, still angry over the way the merger was handled, will want to pull the pin anyway.
There will thus be continuing instability in the LNP, at a time when it should be preparing to help the Federal Liberal and National parties attack the nine marginal seats grabbed by Labor in November 2007. The Federal Opposition under both Nelson and Turnbull has frequently given the impression of being more interested in navel-gazing and internal conflict than taking the role of Opposition seriously, and LNP instability will only exacerbate that impression, sucking oxygen out of the Coalition’s efforts to attack the Government. Nor will Coalition tensions help, when the likes of Barnaby Joyce and Ron Boswell start voting differently in the Senate from their supposed party colleagues in Liberal ranks.
This has already commenced this morning with Mitch Fifield — from Victoria — arguing for a reverse takeover of the LNP by the Liberals. In words that will send Queensland Nats into a fury, he said:
I think it’s too later to unscramble the LNP. What needs to happen now is that the LNP needs to complete its transition to becoming the Queensland division of the Liberal Party of Australia … They need to call themselves the Liberals. We’ve got to have an end to the situation where the LNP is just seen as the National Party with the word Liberal in front of it…
The problem is the electorate saw the LNP as the National Party with a slightly different name. We’ve got to move beyond that situation. The LNP has to become fully both in function and in name, the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party brand in Queensland.
Fifield — a spear-carrier for Peter Costello — might have other agendas to prosecute in making such inflammatory remarks. But there’ll be plenty who agree with him. It’s a mess Malcolm Turnbull will be heartily sick of by the next election.