It’s Sunday morning outside the Brisbane Convention Centre and there is an unbearably tense stand-off between a sea of Young Liberals and a man dressed as a platypus. Healthy-looking, chino-wearing youth have lined the entrance’s stairway dressed in blue LNP supporter shirts, chanting and carrying black and white placards with slogans such as: 20 Years of Labor; Labor Scandals; Labor Lies. The platypus and its handful of Wilderness Society colleagues shake their own signs, protesting Campbell Newman’s pledge to allow mining in currently protected wild rivers areas, if elected to office. By sheer numbers and volume alone, the Young LNP members are on top of this.
What do we want?
A Can-do government!
When do we want it?
So much protesting and lusty passion. You almost wonder what Sir Joh would have made of it all. Even Ben Riley, president of the Young LNP in Queensland, seems to find it awe-inspiring but contextually weird. “To see this many people — not from the Left — and this many of them chanting …” he says, trailing off. For Young Liberals, mobilising for protest is not always their species’ most natural activity, but they have seemingly adapted to the task beautifully.
“Are you the wrangler today?” I ask Riley. “We’re Liberals, mate,” someone says over Riley’s shoulder. “We believe in individual responsibility!”
Riley laughs and tells me they’ve been going since 9 o’clock this morning. “So that’s about an hour of impassioned chanting, then,” I say. “Well we’ve gotta earn it,” Riley says.
He laughs and points to a Young LNP member — today’s chanting ringleader — who has now taken a break. One of the Wilderness Society men laughs mockingly (“Is that all you’ve got?”), even though the exhausted platypus has dropped to its knees, like a Buddhist monk about to self-immolate.
“Well I think Luke’s lost voice is probably a good sign,” Riley says happily.
Christopher Pyne bounds up the stairs, grinning. Every time a high-profile Coalition exits their car, the Young LNP chanters become ecstatic, hooting with applause. “Christopher Pyne!” one lone LNP voice announces to the crowd. “He’s all right!” the sea of Young Liberals chant back. Everyone goes apeshit with applause. With a massive grin, Pyne greets Riley by name. He is so close I could touch his face.
“Is that how you normally get welcomed to these, Christopher?” Ben asks. “Oh yes, usually!” Pyne says happily.
Being inside the hall itself is like a conservative trainspotter’s dream, or some wonderful right-wing safari. Over there is deposed LNP leader John-Paul Langbroek; over there is Barnaby Joyce. Names, names, names. If they’re not dressed in suits or dresses, party faithful are dressed in their royal blue LNP supporter shirts with slogans with their electorate and the candidate they’re supporting: I’m Backing Deb; I’m Backing Darren. Ian. Russell. Jann. Howard. Steve. Lisa. Campbell. And if you’re from Ashgrove, you sure as hell better be backing Campbell, otherwise this entire enterprise is going to fall apart.
As everyone finds a seat in the auditorium, images of Campbell flash up on the screen: Campbell operating a barbecue; Campbell on the Today show; Campbell with disabled kids; Campbell with Tony Abbott; Campbell with some Asian people. After we sing the Australian anthem, Saxon Rice, the steely, blonde, photogenic LNP candidate for Mount Coot-tha, kicks off proceedings. If Rice delivers a swing of over 5.3% her way — completely achievable — she will destroy Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser, who she describes as “Australia’s worst treasurer”, in his seat of Mount Coot-tha.
Rice is a humourless but scathing speaker, not big on smiles but dripping with contempt. She drills all the Labor horrors into us: waste, scandals, broken promises, spiralling living costs and debt fast approaching $85 billion. “The choice is clear-cut,” she says. “Queensland can’t afford another three years of Labor. They’re part of a tired 20-year-old Labor government who has failed in every way. They are part of the problem, whereas I and other Liberal-National candidates want to be part of the solution.”
Nationals leader Warren Truss works the crowd with a bold opening to his speech. “Fellow Queenslanders,” he says. “Haven’t we had enough?” (Rapturous applause.) “Whether it’s Brisbane or Queensland, the Labor tale is the same. They spin, but they cannot deliver! Labor couldn’t deliver a pizza on a moonlit night.” (Lots of laughter.)
Truss then offers up one of the more delightfully hideous puns of the day. “Queensland needs a new man,” he says, pausing for effect. “Campbell New-man.”
When Truss introduces Tony Abbott as “the next prime minister of Australia”, the room collectively climaxes. People roar with approval and applause, springing to their feet with evangelical passion. After the past few weeks spent watching federal Labor gnaw off its own limbs, Abbott is ecstastic, beaming with messiah-like radiance. Abbott is great on stage, and his schtick today is a cross between a stand-up comedian and a schoolyard bully disguised as prefect.
“You introduced me as the next prime minister of Australia,” Abbott says to Truss at the lectern. “Well I think Stephen Smith, Bill Shorten and now Bob Carr might be the next prime minister of Australia” — lots of derisive laughs here — “but I’ll be the next elected prime minister of Australia.”
Sometimes it’s unclear whether Abbott is giving an introduction for Newman or a stump speech for his own election. He discusses how the carbon tax will ruin Queensland’s coal economy (“If you want to stop the carbon tax, you can start by making Campbell Newman the premier of Queensland”) and implores everyone to vote for him. “I give you this assurance,” he says. “If a Coalition government is elected in Canberra, we’ll stop the boats, we’ll stop the big new taxes, and we’ll stop the waste. And when we stop the waste, there will be far more money to spend on people’s real priorities, like rebuilding the Bruce Highway!”
Abbott revels in the details of Labor’s follies and they are genuinely bruising. “Now ladies and gentlemen, I thought I’d seen some waste in Canberra,” he says. “Oh boy, I’d seen some waste in Canberra!” (He recaps: $2.4 billion spent in the botched insulation scheme; $16 billion spent in building school halls “for twice the market price”; the potential $50 billion price-tag of an NBN.)
“And then I came to Queensland,” he says. (Topics covered: $220 million spent on fixing the mangled Queensland Health payroll system; $16 million embezzled by a fake Tahitian prince.) “Now I can’t stop Julia Gillard from giving Anna Bligh a job in Canberra along with all the failed state Labor premiers,” Abbott says to more laughter, “but I tell you what. I am so proud to be helping Campbell Newman deny Anna Bligh a job here in Queensland.”Finally, there he is: Campbell Newman, the short but efficient-looking man who will probably be running Queensland by this time next month. Let’s not discuss the LNP campaign song that accompanies his entrance. To do so would be cruel, as it’s generally acknowledged that the LNP jingle is a sonic abomination. (Still, it’s important to know that you can download the ringtone here.)
Shaking hands and smiling, Newman is flanked by his wife, Lisa — whose hairstyle and theatrical smile reminds me of Liza Minnelli — and their two daughters, all of whom sport the same hairstyle (another topic on which I refuse to elaborate).
Surprisingly, Newman’s speech implies Labor has done some good over the years, which makes his takedown of them all the more brutal:
“When Wayne Goss was elected in 1989, he offered hope. He offered a fresh start for Queensland and the promise of open and accountable government. But after 20 years, Labor has forgotten what it’s all about. They’ve forgotten about the future and they can only be counted upon to act when there’s a crisis. Crisis after crisis! That’s how they operate.”
As contrast, Newman offers some bullet points from his time as lord mayor of Brisbane: 2 million trees planted; protecting 500 hectares of at-risk bushland; making Brisbane City Council the largest purchaser of green power in the entire country; strengthening public transport. There’s applause, but it’s staggered and unsure: LNP members are generally ambivalent about green credentials.
One thing is clear though: the policy vacuum problems that hounded Newman when he was declared leader-in-waiting have seemingly disappeared. Newman keeps his attacks against Labor punchy and relatively short, and a lot of the launch is spent on policy. Newman deals in specifics, promising $170 million over four years for a Resource Community Building Fund; $86 million over six years for 10,000 more apprenticeships; opening up another Forde inquiry into child protection; $1 billion for Bruce Highway projects over 10 years (depending on the federal government bringing forward expenditure); and $100 million a year in direct delivery for better social infrastructure. Civil union rollbacks go unmentioned.
“The message is simple. The LNP is ready for government. No matter how you look at it, no matter what they say, Labor’s best years are way behind them. But Queenslanders, I say our best years and Queensland’s best years, are ahead of us! With your support, with the support of all Queenslanders, we can make Queensland a Can Do place once more. JOIN US!”
Everyone gets to their feet and smashes their palms together at this man, set to be our next premier. Newman knows the campaign has to focus on the future, as there’s no point in looking back: not even the LNP can claim the Bjelke-Petersen era or Borbidge-Sheldon years were exactly halcyon days.
As the proceedings wrap up, a tweet comes in from Neil Evans, the PR and media director for Centrebet: “Qld Election: LNP just firmed into razor hot $1.04 #Centrebet #nearunbackable! Labor out to $10.00 #biggest gap!” For all of Newman’s talk about being Can Do, all odds suggest he will.
*Benjamin Law is a Brisbane-based writer and author of The Family Law (2010). He’s working on his second book, out this year.