For now, everyone wants to talk about the Labor Party — what the Queensland result means for its future and especially for its federal prospect. But to my mind the more interesting thing is what it says about Labor’s opponents.
It’s on the non-Labor side that Queensland has always been different: having a dominant Country Party, later National Party, never electing a Liberal government (one Liberal, Gordon Chalk, served as caretaker premier for a few days in 1968), and experimenting with various amalgamations of the two parties. The most recent one, made in 2008, has now been crowned with electoral success.
Campbell Newman therefore becomes the first elected Liberal premier of Queensland — for although there is now only one party, the LNP, Newman is unmistakably from its Liberal half. And the Liberals are clearly in the ascendant. Allocating the new government’s likely 77 seats according to which party contested them in 2006, the Liberals have 47 to the Nationals’ 30 (thanks to Peter Brent for this calculation).
If anything that understates the case, because in 2006 the Nationals were still contesting several south-east Queensland seats that were natural Liberal territory. Some of the LNP candidates who have now succeeded there should probably be regarded as Liberals.
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But before jumping to the conclusion that the merger is something to emulate elsewhere, it’s worth keeping in mind the nature of the problem it was designed to solve. It wasn’t, as is often repeated, the “three-cornered contests” that (supposedly) resulted in votes going to waste. They had been eliminated by 2006, but success still eluded the Coalition. The problem was that there were voters who were willing to elect a Liberal government but weren’t being offered that opportunity.
Since the Liberal Party was formed in the 1940s, it has generally outvoted the Country/National Party, except for a few elections during and immediately after the Bjelke-Petersen era. But it never outperformed them in seats. In 1947, for example, the first election after the failure of the previous merger attempt, the Liberals (called the Queensland People’s Party) had 25.7% of the vote but only nine seats.
The Country Party, with 19.5%, won 14 seats.
This was initially due to the electoral boundaries favouring rural areas.
But even in more modern times the same thing held because Labor was doing so well. The Coalition held only its safest seats, and the nature of the state’s geography meant that they were mostly National seats: at their nadir in 2001 the Nationals still held 12 seats as against just three Liberals, even though the Liberals narrowly outvoted them.
Yet the seats that had to be won to improve things were primarily urban seats. The Nationals’ stranglehold on the Coalition was often justified by pointing out the Queensland was the most decentralised of the mainland states. But that was of diminishing relevance; on 2010 estimates, 70% of Queenslanders now live in its five biggest urban areas. While that’s still lower than elsewhere, it hardly justified the dominance of a rural-based party.
So there was a major presentational problem. A majority Coalition government would have to mean a Liberal majority, but as long as they were in opposition the Nats held the upper hand, so the alternative premier was always a National. The Liberals were so used to playing second fiddle that they even promised to yield their claims to the premiership if they did win a plurality.
As I said after the 2006 election: “It is now safe to predict that Queensland will never have another National Party premier; when the voters finally put Labor out, the Liberals will take their place. But no-one has yet worked out a way to present that option effectively while still in opposition.”
The creation of the Liberal National Party was the answer. Not at first, of course, because the Nationals initially claimed the leadership, and the 2009 election showed that that didn’t work. But once the Liberals fought their way to the top, the obstacle was removed and the Queensland really is different, and the LNP merger can’t be taken as an example for others. It’s not so much that the strategy “wouldn’t work” in other states, but that it doesn’t have to: the problem that it solved in Queensland doesn’t exist anywhere else. (Of course there is some similarity as well — while Newman may appear to southerners as a right-winger, in Queensland terms he is a moderate, continuing the example of Ted Baillieu and Barry O’Farrell.)
Whether the merged party will now go from strength to strength, or whether, having served its purpose, it will dissolve like its predecessors in 1936 and 1945, remains to be seen.