Annastacia Palaszczuk
With a state election looming in Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk has become a target for Scott Morrison and News Corp.

Even before Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls conceded this morning, it was already beyond reasonable doubt that Labor would go into the next Queensland parliament with a majority in its own right.

Nicholls had grimly hung on to the theoretical chance that One Nation could pull off a late upset at Labor’s expense in the Townsville seats of Thuringowa and Mundingburra, a possibility that was put to rest when full preference distributions were conducted today.

This leaves Labor with 48 seats in a chamber of 93, allowing a bare majority on the floor even after Labor provides the Speaker.

The Liberal National Party has won 39 seats, with the cross-bench consisting of three seats for Katter’s Australian Party, and one apiece for One Nation, an independent and, in their first ever win at a Queensland state election, the Greens.

With that out of the way, the LNP’s post-election recriminations can finally begin in earnest.

The easy bit will be dispensing with the leadership of Nicholls, who ended the campaign with a disapproval rating twice as high as his approval, and — perhaps even worse — forbiddingly poor name recognition.

But as yet another term in opposition beckons, there can be no avoiding deeper questions as to how, in a state polarised like no other between its city and its regions, the mismatched pieces of conservative politics can best be fitted together.

While the election was won and lost in the state’s populous south-eastern corner, most of the LNP’s soul searching has focused on the 7% drop in its primary vote in the regions, to levels not seen since the successive disasters of 1998 and 2001.

Former Senator Ron Boswell spoke for many on the Nationals side of the LNP divide when he argued that the merger between the Liberals and the Nationals had deprived regional voters of a sense of having a stake in coalition politics, causing many to flock to One Nation.

More specifically, Boswell offered the view that the party was seen as being run by “toffs in Ascot” — a pointed reference to an affluent Brisbane suburb located in Tim Nicholls’ electorate of Clayfield.

Defenders of the merger were quick to point out the flaws in Boswell’s narrative: that the LNP had actually lost only one seat outside the south-east; that the One Nation problem got much further out of hand on the Nationals’ watch in 1998; and that the merged LNP achieved a victory like no other when Campbell Newman led it to victory in 2012.

Boswell notably failed to flip the coin and consider how the election might have played out if voters in the south-east had perceived the conservatives as beholden to regional interests.

It was precisely for this reason that the painful merger process was endured almost a decade ago, after Peter Beattie led Labor to consecutive landslides in 2001, 2004 and 2006.

These results had made it clear that the Nationals’ historic leadership of the Coalition in Queensland was no longer tenable, owing to a shift in the state’s centre of gravity to the south-east — which now accounts for two-thirds of the seats in state parliament, and is growing at a rate two-and-a-half times faster than the rest of the state.

As such, a demerger could only work if the Coalition that resulted was dominated by the Liberal Party, such that it would cause regional voters’ doubts to re-emerge in a new form.

The urban-rural divide is a problem that does not lend itself to an easy solution, but it would go a long way if the party chose a leader whose appeal extended to either side of it.

On this basis, the outstanding contender would surely be Deb Frecklington, who is the heir to Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the sense that she holds the seat of Nanango, but who projects a polished modern image with considerable urban appeal.

First though, Frecklington must break through a forbidding glass ceiling in a party that has never before put a woman forward as its candidate for the premiership – and sure enough, most reports suggest the overwhelmingly male-dominated party room is more likely to favour the uninspiring claim of Surfers Paradise MP John-Paul Langbroek, who earlier led the party to no great effect from 2009 to 2011.

Peter Fray

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