LNP’s balancing act as they head to drover’s dog election win

The Liberal National Party held a shadow cabinet meeting in Roma last week where they re-committed their support to the Surat Basin resource region at the centre of the $30b mining approvals from Environment Minister Tony Burke last week. Queensland Liberal National Party’s support of the massive coal seam gas developments might be assumed at a matter of course. The party has been pro-development in most of its guises through the years.

But the ruling Bligh Government is also in favour, desperate for royalties from the deals. The Opposition has been forced to play the green card in order to make a point of differentiation. They are adding to concerns about the groundwater released during the gas extraction and possible damage to the water table. The position hides tensions: the Nationals are comfortable digging in for the farmers who grumble about wells on their properties while the Liberals want to see the deals with China sealed as soon as possible. There is a good reason for haste; they want to be in power when the money arrives. Bligh’s trickery and Rudd’s federal defeat has left Labor on the nose in Queensland. The LNP won 21 out of 30 Queensland seats in the 2010 Federal election. Queensland will have an election either late 2011 or early 2012. If polls are to be believed, the LNP will win in some comfort. The party will need to adjust to the mindset of government over the next 18 months as grapples with what kind of administration it wants to be.The LNP is a hybrid party formed in mid-2008 after a long and difficult birth. The Nationals were always the bigger entity in Queensland and their members were enthusiastically in favour of merger. After four defeats to Labor, they were anxious to regain power by any means. But the Queensland Liberals were divided with the right faction in favour but moderates opposing. John Howard rejected the idea of a stand-alone Queensland amalgamation in 2005. In 2006 Senator Barnaby Joyce pronounced the last rights on it saying it looked and smelled like a dead duck and probably was one.

Two events in 2007 put it back on the agenda. When the Liberals did not contest Brisbane Central after Peter Beattie resigned, it angered the Nationals and Liberal Deputy Leader Mark McArdle admitted they failed the electorate. Then in November, the Federal Coalition lost the election and Howard lost his seat. The biggest obstacle to merger was gone. When Lawrence Springborg replaced Jeff Seeney as Nats leader in January 2008, he pressed forward the amalgamation agenda over the head of opposing Liberals.

They outmanoeuvred opponents in several ways. They got Federal MPs onside by guaranteeing them pre-selection for the next election. Secondly the two party presidents (both in favour of merger) conducted polls of branch members which found an overwhelming majority in favour of merging. Thirdly the new party would become the Queensland division of the Liberal Party and have an affiliation with the federal Nationals.

Nats President Bruce McIver set a timetable for amalgamation calling a constitutional convention for 26 July 2008 to make a decision. Pro-merger Libs agreed to meet on the same day. Two days beforehand state council narrowly voted to postpone, but the pro-merger faction went to the courts and secured a Supreme Court judgement to ensure it went ahead. At both conventions on 26 June, the merger was approved. McIver was elected president and former Libs state president Gary Spence became deputy. Springborg was anointed leader of the combined entity with McArdle as deputy. Eight months later the Federal Council of the Liberal Party ratified the new LNPQ as its Queensland Division.

Desperation drove the two parties together but it did not pay immediate dividends. Anna Bligh clung to power in the 2009 state election despite losing eight seats. Springborg resigned after his third defeat and handed over to former dentist John-Paul Langbroek. Langbroek is an ex-Liberal and his succession wasn’t an easy one, winning possibly by one vote.

Almost 18 months later, the rumblings in the cabinet room continue with infrastructure and planning spokesman David Gibson resigning from the frontbench after Langbroek called for a ministerial reshuffle without consulting colleagues. Tim Nicholls, who Langbroek defeated for the top job, is not ruling out a challenge. Only one of two people can become Premier in the next Queensland election and Nicholls is not one of them. Given Labor’s latest catastrophic polling in Brisbane, neither is Anna Bligh nor anyone in the party that might overthrow her.

In what is shaping up to be a drovers dog election, the next Premier of Queensland will be either JP Langbroek or Lawrence Springborg. The “Borg”, as he likes to be known, remains powerful as deputy and the unofficial head of the Nationals wing of the party. But three defeats have shown he is not trusted in the metropolitan areas. It is up to the more likeable Langbroek to step up in the next 18 months to show he is Premier material.

I saw signs of it when he made a major speech here in Roma last weekend. Springborg and Nicholls were absent, but the rest of Langbroek’s cabinet had the steely determination of a party about to seize government and were looking seriously at the problems that will bring. Philosophical differences means the marriage of the Nats and Libs remains fragile but the smell of victory should keep them away from the divorce courts in the short to medium term.

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