It’s been a long-standing article of faith at this site that Queensland state politics will be dominated by Labor until the Liberals elbow the Nationals aside and assume their rightful place as the senior coalition partner. But given the Nationals’ use of their institutional dominance to defend the status quo, it was hard to see how this was supposed to happen. For this and other reasons, the news that the two parties have been engaged in two weeks of secret merger negotiations has come as a profound shock.
The Nationals’ seniority in the Queensland Coalition is a legacy of circumstances that have ceased to apply: the state’s traditionally decentralised population, the rural malapportionment that was abolished when Labor came to power in 1989, and the personality cult of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The first of these factors is disappearing due to the prolonged boom in the urban south-east, where the population has grown 65 per cent in the past 20 years, from 1.7 million to 2.8 million. This is double the rate of growth in the rest of the state, where the population has risen from 900,000 to 1.2 million in the same period. Just as significantly, the growth in the south-east has been largely driven by interstate migration, which has drawn in voters who have no historical affinity with the Nationals. These newcomers have erased the memory of Bjelke-Petersen’s great political successes: his incursion into suburban Brisbane at the 1983 and 1986 elections, and his maintenance of the National/Country Party stranglehold on the Gold Coast despite the area’s post-war urbanisation.
As a result, the urban branch of conservative politics is becoming more important to the Coalition’s electoral prospects with every passing year. But this has not been reflected in the parties’ representation in parliament, where the Nationals have maintained the greater numbers throughout the electoral convulsions of the post-Fitzgerald era. In large part, this is the result of a vicious cycle in which the Liberals suffer electorally because they are seen as subordinate to their country partners, who have the advantage of a support base in areas impervious to challenge from Labor. This has deprived the Liberals of bargaining power in the important negotations to determine which seats are contested by which party. Such agreements are necessary because Queensland’s system of optional preferential voting does not compel voters to direct preferences, making three-cornered contests lethal for the Coalition. These agreements continue to freeze the Liberals out of important seats in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast, despite their overwhelming dominance there at the federal level.
The attraction of a merger is that it resolves these problems without demanding a surrender from the Nationals, whose state parliamentary leader will remain as Leader of the Opposition (though Graham Young at National Forum notes that the move will “structurally mean the dissolution of the Queensland National Party, with its assets and members being transferred to the Liberal Party”). But the effective disappearance of the Nationals also raises serious electoral problems that may yet queer the deal. Not for the first time in Australian political history, it became fashionable a few months back to talk of the Nationals’ impending demise following Victorian Senator Julian McGauran’s defection to the Liberals. I wasn’t persuaded then and I’m still not now. The urban/rural divide is the most important cleavage in Australian electoral politics and probably always will be, owing to Australia’s unique concentration of people and power in a small number of state capitals. Country voters have never been willing to suffer representatives they perceive as subordinate to the dominant city interests, and they are not about to start doing so now for the sake of Coalition unity. Their desire for a distinct voice will continue to find expression in one way or another, and the Liberal Party would be better off having it harnessed by a coalition partner than surrendering it to external forces.
I don’t think Peter Beattie meant to be helpful in saying so, but he hit the nail on the head with his assessment (as quoted in the Courier-Mail) that a merger “would spark the re-emergence of One Nation-style parties and independents”, who would exploit the perception that the Nationals had “sold out the bush”. Not surprisingly, this point is well understood by the Prime Minister, who the Courier-Mail reports is “yet to be convinced about the merits of a merger and may seek to oppose it”. If he does so, things could get very messy very quickly â€“ so much so that Graham Young raises the possibility of Peter Beattie cashing in on the turmoil with a snap election.
UPDATE: Graham Young reports that the “New Queensland Liberal Party” “appears to be still-born”.