Till death us do part

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 – 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”.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

13 comments on “Till death us do part”

  1. There was similar mergers in the 1920s and 1940s in Queensland that did not deliver government. Queensland One Nation was not just a ‘bush’ phenomenon it won Townsville and Ipswich seats. There is a constituency for a ‘bush’ party but it is much smaller than the current National party. If every federal National MP joined the Liberals how many of their seats would the Nationals win back?

  2. Some good points PB. I heard Beattie specifically downplay early poll speculation but who knows?
    I agree with your central premise. It has long been my view that the Nats are consigning themselves to the electoral scrap-heap by failing to differentiate themselves more fully from their Coalition partner. By moving away from their rural roots they are effectively signing their own death-warrants because they have come irrelevant to their parochial interests.
    The answer to the long-term future of the Nats lies not in moving to the Centre and broad appeal but away from it. It will mean a lifetime of being a minor party but will effectively ensure survival and will stregthen their position with their core constituencies.
    Let the (former) Country party be a country (ie rural) party and it will go from strength to strength and capture many of the disaffected as well.

  3. Interestingly, the PM has come out and said “I am not in favour, let me make this very clear, I am not in favour of a new conservative force in Queensland, I am in favour of a strengthening of the Liberal Party in Queensland, I am in favour of a strong coalition between the Liberal Party and the National Party in Queensland but I want to make it very clear, I have always opposed having a separate political force.”

    The full article (ABC News) is at http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200605/s1649727.htm.

    I also think that the merger itself is unwise: the two parties have a history of discontent, so any party formed out of them with the name ‘Liberal’ will obviously make many National voters unenthusiastic, opening up the situation for One Nation or a similar minor party to leap in and grab conservative country votes. I must confess, from my own point of view I find the idea of a Coalition in disarray to be a wonderful thing, but from an objective point of view it’s difficult to see the benefits. The ideal is admirable, putting aside the differences to put forward a unified agenda, but I don’t think it’ll be a success for either of the Coalition parties in the long term.

  4. I think it’s a great idea but should instead use the Northern Territory “Country Liberal Party” naming which has been shown to work effectively.

  5. Will a merger bring about another One Nation?

    Let’s consider some things
    1. The presence of the coalition parties did not prevent One Nation from forming, nor rural Independents challenging coalition seats and sometimes picking up the odd victory.
    2. The Liberals hold the most rural seats, if rural voters are against voting for the Liberals where in the world is the proof?
    3. Running as the Liberals would likely help Nats in coastal seats under challenge.
    4. If the rural element is such an issue, running candidates as “Country Liberals” would directly head of any success Labor might get from country Labor.
    5. The only place where a merger has been held, the Northern Territory, did not experience some explosion of break-away conservative parties, but instead 27 years of dominance. And now in opposition, at least one problem the NT CLP does not have is coalition tensions.

  6. The proposal strikes me as a little more than a short term expedient to shore up the political prospects of ‘The Borg’ and Mr Quinn – neither of whom can ‘cut through’ in the narrow media market up here. Springborg has some admirable qualities and outperforms any current or foreseeable state Liberal leader. Much has been made of the apparent fact that the proposal would see the once proud Qld Nats fold into the cloak of the (Nouveau) Libs. Formally yes, but for a generation they would dominate the entity, as their membership is much much larger and more active than the v.weak and prissy Lib branches.

    The irony of it all is that up until a month or so ago, the Coalition was riding high on 3 good-v.good by-election wins and Beattie’s seemingly terminal loss of popularity. Whilst Beattie (or rather his absence) plus smarmy ‘government’ advertising has been slowly staunching that bleeding, the same problems will remain for Labor come next polling day: defending unnatural constituencies; a leader who is entering Blair territory; some endemic crises in services/infrastructure; a lame cabinet, Anna Bligh excepted, but there is still a long haul to sell the noble idea of a female Premier to a conservative electorate.

    In the face of these ‘plus’ factors, which should guarantee them at least even billing at the next poll, The Borg, Mr Quinn and their long-suffering apparatchiks seem to have been spooked by some internal polling that voters would prefer a single conservative party – well yes and no. I’d love to see how their pollster phrased that question. In any event, it is abundantly clear from 80+ years of federal coalition and multi-party arrangements that voters are quite capable of comprehending and backing a multi-party conservative movement.

    The other questionable assumption is that carving up non 3-cornered candidacies is an intractable problem and that the results are somehow favouring Nats at the expense of the overall coalition’s ability to win seats. The first part of that, if true, is irrelevant, since the same internal ructions/disputes/numbers games will be played out, only within the ‘New’ Libs rather than first being rationally or at least holistically carved out between the separate party executives. The second part is debatable: it assumes the old Nats with a hefty majority in the ‘New’ Libs will either pre-select old Libs, or that actual candidates don’t matter, merely the brand name on the ballot paper.

  7. I think the one big advantage of a single party is that the combined membership numbers would be higher, thus increasing the chances of finding a decent candidate in some of the marginal seats, and controlling branch stacking.

    Based on the data which is circulating there must be winnable seats where there Libs have about 30 members, and presumably some of these have very peripheral involvement while others are either very young or very old. The infusion of even a few National members would help increase the viability of the branches there in the long run.

    However, the short term pain to get there is so huge it will probably not happen until the Nationals membership has declined too far too be useful in most places, and the incompotence with which this has been conducted certainly suggests neither party could run the state.

  8. Ah yes, the election drought. Horrible. While I’m looking forward to Victoria, QLD, NSW etc immensely, I think the Hon. Willam Bowe needs something to post. How about a definitive guide to the upcoming Tuvaluan election?

  9. Thanks for your concern Josh. My silence has been partly due to speculation of a snap election in Queensland, possibly as early as next month. This has prompted me to start beavering away on my state election guide just in case. The word now is that an election later in the year is more likely, so I’m hoping to get a post up on something or other this weekend – possibly on the Federal Government’s electoral law amendments which should be railroaded through the Senate pretty soon.

  10. SD is spot-on on several points. At the federal level, the Libs are darn good at picking up rural seats from the Nats (Farrer, Hume, Fairfax, Leichhardt, etc), as well as holding on to their own rural seats (Wannon, Grey, Blair, etc). Other Nat-held seats must be in the Libs’ sights once the sitting members depart (if not before): Lyne, Hinkler, Wide Bay, maybe Gippsland (if Labor doesn’t get it first). The Nats may one day get Richmond back from Labor, but it’ll never again be a ‘safe’ seat for them. The fact that the ALP won Richmond in an otherwise shambolic election performance says a lot.

    The Nats need to focus on being a rural party. Their future seems to lie in the outback and northern Queensland. The coastal rural electorates are becoming increasingly unfriendly to the Nats, as these areas become increasingly urbanized (those seachangers don’t much care for the Nats).

    Naturally the Nats want to increase their representation to give them more seats in Cabinet, so they’re going to fight tooth-and-nail to hold onto every one of their ‘traditional’ seats, both coastal and inland. But the demographics are running against them along the coast, and their energy (and $$$) would be better spent on fending off Independents and Labor rather than the Libs.

    The reason why the Nats are losing federal seats to the Libs isn’t just because some electorates have shifted eastward (for NSW) or southward (for Qld), bringing them closer to the orbit of the respective state capitals (and thus into the Lib sphere). It’s also because the Libs field better candidates and run better campaigns than the Nats. By contrast, the Nats have watched some of their own hitherto ‘safe’ seats fall into the hands of rural Independents (New England, Kennedy) as well as the savvier Libs. Gwydir could be next.

    Eventually the dominance of the Libs over the Nats at the federal level in Qld will filter thru to the state level. The explosive population growth in SEQ is going to pay dividends eventually for the Libs (it already has for Labor) as Qld becomes more Brisbane-centric. But it’s a slow process of osmosis.

  11. Democracy, what democracy? The liberals seemingly have suspended it in N.S.W.

    NSW Libs freeze internal elections

    THE NSW Liberal Party has frozen internal elections for two years so it can end the infighting engulfing it and focus on the 2007 state and federal elections.

    The freeze will apply to all elections, including those for the state executive.

    A memo from the party’s state director, Graham Jaeschke, said the party’s state executive resolved last month to postpone elections for all office bearers in the party, including branch presidents, for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 financial years so the party could end the messy stoushes hurting it and concentrate on the looming state and federal elections.

    “These decisions were made by state executive to ensure all resources and energies within the division are directed towards the coming election campaigns,” the memo said.

    Source: Melbourne Herald Sun

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