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The Coalition must be redefined if non-Labor is to overcome One Nation

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 23 February 2001


According to Henry Ford, "Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again". The failure of the Coalition at the last Queensland state election was so comprehensive that they have no alternative but to begin again.

One of the unanswered questions of Australian politics is why One Nation is so strong in Queensland. Are Queenslanders really different from other Australians? Demographics would tend to suggest not. They are less ethnically diverse than some, more than others; poorer than some, richer than others; less well educated than some, better educated than others. The finger is often pointed at Queensland as the most decentralised state, but a closer look at the statistics shows that we are about as likely as anyone else to live in the capital city. Yet Pauline Hanson gets by far her best results in Queensland. Is this a "State of Origin" effect? I don’t think so.

The answer to the question partly lies in the fact that on the non-Labor side the dominant partner in the Coalition has been the rural National Party, not the urban Liberal Party. As a result, the National Party has become less rural and more politically centrist, abandoning its core constituency and leaving room on the edge for political competitors like One Nation and independents.

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Common mythology in Queensland says that the National Party gerrymander kept the Labor Party out of power for 33 years, but common mythology can’t count. There was no election between the Nicklin win in 1957 and Goss coming to power in 1989 when the ALP could have won on fair boundaries. The real victim of the gerrymander was the Liberal Party. It never won seats in proportion to its vote, and even when in 1974 it outpolled the National Party, it was still several seats short of being the majority partner.

As a result, the Coalition became difficult. The Liberal Party resented the undemocratic way it was treated by its partner, and was financially weakened as the business muscle in Queensland danced with the National Party. In 1983 the fractious arrangement came to an end. The Liberal Party split from the Coalition and was decimated at the following election falling to 8 seats. Two of its members – Don Lane and Brian Austin – defected to the Nationals and the Liberal Party six-pack was born.

The gerrymander has been abolished, but the Liberal Party has still not had a real opportunity to struggle out from the shadow of the National Party. Until now.

The National Party is likely to hold 13 seats in this Parliament, the Liberal Party 3. It would appear that the Liberal Party is further away than ever from being the major non-Labor Party. But the percentage of the statewide vote won by each party was roughly similar, so the Liberal Party’s 3 seat tally is deceptively weak. The ALP faced a similar result to the Coalition in 1974. At the 1977 election it doubled its numbers from 11 to 22. What might happen at the next State election?

I would expect that seats like Burleigh, Mudgeeraba, Albert, Gaven, Southport, Broadwater, Springwood, Mansfield, Redlands, Mount Ommaney, Clayfield, Aspley, Indooroopilly, Toowoomba North, Glasshouse, Kawana, Noosa, Hervey Bay, Burnett, Charters Towers, and Cairns, could easily swing back. But, with the exception of Charters Towers and Burnett, they are all in territory that is urban and represented by the Liberal Party at a federal level.

Until the Coalition eliminates One Nation it will never be in a position to offer majority government and will be in an impossible position to win an election. Politics is now more geographical than ever in Australia, and One Nation is strongest in those geographical areas that are the heartland of the National Party. To see One Nation off, the National Party needs to abandon its plans for conservative domination and cede the metropolitan areas to the Liberal Party. That would give the Liberals a good chance of winning 18 seats out of the list above. Add Rob Borbidge’s seat of Surfers Paradise, soon to be vacated, and the Liberal Party could feasibly be looking at 22 seats and majority leadership of the Coalition in the next Parliament.

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So much for the opportunities. What are the risks?

The first risk is leadership, and here the signs are not promising. Rob Borbidge and David Watson both accepted responsibility for the election result, but campaigns are run by the party organisations. When the Liberal Party had its debacle in 1983, not only did Parliamentary Leader Terry White step down, but then Party President John Herron accepted blame as well and announced that he would not be renominating at the next convention. No such maturity from the National and Liberal Party organisational leaderships this time.

Rather than seeing themselves as the problem they believe that they are the solution. In doing so they prove they have not heard the electors speaking at the last election. They are inviting the public to give the Coalition a whack in the Ryan by-election, and if they do not move before the Federal election, another whack then.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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