Prime Ministerial power and
speculative booms have a lot in common – they are both based on confidence
and expectations. A Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister because he is
presumed to be powerful and the proof that he is powerful is that he is
Prime Minister. But as with speculative booms, when the confidence that the
expectations will be met disappears, his or her political capital can erode
faster than you can say "tech spec". Remember Bob Hawke’s
descent from the battler’s friend to "Old Jelly Back".
Prime Ministers are not keen to
put their power unnecessarily to the test. They fight battle by proxy and
choose fields of engagement carefully. So what was the necessity driving John
Howard to personally put his prestige on the line in Queensland this
last week over the issue of state three-cornered contests?
Three-cornered contests have
been an issue in Queensland politics since the introduction of preferential
voting in 1963. The Coalition came to power on the back of the Labor Party
split of 1957. A swag of gerrymandered rural electorates – Labor Party
strongholds – became Country Party electorates. Before the 1963 election
the Liberal Party did territorial deals with the Country Party that ceded it
the right to run in rural areas like the South and North Coasts. By the 70s
those deals were unravelling. The disproportionate representation given the
Country by the gerrymander was becoming more disproportionate as a result of
rapid urbanisation. The South and North Coasts had become the Gold and
Sunshine Coast conurbations. The Liberal Party had to expand into those and
other areas. The National Party resisted and hostilities ensued. Generally
the National Party won, and the Liberal Party got a name for itself as being
an aggressive quarrelsome party that was not interested in stable
government, just itself.
In the early 1980s the Liberal
Party split from the National Party over the question of a Public Accounts
committee. The party was ground into a pulp between Joh Bjelke-Petersen and
public indifference at the 1983 election.
Encouraged by this victory,
Bjelke-Petersen embarked on expansion. The Country Party was rebranded the
National Party to put an urban gloss of on its country weatherboard. It also
reflected the reality that the Country Party now held a swag of city seats,
including Greenslopes, Mount Gravatt, Aspley, Mansfield and Springwood.
Part of the reason for the high
One Nation vote in Queensland lies in the Nationals’ dominance of
non-Labor politics. The Liberal and National Party alliance works best when
the Liberal Party harvests the urban centre-right vote, and the National
Party the rural right-of-centre vote. When one party tries to do both it
runs the risk of pleasing neither, opening the way for smaller niche
For a stable non-Labor
government in Queensland, the National Party must concentrate once more on
regional and rural areas. This won’t happen voluntarily so there will be
many more three-cornered contests in Queensland. This is a common view among
all groupings in the Queensland Liberals, they just can’t agree how they
should be organised.
The Liberal Party’s
negotiating position is currently weak. At the last state election it lost 6
of its 15 seats and now only holds 4 seats out of a total of 23 in the
Brisbane Metropolitan area – a parlous position for the major non-Labor
urban political party. Worse, its performance in two key by-elections since
then has been unconvincing (On Line Opinion 12th
January 2000, 31st
January, 2000), running third in one with 8.91%
first preference vote and just beating One Nation in the other, with
14.85% first preference vote.
Its immediate task is to win
back the 4 seats it lost in the Brisbane area last election, plus Barron
River and Mundingburra
in North Queensland, as well as some it just failed to win in 1995, like Everton.
Given the demographics and the state seats it holds, it also has legitimate
interests in Glasshouse (a new seat), Nicklin
(held by Independent Peter Wellington) and Albert
(open as a result of a redistribution). If it manages to win all of these it
will have more than doubled in size and proved its current campaign team the
The National Party has accepted
that three-cornered contests in Glasshouse, Nicklin and Albert are
acceptable, but they draw the line at Cunningham
on the Darling Downs, in an area where the Liberal Party has not held a
state seat since 1983.
What are the risks of the
Liberals running in Cunningham?
In the first place it will
stretch their resources. They are not flush with money, having recently
taken out an overdraft with their bankers and still owing in excess of
$100,000 on the last Brisbane City Council Campaign. A contentious
three-cornered contest will make it difficult just to raise the funds
required to stay afloat, let alone expand. Manpower is not plentiful,
although in this case the entire resources of the Groom Federal Campaign
would undoubtedly be brought to bear. Added to this, the glamour candidate
who was interested in running has withdrawn, and in his absence the polling
is not favourable.
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