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Queensland Liberals need a Peter Beattie and a Dennis Murphy

By Graham Young - posted Sunday, 2 April 2000


The expected is never quite as devastating as the unexpected, so the Queensland Liberal Party is less dispirited after the results of the Brisbane City Council election than it deserves to be. For some failure is becoming a comfortable habit.

The result is the worst ever for the party in the city council. In each of the previous two elections it has lost one seat. This time it decided to outperform and lost 2. It now holds just 8 wards out of 26. In terms of the mayoral vote it appears to have improved on the 1997 result by about 1% - close to a statistical dead heat.

So why the poor performance? The reasons are obvious. No money, too many messages (and none of them right), too little manpower, incompetent management, and constant internal faction fighting. The party is no longer capable of making a connection with its constituency. The more interesting question is what can it do about it?

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For a start it should admit its failure. The party suffers from a public perception of weakness. That perception is heightened when party leaders blame internal dissidents speaking out publicly or the ALP’s massive spend for their result. The Public knows that these are not the reasons and sees the Party as even weaker because it will not acknowledge the truth.

There are a number of aspects to the lack of money. There is a massive imbalance in wealth between the non-Labor and Labor parties in Queensland. The Queensland ALP is the beneficiary of some long past financial acumen with an investment fund that 8 years ago was estimated to have $22 Million in it. Added to that, electoral disclosure laws have made it more difficult to raise corporate donations, while leaving union donations almost unaffected. What corporate donors there are hedge their bets. In a council election they tend to be in the property industry and easier for the incumbent to tap, especially if they think he will win and be in a continuing position to review their development applications.

All of these are given, and most of them are the challenges that any Opposition must overcome. And they have been overcome in the past by a combination of disciplined fundraising and clever campaigning. It is not necessary to spend $2M to counter a $2M campaign. In the 1995 State Election the Coalition did it with a joint campaign of just $500,000, because it got its message precisely right and delivered it surgically, while the ALP sprayed their $2M all over the place.

The internal faction fighting is another matter. It is not the problem - it is a symptom of the problem. Campaigns which are well managed and achieving their goals minimise faction fighting. Ones like the last one merely exacerbate it. When Party President, the dapper Con Galtos, threatens to expel people who speak out, the public aren’t duped. They know that the threat is directed selectively at those who disagree with him. If the party really believed that people who talk to journalists should be expelled, then Mr Galtos himself would be one of the first to go, followed closely by Immediate Past President Bob Carroll and Santo Santoro and just about anyone else of any eminence.

The next thing that it needs to do is to fix its factional problem. The Queensland Liberal Party only has one faction – that of Santo Santoro. It is organised along ALP lines with its leadership meeting regularly and making decisions which are then implemented by its rank and file soldiers. The rest of the party tends to coalesce around former Party President Bob Tucker, but this is a loose alliance. It is defined mostly by opposition to Santoro and contains the remnants of the small "l" Liberals who used to control the party.

Santoro has been in and out of a position of control of the party 3 times since 1983. The first was briefly as the original enforcer for John Moore when he replaced John Herron as State President after the 1983 State election debacle. He then turned on Moore, eventually replacing him with the disastrous Bill Everingham who was succeeded by his cousin Paul. This second period almost culminated in the party being taken over by the National Party. The third period started in 1997 with Bob Carroll, followed by Con Galtos.

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So evenly poised have the groupings been for most of this time that when Santoro first attempted to install Bill Everingham he was seen off by John Moore at the 1988 Convention with a margin of just 5 votes out of approximately 550. When Paul Everingham resigned in 1994 Santoro backed Galtos. Tucker beat him in an Executive ballot by 1 vote out of a total of around 40.

There is a parallel to the position in which the Queensland Liberal Party now finds itself, and that is with the Queensland Labor Party in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In 1974 Queensland Labor was reduced to 11 seats out of 82 in the State Parliament, and in 1975 it lost every Federal seat that it held apart from Oxley. Its only success was in the Brisbane City Council where, in 1973, Clem Jones won all but one ward against the Citizens Municipal Organisation. (The Liberal Party did not contest civic elections then). The faction fighting was extreme with current State Premier, Peter Beattie, locked out of the Party’s Breakfast Creek Headquarters. He set up an alternative administration in the CBD. The ALP ordered federal intervention, and new factions formed which helped balance the competing interests.

Dr Dennis Murphy, an academic became President, and he and Beattie set about modernising the party, and recruiting candidates like Wayne Goss who were more in tune with the times. By 1989 it had the best campaigning capacity of any Queensland Party, and that continues today.

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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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