For the past 25 years, federal Coalition victories have been built on strong results in Queensland. John Moore’s resignation as Minister for Defence, and his announced intention to resign as the Member for Ryan, have set off aftershocks that demonstrate Queensland will be a problem for Howard this election.
It was already a fragile state. Five of the eight most marginal Coalition seats are in Queensland. And the state branch has been in almost constant crisis since 1983.
The fragility and lack of depth in the Queensland Liberal Party is demonstrated by the fact that in the Ministerial reshuffle Queensland missed out on Cabinet representation entirely. In electoral terms this does not help perceptions at the next election. In practical terms it means that Queensland will be disadvantaged when high-level policy discussions take place. To be fair, this is not entirely Queensland’s fault. Howard could have promoted Senator Ian MacDonald, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, or put David Jull back into the Ministry.
A safe seat like Ryan, which takes in the most affluent suburban area of Brisbane, is a natural opportunity to inject new talent into the Queensland branch. The two frontrunners for the seat are Michael Johnson and Matthew Boland. Do they offer the Liberal Party hope for the future?
Michael Johnson was unknown in the Liberal Party a couple of years ago. Since then he has rapidly risen to prominence. Not through policy debate or by being conspicuously brave during election campaigns, but because he has signed up 300 or so ethnic Chinese members to Ryan with the avowed intention of being the next member. Inquiries show that many of these do not live in the area, and some of them are foreign residents. Johnson qualified as a barrister last year, but appears to be of the briefless kind, not even maintaining chambers. Before that he spent most of his 30 years studying, apart from a couple of years doing articles with law firm Minter Ellison.
Matthew Boland is also in his late 20s but has a demonstrated track record, first as Young Liberal state president, and then as Federal Y/L president. He is currently a vice-president of the senior Party and employed as a solicitor. His background also is not quite standard. His first political involvement was as a member of the National Party where he was involved in the Joh for PM campaign.
Contrast these two candidates with the front-running candidate for pre-selection for Ryan of 25 years ago. John Moore was 39 years of age and a major figure in the Brisbane business and political community. He had been the youngest member of the Brisbane stock exchange. His commercial career included founding Waltons Finance and company directorships. He had sporting credentials, and was President of the Lawn Tennis Association. By the age of 37 he had progressed from Treasurer to President of the Party. Clearly he had the demonstrated ability to go right to the top.
But the ultimate unsuitability of the two current front-runners is not just a question of personal substance, it is a question of political sense. The Queensland Labor Party is in the middle of a crisis induced by years of apparently methodical abuse of the electoral process for internal political gain. It is on the defensive, having lost the Deputy Premier, another state Member and a state candidate to allegations of rorting. As of this morning’s Courier Mail the tally appears likely to increase by another two state MPs.
This gives the coalition its best opportunity for wresting power from the ALP, and the ALP knows it. As a result they have been counter-attacking by questioning the Liberal Party’s internal processes. The best result for the ALP is that the public throws up its hands and says "You’re both as bad as each other … we’ll stick with Beattie, we like him, and at least he’s trying to do something about it."
Johnson has been accused of rorting. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Chiou from the University of Queensland claimed to be one of the masterminds behind it. He was quoted as saying "… the Liberals were targeted rather than Labor because it was easier for Chinese Australians without longstanding party loyalties to be preselected." Under Liberal Party rules anyone who is a branch member in a Federal Electorate can vote in the preselection for the federal representative. The only qualification for branch membership is to be over the age of 16. There is no geographical, or nationality qualification, and Johnson appears to have exploited this loophole.
But there are also suggestions of illegality. Under the Liberal Party Constitution it is illegal to pay for another’s membership. It was alleged under parliamentary privilege that Johnson had in fact offered to do this. At the time it was denied, however, in today’s Australian, it is revealed that Johnson in fact did pay some memberships. There are also suggestions in the press that many of Johnson’s members may have been signed on at cut rates as students or pensioners when they are neither.
Boland also comes with baggage. In 1996 he was censured for his role in rorting and fraud that had occurred in the Young Liberal movement. And while the focus in Ryan has been on the ethnic Chinese enrolments, Boland also presides over some rotten boroughs. Most members of Young Liberal branches live anywhere but Ryan.
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