The resignation of Santo Santoro, first from the Howard ministry over his failure to declare share dealings, and now from the Senate, combined with police investigations into three other Queensland federal members over electoral expenses, has meant that the Queensland Liberals have delivered the Howard Government an electoral death blow.
This unfolding scandal about Santoro and other Queensland Liberals has been as inevitable as it is tragic.
For years, Santoro has been a dominant player in the Queensland Liberals. The problems of the Queensland Liberals must inevitably reflect his influences. And for years, the Queensland Liberals have been marked by gross ineptitude, poor leadership and mismanagement.
Rumours about secret slush funds, branch stackings and rigged pre-selections have abounded. Bitter factional disputes were seen to drive out talent. Only the success of the Howard Government and the number of federal seats won by the Queensland Liberals masked these failures, but the real underlying problems were there if we made the effort to look.
Now, with Santoro's fall from grace, the whole rotten edifice that is the Queensland Liberal Party is there for all to see. It is not a pretty sight.
The Queensland Liberal Party stands condemned, not only for its appalling practices and some of its poor selections for public office and its internal problems but also for how it is going to bring down the Howard Government. The Queensland Liberal disease has spread to Canberra.
Yet John Howard must take some blame. Howard ignored the underlying problems in the Queensland Liberals. He took the easy way out in rewarding Santoro with a ministry and accepting the factional deal, despite the poor performance of the Queensland Liberals. For many, Santoro's elevation to the ministry was a reward for a job badly done.
Howard took the easy way out several years ago when he rejected the opportunity for federal intervention to put the Queensland Liberals' house in order, to demolish it and rebuild it from the ground up.
Instead, there was only a patch-up job, a quick paint over the cracks. Howard had the prestige and influence to have overseen a major reconstruction. It is too late now for repairs.
Howard's real failure at the end of the year will not just be his own loss of office but rather the parlous state in which he has left the Liberal Party around Australia. Howard has not attended to ensuring the Liberal Party remains a vibrant political organisation. Consequently, the Liberals will have difficulty in bouncing back quickly from the defeats that have already occurred and from those that are likely to follow.
Indeed, the Liberal Party following a Howard Government election loss will be in a worse state than at any time in its 60-year history. It will be out of office across all of Australia. Its party structure and membership, already in steep decline, will fall further. Its emaciated organisational networks will wither.
Attracting new talent will be difficult. Liberal finances will be stressed, as a party out of office and with little potential future success is worth nothing on the electoral market.
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