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What is John Howard doing in Queensland?

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 16 June 2000

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 players.

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 best ever.


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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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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