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The Queensland Liberal Party needs to sit up and face some facts

By Darlene Taylor - posted Monday, 8 March 2004

If Queensland's best buddy was the Liberals, and the party kept complaining about its controlling, old-fashioned, on-off paramour, the Nationals, the state would be wise to advise: "For Pete's sake, stop being a doormat, get your act together and work things out once and for all."

Parliamentary leader Bob Quinn's outright rejection of National Party leader Lawrence Springborg's post-election suggestion of a merger between the conservatives shows the Liberals can be assertive, if a little adamant in this instance given the election results, and are eager to improve their position in a revised Coalition. (This eagerness apparently made no impact because, as announced in The Courier-Mail on 2 March 2004, the Coalition has disintegrated once again).

Issues such as negatives associated with the no-three-cornered-contests arrangement and the over-emphasis on Springborg in advertising should have been up for discussion without the whole relationship breaking down. The Liberals might have gone in all guns blazing and told the Nationals that in the interest of projecting independence, or of not being the "the urban tail being wagged by the rural dog", they are swayed by political scientist Paul Reynolds's analysis that "...the two parties (should) only form a coalition in government".


Given their history, though, it is easy to believe that when Quinn told Springborg to take a cold shower over the merger plan it was as pro-active as the Liberals are going to get. After all, the most notorious display of Liberal bravado was over 20 years ago when short-lived leader, Terry White, rent asunder the Coalition agreement (ripping up a media release was a nice touch and provided a lasting media image).

This is not to deny the efforts of those who have fought against the surrender of liberal values, such as the right to march, to the Nationals’ social conservatism. The decision to preference Pauline Hanson's One Nation in 1998 was not favoured by all members, while voters who are Liberals by nature have made their opposition felt over, for example, Rob Borbidge's tub-thumping over Wik and the reliance on law-and-order, which was recently manifested in support for a youth curfew.

Not unusually for a third party, and especially one in a state with no upper house, Liberal leaders have found it difficult to garner attention. The party has had eight leaders in three decades including the relatively strong Gordon Chalk, pliable Bill Knox, who held the job twice, and the mostly unacknowledged Dr David Watson, who led them to near annihilation after being swamped in the Beattie landslide of 2001.

In this year's campaign, Lawrence Springborg jogged, ironed and posed his way into voters' minds, and some women and gay men's hearts, even if this barely registered at the ballot box. As for Bob Quinn, Dr Paul Williams of Griffith University expressed "surprise" prior to election day that "... he hasn't been more active". According to Williams, rightly as it turned out, such "poor campaigning" would “probably” see the party not succeed in recapturing the former heartland seats of Clayfield and Indooroopilly.

Perhaps just as destructive as the failure to differentiate themselves and promote their leaders has been the Liberals’ faith in external forces to inevitably make them the senior conservative grouping in Queensland.

The unpopularity of Gough Whitlam and the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) less-than-healthy Queensland Branch helped the Liberals achieve their highest number of seats in parliament in 1974, but a reformative ALP and an ambitious National Party soon put paid to that. While the Nationals now struggle for relevance, back then their incursions into the South East, name change, and commitment to progress made them seem like the very model of a modern major party, with the increasingly dominant "General" Joh Bjelke-Petersen in charge.


The mistakes of Bjelke-Petersen in the last days of his administration, the Fitzgerald Inquiry's revelations of corruption, demographic and economic change and fair electoral boundaries have not been sufficient to grant the Liberals seniority, or even consistency from one election to the next. In the last two decades the Liberals have gone from six seats (after Don Lane and Brian Austin jumped ship to join the Nationals in 1983) to ten, eight, nine, fifteen, nine, three and five this year.

With such entrenched problems, the Liberals might like to join Springborg in that cold shower because it is going to take more than a single phenomenon, such as the future retirement of the popular Peter Beattie, to guarantee the next conservative premier will come from their ranks.

State President Michael Caltabiano's promise to "get to the bottom of it all" bodes well for a thorough examination into the party's woes, however, considering the organisation was dysfunctional enough to be threatened with federal intervention, it is difficult to accept that this will occur. That the intervention was of the non-interfering variety compounds this lack of confidence.

It appears the organisation left many of its candidates to their own devices during the recent campaign. Such grass-roots electioneering has positives, and is helped no end when you are up against an unpopular politician like Merri Rose, but its success often depends on the resources, knowledge and experience of those involved; a party candidate should be able to look to its organisation to provide these.

To the outsider it appears that most of the party's (negative) energy in recent years has come from Santo Santoro's quest for power, and later from those endeavouring to stymie it. This focus has been to the detriment of raising funds and cultivating relationships with community and business groups.

Although an observer could write off the Queensland Liberals, it must be remembered that the ALP spent 32 years in the electoral doldrums after 1957. Whether the Liberals also have a renaissance relies on whether, to paraphrase the band Green Day, they throw away their past mistakes and contemplate their future. Their five parliamentary members should have plenty of time for such introspection since their immediate future will be spent on the cross-benches.

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About the Author

Darlene Taylor writes for the popular group blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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