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The 1983 Queensland Coalition split: a tale of opportunism, hubris and miscalculation

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 25 October 2023

This 22 October marks the fortieth anniversary of the unexpected early 1983 Queensland election that had long term national and state impacts.

It ended of the then 26 year coalition between the Nationals with its more junior Liberal Party partner allowing the Premier Bjelke-Petersen's Nationals to govern for the first time in their own right. Its impacts on Queensland politics are still reverberating today. Nationally, it also caused a split in the federal coalition, almost permanently destroying John Howard's career, and contributed to federal Labor's record 13 years in office.

Yet few remember this landmark election.


What happened?

The 1983 election was caused when Liberal minister, Terry White in August 1983 broke ranks with his coalition cabinet ministers and voted with a clique of Liberal backbenchers to change the order of business in parliament for their motion for a public accounts committee. Although supported by the Labor opposition, it was easily defeated.

Although a minor issue, White's actions triggered a series of events few expected. He was immediately sacked by his own Liberal leader and Deputy Premier, Dr Llew Edwards for failing to maintain cabinet solidarity.

The Liberals had been under increasing electoral pressure from the Nationals so White's revolt was seen by many that the Liberals were at last willing to stand up to the premier and his dictatorial ways. So, in the ensuing euphoria which followed, White, within a week, replaced Edwards as Liberal parliamentary leader.

White and those who supported him, assumed he would take over Edwards' roles as treasurer and deputy premier, rejoin cabinet, capitalise on his high profile, articulate a more 'liberal' policy approach, and restore the Liberals' fortunes to become the senior coalition partner.

This was not to be.


Premier Bjelke-Petersen refused to accept White in cabinet for the very reasons Edwards had sacked him – he had broken cabinet solidarity. After several weeks of confusion and bluff and counter bluff, the Liberals were forced to leave the government, thus ending the coalition, leaving the Nationals in office to continue governing by themselves. They quickly prorogued parliament and called a snap election. They had the resources of government and projected themselves as a party of stability.

The results saw a large movement of the non-Labor vote from the Liberals to the Nationals. The Nationals' overall statewide vote rose to 39 per cent – up 11 per cent giving them 41 seats in the 82 seat unicameral legislature. They won numerous Brisbane seats.

The Liberals lost 14 seats – some to the Nationals and some to Labor – and were reduced to just eight seats. Two Liberal defections[i] gave the Nationals the majority they needed to form government in their own right. The Liberals quickly dumped White as leader and were vanquished to the cross-bench with their then six members. It waa political purgatory – neither in government nor in opposition and thus politically irrelevant.

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This article was first published on Policy Insights.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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