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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.

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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.

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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.

Secondly, it will lead to further coalition bickering, with the National Party threatening to run in a number of urban seats, endangering a unified campaign at the next election. The National Party are also hard bargainers and are likely to refuse to run a joint campaign until the issue is sorted out, giving Beattie more free time to get on top of damaging issues like his petrol price gaffe and abandonment of his jobs target.

Thirdly, the Liberal Party looks like it has returned to its old quarrelsome, self-interested ways. To lose the three-cornered contest that caused the biff would prejudice future three-cornered contests.

It is easy to see why Galtos and Watson were happy to pass on this one.

Why is the Santoro/Carroll faction so keen to run? One reason would be that Galtos and Watson had decided not to, against the wishes of the locals. That Santoro uses these issues opportunistically is well demonstrated by the fact that at the same time as he was telling Liberals he supported running he was telling Borbidge and the Nationals he was opposed! Another reason is that Santoro cannot get the numbers to be parliamentary leader in the current parliamentary party. To become leader, a dream he has nursed for 20-something years, he needs an influx of new blood – it does not matter if the injection occurs by taking a seat from Labor or the Nationals.

With these machinations taking place, and in the light of previous organisational campaigning incompetence, Watson decided that he had to set himself apart from the ruling organisational faction. So, in response to a question at a press conference on Monday 5th June, he made the comment that the people behind the Cunningham push were hardly strategic geniuses – they were the same people responsible for the One Nation preference deal. Incredibly, Santoro took offence and issued an ultimatum: either Watson excepted him from the comments and expressed confidence in him by 2:00pm Wednesday, or he would resign.

Watson chose to downplay the challenge, and refused to work to Santoro’s timetable. Instead he asked why Santoro thought the comment implicated him. Wasn’t he on the record as saying he had not been involved in the One Nation deal?

While Santoro makes this claim, it is contrary to the facts but very important to Santoro, as he now relies on 400 or so ethnic Chinese stacked into two branches to deliver outcomes critical to him. Given that Santoro has never publicly admitted to being a power broker, Watson might also have asked what part he had to play in the decision to run, or otherwise, in Cunningham.

He did accuse Santoro of being a prima donna, but under the circumstances, and given the fact that he was being stood over, that would appear to be a moderate response. Santoro duly followed through his threat.

Santoro’s resignation is a good thing for Watson. It flushes him out as a troublemaker and factional leader who is running a party within a party. The next day’s Courier Mail even carried a story where Santoro admitted to raising huge amounts of funds and doling them out to party units. He denied that favours were ever asked in return.

When the party makes yet another blue, Watson will credibly be able to point at Santoro and Carroll and their party within the party, and seek to build a popular mandate for himself.

The same Courier Mail report has Howard issuing a directive that no more Federal Ministers are to lend themselves to Santoro’s fundraising efforts, which returns us to the original question as to why Howard would buy into a state scrap.

The least sensational theory is that it was done to head off trouble with Nats like De-Anne Kelly and Bob Katter and three-cornered contests at a Federal level. That doesn’t seem to lead too far. Kelly and Katter will always be trouble, and three-cornered contests at a Federal level go on all the time almost unremarked.

The most sensational theory is that it was done to head off trouble with Peter Costello. In this theory, Howard chooses to make a stand with Watson because Santoro has dumped him in favour of Costello. Howard now sees the whole Queensland apparatus as potentially conspiring to depose him. Certainly, Santoro has dumped Howard for Costello, and will tell anyone he meets in Queen Street whether they have five minutes or not. His latest protégé, Senator George Brandis, is a long-time Howard enemy and Costello booster - further proof.

John Moore is also wrapped up in this theory. He has form when it comes to deposing Howard, and when he was unable to attend the Executive meeting wanted to appoint Groom MP Ian McFarlane in his place. McFarlane is one of the strongest proponents of running in Cunningham, so this was not a neutral act.

The middle-of-the-road theory is that the Prime Minister is genuinely worried that in the case of the Queensland Liberal organisation, organisation is an oxymoron. If he doesn’t take control it will be incapable of running a Federal Campaign in 12 months time. Calls for federal intervention by former state presidents like Paul Everingham tend to support this view.

Whatever the reason, Howard’s intervention was dramatic and unprecedented, involving the federal director, the federal president, the federal party’s pollster and a handpicked delegate to the meeting - Senator John Herron. Howard lost the fight only marginally. If three people had changed their minds it would have gone the other way.

If the two more extreme scenarios are correct Howard needs to continue to engage, and not be dissuaded by this setback. Santoro has picked a difficult ground upon which to fight. Not only is he clearly the aggressor when he prefers to portray himself as the victim, but in the past he has generally allied himself with the pro-National/anti-three-cornered contest elements in the party. These people should be questioning their position, and the closeness of the vote indicates they probably are.

The Queensland Liberal Party needs a leader who is not tainted by the factionalism. This issue opens up potentially new alliances within the party. It must be the only branch where the Prime Minister and the moderates are shoulder to shoulder. Watson has always, until now, been able to talk to both sides. Without another contender, perhaps he is the one who can engineer a truce. The Liberal Party Constitution gives a lot of power to parliamentary leaders. If Howard and Watson can’t pull the Queensland Party together then no one can.

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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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