Billy Trenwith's warning

29 Jul 2008

The merger of Queensland’s Liberals and Nationals could end in tears, writes BRIAN COSTAR.

NEARLY 100 years ago, on the eve of the merger of the Protectionist and Free Trade parties to create Australia’s first Liberal Party, Senator Billy Trenwith made a confession at his party meeting. “I feel very strongly that we are about to make a mistake,” he said, “and yet I am very sorry to say, I see no possible way of preventing it.”

Last week, as it was being steamrolled into an amalgamation with the National Party, the Queensland division of the Liberal Party of Australia was in much the same position. Yet I doubt whether the cautioning voice of a modern day Trenwith would have been heard above the cacophony of whoopin’ and hollerin’ that greeted the birth of the Liberal National Party at Brisbane’s Sofitel Hotel.

Make no mistake, this is not a marriage of equals. The Liberal Party will be swamped by the larger, more financially strong and more tightly disciplined National Party. It is also a political strategy driven by the desperation of opposition. The Coalition has been in government in Queensland for less than three of the last twenty years.

The architects of this union were the state National Party leadership and the right-wing faction of the Liberals. But behind it all were the political donors - some of whom were also supporters of the catastrophic Joh-for-PM bandwagon in 1987. Their message was blunt: “No merger, no money.”

Political parties certainly need money, but not as much as they need votes. The acid test of this union will come at the next state election; if it doesn’t perform well in terms of votes and seats, a nasty divorce is likely. That election is not due until 2009, but might Premier Bligh be tempted to go early if the LNP shows signs of internal division?

The new party is almost certainly to be more conservative than the pre-existing Liberal party - especially on social issues - and this might not prove attractive to the urban middle classes, who are certainly more numerous in Queensland than when Bjelke-Petersen mis-governed the state. Unless the party can harvest Brisbane seats from Labor it will not win government.

It is no secret that there were Liberals in Queensland and elsewhere who were passionately opposed to the merger. Might not some malcontent (or should I say Mal-content?) object to Australian Electoral Commission over the new party’s application for registration? A case could be made that its name is too similar to those of two already-registered parties - a similar case to the one that was mounted successfully by the Liberal Party against its one-time opponent, Liberals for Forests.

Alternatively, could Liberal or National federal politicians block the deregistration of their existing parties? Not surprisingly, the relevant sections of the Commonwealth Electoral Act do not anticipate a merger between two existing parties that leaves in its wake some very unhappy members of those parties. This could end up in the courts.

Candidate preselection is sure to be fraught in the new party. This much is clear from an extraordinary clause that sets out the Senate ticket for the next scheduled federal election. Current Liberal Senators Brandis, Mason and Trood occupy places 1, 3 and 4, with National Senator Joyce placed second. Unless there is a double dissolution, it is unlikely that Senator Trood could win from fourth place - remember, he was a surprise victor at the 2004 Latham election.

Sitting House of Representative members have been granted similar preselection immunity for the next election as have their state colleagues, but thereafter candidates will be selected by the new party. If Mal Brough, one of the most outspoken opponents of the merger, wants to return to federal parliament he may need to consider migrating interstate.

The merger idea is unlikely to spread beyond Queensland, but this does not mean it will have no effect on the federal Liberal Party. The LNP constitution makes it clear that the new party “shall be a Division of the Liberal Party of Australia,” meaning that it will be entitled to representation on the Liberal Party’s federal organisational wing. The LNP’s president, for example, will automatically become a member of the party’s federal executive.

And who might this new member of the Liberal Party’s organisational leadership be? The Liberals failed in their bid to gain the presidency of the new party, which went instead to Bruce McIver. Mr McIver, the former Nationals president, has been described as being “aligned to the religious Right of the Nationals.” In 2007, when legislation to permit human cloning for stem cell research was before the Queensland parliament and all MPs were given a free vote, McIver sent an email to National MPs telling them to vote against the bill. He was publicly castigated for doing so by the Nationals’ parliamentary leader Jeff Seeney. A few months later Mr Seeney was no longer leader.

What was that you said, Senator Trenwith?

Brian Costar is Professor of Victorian Parliamentary Democracy in the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology

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