How the conservative faction set up the ultimate test for Morrison

Posted

April 25, 2019 06:00:57

The recent flexing of the conservative muscle in Queensland has rarely been more bold than in this tumultuous term in government.

Queensland is the only state home to an officially merged Liberal National Party (LNP) and the conservative arm has grabbed the wheel.

The power it has wielded has been audacious to say the least, with the ousting of a prime minister, the push for another coal-fired power station and final federal approvals granted for Adani.

Professor in politics at the Australian National University John Wanna said conservatives in regional Queensland are cutting through to their local audiences.

“They’re kind of lively characters or likeable rogues, they’ve managed to get that kind of media attention, pushing against what they would see as a politically correct mainstream view,” Professor Wanna said.

“Many of those LNP Nationals are very much in tune with the interests and the ideas of their electorates.”

But you can’t please everyone.

The ultimate test for party leaders is balancing the value of performing well in regional Queensland seats, against the potential loss of southern marginals.

Professor Wanna said there was clear evidence the party knows the stakes are high.

“We see quite a lot of the Liberals around Brisbane not wanting to buy into any of those politics that the national LNP people in the rest of the state want to fan out,” Professor Wanna said.

“They’re much more aligned with health issues, education issues, doing something on climate change — even if it’s green alternative measures … they’re much more muted.

“Trevor Evans in Brisbane, Luke Howarth in Petrie — they’d be much more aligned with people in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide than what they have with Townsville, Rockhampton.”

Fight for the centre is most fierce

Party strategists on both sides know the fight for the middle is where most elections are won and lost.

But in the pressure cooker of the 24-hour news cycle, keeping a lid on splintering factions and maverick politicians can be like herding cats.

Griffith University political scientist Professor Anne Tiernan said inter-party conflict was more complex than just left and right.

“Some of the splits have been about personality frankly, some of them have been about geography,” she said.

“Some of them reflect irreconcilable tensions exposed by significant variations in economic performance across different parts of Australia.

“It’s no longer a ‘two-speed’ economy — it’s far more differentiated.

“In Queensland, people in regional communities have concerns about where jobs and economic opportunities will come from, given pressure for action to address climate change and to transition away from coal to renewable and clean energy,” she said.

“These issues present intractable dilemmas, particularly in very marginal seats — I’m thinking of Capricornia, Flynn, those other ones in the north like Dawson.

An example of a fresh split — at least on the state level — was the varying views on abortion.

Three city liberal MPs voted with Labor to decriminalise abortion last year, sending a shiver down the spine of conservatives who had rallied for anti-abortion policies at the LNP’s annual conferences just months prior.

New ideas running dry

The challenge for political leaders is coming up with fresh ideas to take the country forward and presenting them clearly and persuasively.

Professor Tiernan said those new visions had “run out”.

“The neo-liberal orthodoxy that dominated policy thinking in recent decades — both here and internationally — seems to have run its course, but it’s unclear what will replace it,” she said.

“Another problem is that the talent pool of people who have done hard policy graft through a long period of opposition just isn’t there because they actually weren’t out of office very long.

“You can’t develop a policy agenda in office because you’re too busy governing.”

Professor Tiernan said the Howard government experienced this difficulty in the beginning of 1997.

“Once you’ve implemented your election commitments, what then?,” she said.

“How do governments keep refreshing their agenda and keep dominating?

“I think it’s been really, really difficult obviously for the last five prime ministers to do that, stretching back to Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull.

“In the vacuum of ideas, then you can have these personality conflicts.”

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