It now appears certain that the Liberal and National parties in Queensland will merge in a long anticipated move that even a few months ago I thought would once again fall over before fruition. Turning back now, however, would cause such massive political damage as to be unthinkable – even given the fraught history within and between these two parties in Queensland.
In many ways, relations between the two parties have never really recovered from the famous tearing up of the Coalition agreement by former Liberal leader Terry White in 1983 – totally correct on policy and ethical grounds, but clearly disastrous for his party on political grounds – and the post-election defection of Liberals Don Lane and Brian Austin to the Nationals, which allowed Joh Bjelke-Petersen to govern in his own right.
Regardless of anything else one could say, it is no mean feat to bring about a merger of two parties. To have pulled it off is quite an achievement for Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg, although it is also a reflection of the political (and financial) weakness of the Liberals in Queensland, and to a lesser extent their current difficulties at Federal level.
It is still unclear precisely what ramifications this merger will have on the non-Labor side of politics federally, but they will undoubtedly be significant in the long-term.
A recent piece in The Australian by Nick Dyrenfurth and Paul Strangio of Monash University gives an idea of the sort of impact this change might have on the political landscape, as well as showing that it is just the latest twist in a central current of Australian politics that stretches back 100 years.
These two academics are writing a book on the centenary of the 1909 fusion between the main non-Labor parties in Australia – Alfred Deakin’s protectionist liberals and George Reid’s conservative free-traders. Despite their largely incompatible political ideologies, one key sympathy between both groups was their desire to avoid remaining in perpetual opposition against a ruling Labor Party which one year earlier had formally rejected any form of ongoing alliance with the socially progressive liberals. The politically pragmatic need to coalesce into a single non-Labor party won out over any philosophical differences – exactly what is now occurring in Queensland.
The 1909 fusion had a number of hiccups and changes along the way, before coming together most successfully in the modern Liberal Party. Will Queensland’s LNP resemble the organisationally successful deal that Menzies managed with the founding of the modern Liberal Party in 1945? Or will it follow the less successful alliance that Menzies was also involved in, when the United Australia Party that he led as Prime Minister fell out of power in 1941, in part due to disputes with their Coalition partner, the then Country Party – the Nationals’ predecessor?
Whereas Menzies’s Liberal Party is often portrayed as bringing together followers of the ideologies of conservatism and liberalism into one broad church, this addition of the modern-day Nationals – a party recently described without any apparent irony by Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce as "agrarian socialists" – is another thing again.
It is easy to get fixated on ideological descriptions for political parties. But while many Australians have loyalty to one major party or another, only a very few worry about the detail of particular ideologies or attach themselves rigidly to a particular ideological prescription – such as Burkean Conservative, Lockean Liberal, democratic socialist or whatever the latest label du jour of political scientists may be.
One can certainly identify ideological strands among the two major political parties in Australia, but parties tend to succeed in this country when they are politically pragmatic rather than ideologically pure.
There are three key questions that need to be asked about the Liberal-National merger in Queensland.
The first is: will it make them more electable? Pending any major post-merger divisions, it is hard to see how the move could make them any less electable, although in part this is because even in coalition the two separate parties had struggled to overcome public perceptions of their respective baggage from the past 20 years or more.
The second question is what effect will it have at the Federal level and around the rest of the country? The Federal Liberal Party is clearly going through some difficult times at the moment and my feeling is that while the change in Queensland may add to the identity crisis within the Federal Liberals, it will probably be of little consequence in itself in the short term. However, it is impossible for it not to have major impacts in the medium term.
There are already significant tensions between the Liberals and Nationals in Canberra, which have flared up again with the upcoming by-election for the seat of former Nationals Leader, Mark Vaile. Pre-selections for sitting members within the new Queensland LNP are guaranteed for now, but as new Coalition members come into the Federal Parliament from Queensland, the way each chooses to align themselves, as a Liberal or National, will make a big difference to the internal balance of the federal Coalition.
And finally: how will the merger influence the philosophical and policy direction of the non-Labor party in Queensland? It seems hard to dispute that this latest merger moves the major non-Labor forces in Queensland even more firmly to the conservative right. The dominant numbers, the major players and the major funders all align strongly with a fundamentalist conservative right-wing mindset that fits comfortably in the Bjelke-Petersen mould still familiar to many Queenslanders, and which genuine liberals shunned in the 1980s. That liberal strand has now been completely subsumed.
However, one can also say that this change is not mainly about asserting ideological dominance, but rather about a new marketing angle to improve electoral chances. Like any major party, the new entity will try to focus on a few key messages and themes that it hopes will appeal to a majority of the electorate and homing in on disaffection with their opponent.
Given the recent history of non-Labor politics in Queensland, it is totally understandable that they look for a way to re-brand themselves as something new and credible. Despite the fact that every description of the merger refers to the "conservative parties" uniting, the new party website uses the description "a new progressive Liberal-National Party", which is a reminder that in marketing (and politics) words mean whatever you want them to mean.
There will obviously continue to be significant disagreements between elements of the newly merged party, but in my opinion, the suggestion by Queensland Labor Treasurer Andrew Fraser that the merger is "the biggest sham marriage since Elton John and Renata" is seriously off the mark (and a bit offensive too).
Of course the views of those who run a party are pivotal. Whereas the media mostly looks at issues through the prism of what impact they might have on the major parties’ relative electoral chances, it is the direct impact those issues have on people’s lives which really matters.
So even though this change is driven primarily by the need to re-brand the non-Labor side of politics, the fact that it has given hardline conservatism the upper hand in the new party is also significant. If they somehow manage to get into government at the next election (which would have to still be seen as long shot, given the size of the Government’s majority) the merger could have quite a big impact on the lives of average Queenslanders.
But given that Queensland Labor governments have been almost as comfortable with authoritarianism and cronyism as the Bjelke-Petersen-style conservatives, it does mean that people who see themselves philosophically as liberals may find themselves with no place to go – although in many ways, that’s been the case for some time.
Federal Labor Minster Chris Bowen recently sought to portray the Labor Party as the natural home of liberals. The Democrats did the same in the past and no doubt the Greens could make a case too should they choose to use this language.
But while all parties, including the new Queensland LNP, might each wish to be seen as the natural home of liberals, it may be that Australian politics – and thus the Australian public – is generally not very receptive to an approach which is consistently and genuinely liberal.
Perhaps the more optimistic assessment is that liberalism is so naturally embedded in the mindset of Australians that every political party needs to attract their support. Or is the liberal just more likely to be a swinging voter?