Daily Media Quotation
Why The Queensland Merger Would Have Been A Disaster
June 2, 2006
by John Warhurst - Canberra Times
A political party system can be visualised in several ways. Some see it as a left-right continuum with parties dotted along its length from far left to far right. In this visualisation the party system runs from the Greens on the Left through Labor and the Democrats to the Liberals, Family First, the Nationals and One Nation.
Others see the system as a multi-dimensional constellation of parties with axes that include left-right, materialist-post-materialist, religious-secular, urban-rural and so on.
However it is seen, any political party system has inter-related parts. Each party is in a general contest with all the other parties for survival and success.
This applies even when the two parties are such close allies that they are long-term Coalition partners like the Nationals and the Liberals. The Australian party systems (federal and state), encouraged by the preferential voting system, also include other sets of adversaries and allies.
The main adversaries are Labor and the Coalition. The Greens and the Democrats are both allies and adversaries for the Senate vote. The new Family First Party set out deliberately to foil its arch-rival, the Greens, at the 2004 election.
That is the broad context of the ill-fated proposal by the Queensland Nationals and Queensland Liberals to merge into a new party to be called the New Liberals. One change affects everyone else.
A political marriage such as this would have had a knock-on effect in Queensland and federally.
The merger is an old idea, and by no means a silly one. If it was stupid it would not have been supported by many political hard-heads, though they have mainly been from the Nationals, the more vulnerable of the two stand-alone parties Australia-wide.
The logic for the merger within Queensland is arguable. There may be local advantages in attempting to defeat Peter Beattie's Labor Government by the formation of a single conservative party.
But if there are they seem mainly to flow from reducing the extremely poisonous atmosphere created by the two existing parties themselves. If the relations had been harmonious in the first place the argument for a merger would have been nowhere near as strong.
The logic is that more voters will be attracted to a single united party. Seemingly more important to the movers and shakers in this deal is that the financial support of business will be attracted if, and only if, the merger takes place.
But business is often ignorant about politics, and I agree with one of the anti-merger Nationals, Senator Ron Boswell, that having separate parties is like a vacuum cleaner. It goes out and sucks out all that conservative vote from every little crevice.
Two separate parties won the Howard Coalition four Queensland Senate seats in 2004, giving the Government an outright majority in the Senate for three years.
One big party risks being seen to discriminate against opinions and interests that are given space to breathe in two smaller parties. Indeed, some sitting MPs might have chosen to remain outside the new party.
One obvious danger was that rural interests would think the Nationals had been contaminated by city interests, to the extent of country people becoming a rump in a city majority party.
Peter Beattie was already stoking that fire. According to Beattie, the Nationals had given up the bush by deserting bush voters. One Nation resurgent was one possibility. Another new country-based party was another.
Equally, would there have been an influential place in the big new party for urban progressive liberals? Small-"l" Liberals would have felt even more threatened than they already are. Certainly the Greens would be campaigning hard to wean centrist environmentalists away from the big new party. Their task would have been made easier.
The Queensland Liberals were hurt in Brisbane seats by the Nationals' equivocation about One Nation in the 1998 state election, and suffered losses from guilt by association. But they knew all this and still seemed determined to proceed.
Whatever the balance of argument about the merger in Queensland, the idea had many more negatives nationally. That is why John Howard was so firmly against it. He had already suffered from the Joh-for-Canberra push by the Queensland Nationals in 1987.
What was also clear was that the inter-penetration of federal and state politics is such that the merger was all or nothing. The compromise position of a quarantined merger in Queensland and a Coalition elsewhere is just not possible in practice. This is the so-called Country Liberal Party model used to accommodate the conservative federal members from the Northern Territory in the two federal party rooms. Under this arrangement one MP sits in the Liberal Party room and the other in the Nationals room. If there is only one then she or he has a choice.
This is workable only on a small scale. But Queensland is large and growing and has 28 Coalition MPs. It would not only be cumbersome to split up those federal MPs from the New Liberal party into two party rooms in the future, but it would make nonsense of the distinct identity of the two Coalition parties in NSW and Victoria.
For this reason a Queensland merger would have been the beginning of the end for the Coalition of separate parties. Howard and Mark Vaile recognised that if it had succeeded it would have led inexorably, if not immediately, to an Australia-wide merger that neither supported.
John Warhurst is professor of political science at the Australian National University.