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September 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Nowhere To Go But Up For Coalition

September 11, 2006

by Glenn Milne - The Australian

The Liberal Party is today heaving a sigh of collective relief in the wake of the Queensland state election.

What's that, I hear you say? A sigh of relief? These guys only won eight or still possibly nine seats. Collectively they paved the way, through their own gross incompetence, for a third Beattie Labor landslide election victory. How can they possibly be relieved?

I'll tell you how. Internal polling, conducted by John Howard's pollster of choice, Mark Textor, showed that at the end of the first week of the campaign the Liberals stood to win only one seat in the Queensland Parliament. If you doubt Textor's polling, don't. Just ask the federal Labor Party. They know he's hit the bullseye for Howard for the past four elections. Even the ACTU goes to him for strategic advice. No doubt through gritted teeth.

So back to Queensland. You heard right. The Liberals were on target to win only one seat. And even that was doubtful. This was a party facing total annihilation. The fact that it has been returned with an eight-seat rump is something of an achievement. But the story of how they reached the point of Armageddon is also a roadmap to the future.

The knives are out in the Queensland party as two sets of forces coalesce out of the disaster: those blaming the bumbling neophyte leader, Bruce Flegg, for the debacle, and Flegg and his supporters, who are pointing the finger at the party's state director, Geoffrey Greene.

The Greene forces have the more credible case. Consider the narrative. Last year the Liberal and National parties resolved their internal tensions in Queensland and went back into coalition, the only arrangement that gave them a fighting chance of winning back government.

Weeks out from the election - which had already been widely tipped for September 9 - internal polling showed them to be in a strong position viz-a-viz Beattie. For a year the Opposition had made the so-called Dr Death scandal at Bundaberg hospital the dominant political issue in the state.

Then, right when they had Peter Beattie where they wanted him, they took out the gun and aimed it at their feet with the surprise announcement that they proposed to merge the two parties at a state level.

The surprise, of course, was on John Howard and National Party federal leader Mark Vaile.

Vaile and Howard promptly combined to skewer the idea. Prior to this the Coalition had been leading Labor 52 per cent to 48 per cent on a two-party preferred basis. As a result of the merger train wreck the Liberals' internal polling immediately tanked; their competency rating plunged five points before restoring itself.

There is an internal debate among senior Liberals about whether this was the point at which it all started to go pear-shaped. Some argue the party could have recovered. But what is incontestable is that the failure of the merger irrevocably destabilised Liberal leader, Bob Quinn, who was a major proponent of the idea. The result: with a September 9 election date writ larger than a Broadway billboard, Quinn was assassinated in a partyroom coup by Flegg.

Beattie had just been given the biggest get-out-of-jail ticket a politician had ever seen. In the first week after Flegg struck, the Liberals "unity" factor as measured by Textor dropped 30 points. Everything else followed, helped by Flegg's appalling performance.

Flegg, you have to understand, was a first-term parliamentarian. It showed. Asked on the first day of the campaign if the Coalition should win and the Liberal Party had more seats than the National Party, who would be premier? Flegg stumbled and eventually replied: "Lawrence Springborg," a direct contradiction of the Coalition agreement.

Textor watched in horror at the end of the first week of campaigning as the Liberals competency rating plummeted. The party's lead on who would better deal with health and water evaporated. A desperate Greene rang everyone he could asking for help and ideas, including the PM's office and Federal Liberal Party director, Brian Loughnane. Greene and Howard's office spoke three times. They simply didn't have any answers, admitting they had never seen such irretrievably bad numbers.

What Flegg had effectively done was take the spotlight off a vulnerable Beattie and turn it back on the Coalition. The Liberal campaign team discovered Flegg was also incapable of delivering a coherent line, no matter how intensely it was workshopped.

As a result, they were forced to go to negative advertising much earlier than they wanted to. The wheels were falling off. On the Monday night of the final week of the campaign the Liberals' last focus group concluded they had no confidence in Flegg's ability to fix the health system "because he was a bumbling fool".

Asked what was the biggest issue of the campaign, they agreed it was the Opposition. For three years the Coalition had been consistently ahead of Labor on economic management. Textor's final polling showed them lagging Beattie on this question 59 per cent to 32 per cent. The catastrophe was complete.

So where to now? Despite the Liberals' desperate shape, it's probably the Nationals who are in worse shape. They have maintained their parliamentary numbers but failed in the election to win one seat from Labor. They have been evicted from the southeast corner of Queensland and have a one-seat toehold on the mid north coast. There was a slight swing against them in regional Queensland.

The Nationals continue to decline as a political force. It's Brisbane and the southeast corner where the tectonic plates need to shift to see a change of government. Of the 37 seats in the Queensland capital the Liberals hold two.

It seems like an impossible ask next time around. Or is it? Liberal senator George Brandis put it well: "The story of this election was that faced with the choice of a government which voters held in contempt or an Opposition that had failed to win their confidence, they reluctantly chose the former."

This is not just rhetoric. In the last Newspoll of the campaign 57 per cent of voters didn't think Labor deserved another term. This is a soft victory, analogous to 1993 when the electorate wanted to throw Paul Keating out but John Hewson turned out to be the equivalent of Flegg.

In 1996, however, when the federal Opposition got its act together the revenge visited on Keating was decisive. Beattie should take note.

Glenn Milne's wife Jannette Cotterell heads Crosby/Textor's Canberra office. None of the information contained in this article came from anyone associated with Crosby/Textor.



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