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So Much For Parliament In Queensland

There is something contemptuous and demeaning about what is happening to the institution of Parliament in Queensland.

NewmanLiberal National Party (LNP) MPs have unanimously endorsed Campbell Newman as their leader at a partyroom meeting this morning.

Newman resigned as Lord Mayor of Brisbane yesterday, following his endorsement as the LNP candidate for Ashgrove.

One year out from the scheduled election, a private citizen is presenting himself as the Leader of the Opposition.

For the first time in living memory, the principle that political leaders are drawn from the elected members of parliament has been turned on its head.

So what was going through the minds of the 34 LNP members of parliament this morning? How many of them felt the humiliation, indignity and powerlessness they had just demonstrated to the world?

More importantly, how many of them gave a thought to the autonomy of elected members of parliament that they have just surrendered?

In the space of a few weeks, Newman and the party organisation have decreed that not one of those members is worthy of leading the party into the election.

And the MPs have meekly accepted it.

How many of them squirmed as they gave away what should be their cherished right to choose who leads them? How many of them cringed when Newman later described their powerless parliamentary leader, Jeff Seeney, as akin to his “general manager for Operations”?

Even if they agreed with the assessment that they are all too hopeless to lead the party, they should have told Newman and the party machine to go jump. The principles of Westminster parliamentary government have been too hard fought for to be given up so easily.

The former leader, John-Paul Langbroek, and his deputy, Lawrence Springborg, himself a former leader, both resigned hours after Newman announced his takeover on March 22. Whether they retained some shred of dignity in doing so, or simply connived in an assault on parliamentary democracy, is open to debate.

In effect, they were given an ultimatum. They may have been given the option of staying in their positions but this was clearly untenable.

Langbroek had been performing well in opinion polls and can rightly feel that he has been treated shabbily and contemptuously.

Springborg made it clear today that he has a “grave problem with the way this has been done.” He refused to canvas the issue further in public.

Here’s hoping that there was at least one minnow in the party room who challenged the extra-parliamentary takeover of their ancient right and privilege to choose their own leader.

Paul Keating once said there was something especially legitimate about snatching the leadership. There is political value and currency in elected members of parliament casting their votes to choose a colleague to lead them.

For Keating, his failed challenge to Bob Hawke in June 1991 was followed by a successful challenge in December. There was little talk then that Keating wasn’t a legitimate prime minister.

Similarly, Tony Abbott only defeated Malcolm Turnbull by one vote (42-41) for the Opposition leadership in 2009, but there was an unchallengeable legitimacy to the process. The party’s MPs, each of them an elected representative of the people, chose the direction for the Liberal Party to take.

Hawke’s toppling of Hayden a quarter of a century earlier in February 1983 may have been orchestrated without a Caucus vote but the point is that not even an electoral vote magnet like Hawke was made leader without first winning a seat in the parliament.

Indeed, Hawke had to fight his way into the parliament. He fended off a serious challenge from Gerry Hand to win preselection for Wills and the right to contest the 1980 election as an endorsed Labor candidate. And he first chanced his arm in a challenge to Hayden before finally claiming the prize.

But in Queensland today it seems you can walk into the Opposition Leader’s office as an unelected member. You can be preselected without contest. You can campaign for the Premier’s job even though you first have to win a relatively safe seat from the other side.

And all this can be done with the supine acquiescence of a party room of MPs who ought to have the gumption to resist it.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as airy-fairy theoretical talk. But at a time when cynicism about politics and politicians is pervasive, the situation in Queensland speaks volumes for what’s wrong with the way political parties operate now.

The Labor Party in NSW perfected the art of imposing candidates on unsuspecting electorates. In Victoria, former Premier John Brumby’s seat was recently given away to a man who wasn’t even a member of the party.

In party rooms across the nation, leaders are now elected without contest. David Bartlett anointed Lara Giddings as Premier of Tasmania earlier this year. Daniel Andrews was elected unopposed as Opposition Leader in Victoria last December. In NSW last week, the poacher John Robertson was made gamekeeper without a ballot being cast.

Remember poor old Kim Beazley? He was Labor leader for years without ever winning a partyroom ballot. Every contested leadership ballot he entered he lost. Just about every position he ever held as an MP was granted without a vote being cast. The voting public didn’t seem to think there was much reason to vote for him either.

The manner of Julia Gillard’s transition to the prime ministership continues to haunt her. At least the chief manipulators were predominantly elected members of parliament, albeit mostly unknown. But when Kevin Rudd walked away from the humiliation of an overwhelming partyroom vote against his leadership he did the political process no favours.

What’s at stake is the transparency of the political process. What’s at stake is the independence and autonomy of our Parliaments.

People need to see what’s happening. They need to see the votes being taken. They need to see the process at work. Instead, just as often as not, all they see now is a deal stitched up by unelected party apparatchiks and ambitious wannabes.

The LNP’s political strategy may succeed. Newman may well be able to act effectively as Opposition Leader from outside Parliament over the coming months. He may secure the 7.1% swing he needs to win Ashgrove. His record as Mayor may persuade Queensland voters that he is a worthy Premier.

But that’s not my point.

Representative government and the parliamentary system deserve better. They’ve taken too long to build to be treated with such cavalier contempt.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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