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30 December 2014
by Yale Stephens


The announcement that John Bjelke-Petersen — son of former National Party Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen — will stand for the Palmer United Party against deputy Premier Jeff Seeney in his seat of Callide marks a point at which the damage Palmer inflicts on his conservative forebears becomes palpable. The electoral humiliation the younger Bjelke-Petersen has signed onto will be immense. It will forever stain an iconic Queensland name.

I should just reiterate at the outset, for the record, that I was never a supporter of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, nor an apologist for the excesses that occurred on his government’s watch; Queensland and especially modern Brisbane as it stands today arguably owe a great deal to the rapid development that took place during decades of Coalition and National Party rule, but that doesn’t excuse in any way those aspects of the regime — and “regime” is the correct term — that took a Royal Commission led by Tony Fitzgerald QC two years to unravel.

Even so, the announcement today that Joh’s son, John, is to assume the mantle of “state leader” of the Palmer United Party in Queensland ahead of a state election in February or March is a curious development, and one that stands to significantly tarnish what credibility — if any — remains attached to the Bjelke-Petersen name in the Sunshine State.

Several developing themes are woven together in this move, announced by Clive Palmer, and the one over which any doubt at all should now be dispelled is that Palmer will use any and all means at his disposal to wreck Queensland’s merged LNP in pursuit of “vengeance” over the fact it refused to blithely do his bidding once it had been elected to office.

Whilst he has stood under the Palmer banner once before (in a federal seat last year I actually thought he stood a slight chance of achieving an upset in), I am very surprised John Bjelke-Petersen has allowed himself to be co-opted into this, becoming a virtual cat’s paw for Palmer in the process.

There is a real prospect — its likelihood fluctuating, but real nonetheless — that Queensland’s LNP government, which scored well over 60% of the two-party vote in 2012, could be defeated early next year.

This is and should be an entirely ridiculous proposition; a government entering office in such a landslide should, in the ordinary course of events, be entitled to expect it will govern for at least two to three terms before having to face a serious electoral fight.

But as with any rule, there are exceptions, and when I have spoken about the value of the LNP’s 2012 election win in the past I have also sometimes referred readers to what happened in South Australia in 1997.

If the LNP loses in Queensland, Clive Palmer and his eponymous party will have had a big hand in engineering this outcome.

Labor, coming off an embarrassing 26.7% of the vote in 2012, was always set to face an almost insurmountable hurdle to reclaim government in one jump.

But the planets continue to align for the ALP, and Bjelke-Petersen’s ill-advised assumption of the leadership of Palmer’s party is simply the latest piece of the puzzle to fall into place.

I don’t think there are many people with knowledge of electoral politics who dispute the assertion that a very big swing against Campbell Newman and the LNP is brewing; the only argument I have encountered to date — from conservative and Labor-aligned adherents alike — is its likely eventual scope and geographic reach.

I am yet to come across any serious rebuttal of my contention that for all the talk of “fair” elections in post-Fitzgerald Queensland, the electoral boundaries in that state are biased against the LNP by somewhere between 2% and 4%.

In other words, Labor doesn’t need 50% of the statewide two-party vote to win, or anything approaching it: just as it didn’t in 1995, when it won (before the overturn of a disputed result in one seat) with 46.3%. This will become a more pertinent as we go on.

The near-certainty that Newman himself will lose his seat of Ashgrove means his government will enter the formal election campaign juggling a peculiar kind of instability it refuses to either acknowledge or to address: namely, the imperative to level with Queenslanders as to who Newman’s replacement as Premier would be if the government manages to be re-elected but its leader does not.

In turn, this opens the door to the mother of all scare campaigns from the ALP, built around deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, who — as we have discussed before — is so unpopular in south-east Queensland as to represent a virtual hate figure.

Of course, common sense dictates that Seeney will never be Premier; the likeliest — and most saleable — post-election replacement for Newman is the Treasurer, Tim Nicholls.

But that won’t stop Labor making merry hell over the prospect of “Premier Seeney,” and it is here that Palmer and his newest cunning plot, involving Bjelke-Petersen, comes into play.

I have said before that the primary vote of 49% achieved by the LNP in 2012 was, in likelihood, depressed by the presence of candidates from the Katter Australia Party: three years ago, it was Katter — not Palmer — offering Queenslanders an “alternative” to voting for the ALP if they didn’t want to make the full stretch to supporting the LNP outright.

This time, it is Palmer filling that role, and whilst Katter’s party arguably drew votes from both the LNP and Labor, a key difference is that Katter sought to come through the middle as a third force. Palmer, by contrast, has operated a stated policy of attempting to destroy the LNP electorally (and its present leader personally) ever since the day he announced the formation of his own God-forsaken outfit.

My point is that Palmer’s party will continue to draw votes away from the LNP as Katter’s did three years ago, even as outright support for the LNP recedes from its 2012 high.

Factor in Queensland’s optional preferential voting (OPV) system — and perhaps a refusal by Palmer to allocate any preferences, especially in favour of the LNP — and the potential for his party to wreak havoc on the LNP’s prospects becomes obvious.

(If the LNP polled 37%, Labor 33% and Palmer 15% — with the Greens on about 12%, almost all of which would find its way to Labor — it’s easy to see that without most of Palmer’s vote going to the LNP on preferences, the LNP loses. It is a very crude and rudimentary illustration of the point, but I think it makes it fairly concisely).

Where all of this becomes convoluted in terms of Bjelke-Petersen’s presence lies in the fact that whilst his famous surname might attract a higher vote across the state than Palmer might otherwise have been able to generate, it is unlikely to translate into any seats.

In Seeney’s seat of Callide specifically, I don’t think Bjelke-Petersen stands the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell; Seeney might not be popular in Brisbane but on his own stomping ground, a win on first preference votes is at least an even-money bet. Even if Bjelke-Petersen won a quarter of the vote in Callide (as a Katter candidate did in 2012) Seeney could still win outright (as he also did in 2012). And Bjelke-Petersen is now a four-time loser, including twice in his famous father’s old seat as a National Party candidate.

It’s not hard to see that the prodigal son lacks the political touch of his late father when it comes translating local networks into votes: and it’s not difficult to make the judgement that the younger Bjelke-Petersen isn’t the “star” signing Palmer clearly thinks he has landed, or anything remotely approaching it.

Still, Clive Palmer’s approach to retail politics as practised under his eponymous entity — even with the loathsome Jacqui Lambie removed from the fold — has been nothing if not nihilistic in nature, and his stated bent on revenge against the LNP (and its conservative cousins elsewhere in the country) has known few bounds to date.

I don’t think Palmer cares who or what he uses, exploits, trashes and/or destroys in his singular mission to ruin Campbell Newman and the government formed by the party he poured millions of dollars of his own money into; it is an endeavour he is hellbent on winning at all costs.

The potential now exists for the falling primary vote support of the LNP to be further comprised by Palmer candidates, whose adverse impact on LNP support may be exacerbated by the presence of a Bjelke-Petersen name on the Palmer ticket.

It is highly plausible that whilst winning no seats of its own, the Palmer United Party will manage to depress the LNP vote far enough — and starve Newman’s government of enough preference flows — for Labor to either win the election in Queensland outright, or to force one side or the other into minority: and if it is the LNP which governs in a hung Parliament under such a scenario, a Labor win in Queensland three years later becomes a virtual certainty, as no returning government forced into minority anywhere in Australia in the past 40 years has ever won the subsequent election it fought.

Should this come to pass, Bjelke-Petersen will have been instrumental in bringing about the one thing his father spent decades fighting to stave off: the election of a Labor government.

It would tarnish the Bjelke-Petersen name in Queensland, and with Seeney unlikely to be dislodged from Callide, would destroy whatever residual credibility the Bjelke-Petersens might retain in the eyes of the Queensland public.

Palmer, of course, would be laughing; he doesn’t need to win a single electorate in Queensland, on paper, to achieve his stated political goals.

John Bjelke-Petersen would have served his function as a useful idiot.

And it is Queenslanders — lumbered with yet another insipid Labor government — who would be left to pay the price.