After the 2015 Queensland election, the Liberal National party’s inquest identified a “single most important issue” to explain how Campbell Newman took a record majority to an unexpected defeat.
It said the distrust that fomented between the its administrative wing and the parliamentary party must be repaired. It warned of the consequences when its administration and its MPs don’t “walk in lockstep” or trust one another.
Five years later the unsuccessful backroom attempt to undermine and replace the state leader, Deb Frecklington, has exposed old and complicated divisions in Queensland’s merged conservative party.
The Guardian has spoken to more than 20 current and former LNP members who revealed the growing discord with a small “cabal” of backroom powerbrokers, especially as the party grapples with an influx of conservative grassroots members dubbed the “Christian soldiers”.
There are also significant concerns about the influence of the mining magnate Clive Palmer and his links to several key party figures.
“It’s the same group running things behind the scenes, the same cabal that has cost us government for the past 30 years,” a former MP says. “We’ve lost 10 of the last 11 state elections to Labor. And the same people just keep making the same mistakes.
“That bravado is fuelled by the fact that Clive is never far away, just lurking in the background.”
‘Slow and steady takeover by Christian right’
A former Newman government minister, Jann Stuckey, says the party has been “slowly but steadily been taken over by the Christian right”.
Stuckey quit the party after retiring earlier this year. She was one of only three LNP MPs to vote to legalise abortion in 2018. The partyroom had been granted a conscience vote but then MPs had their preselections threatened if they broke with one of its “core principles”.
Stuckey says she “read in the paper” that she and the other MPs – Tim Nicholls and Steve Minnikin – had been condemned by then-party president, Gary Spence.
“No one had the guts to call me about it,” she says. “I haven’t lost as much sleep over any other piece of legislation in my 16 years as an MP. I do not believe religion should interfere with politics.”
In the aftermath, at least one of the MPs who broke with the party position – Chatsworth member Steve Minnikin – found himself the target of an apparent branch-stack by “Christian soldiers”. More than 40 new or transferring members applied to join the Chatsworth branch in late 2018. The new recruits deny any claims of branch-stacking but party administration eventually intervened to prevent a contest.
Increasingly, anger at the LNP’s backroom powerbrokers – known to their detractors as “the cabal” – is coming from multiple sections of the party, which was born from the complex merger of the Liberals and Nationals in 2008.
On the right, conservative LNP members say the notion they are “Christian soldiers” is used by their opponents – including some on the party’s executive – to marginalise a segment of the party that is rapidly growing in numbers and influence.
They say a “star chamber” – including extreme candidate vetting practices and disciplinary hearings where members are made to sign non-disclosure agreements – is increasingly used to fortify the power of those officials and limit the influence of new members.
Last year a series of standing-room-only ballots for party branch chairmanships sparked claims and counterclaims of branch-stacking. Moderates have also raised alarm at the fact that – after the demise of Family First and the Australian conservatives – some more extreme conservative figures have become involved on the fringes.
For instance Lyle Shelton, the controversial former head of the Australian Christian Lobby, has been working in the electorate office of an LNP MP and former minister, Mark Robinson. Last week Shelton appeared in a video that featured the LNP logo and endorsed its policy to review aspects of the state’s abortion laws.
Dr Paul Williams from Griffith University says the LNP is “probably really five parties”.
“There are old and new Nats, conservative Liberals and progressive Liberals,” he says. “Then there are those who joined post-Newman who don’t seem to line up anywhere.
“In many respects … because they don’t have formal factions, that’s actually a weakness. Labor rationalises its internal dissent. The LNP doesn’t have that so it tends to be more like a winner-take-all situation.”
He expects serious moves to de-merge the Liberal and National parties if the joint entity does not win the October state election.
“I said after the last election they’ve only got one more defeat left in them,” he says.
Intervention by ‘faceless men’
Until last month, Frecklington had been largely insulated by her relationship with the party’s administration – the same group that apparently commissioned polling on her performance and then tried to replace her.
Williams says the move would have been driven almost completely by polling that showed Frecklington had been unable to find traction against the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk.
“She has her enemies … but people wouldn’t say boo if she was 30 points ahead of Palaszczuk as preferred premier,” he says.
“This election is going to be about two things. It’s going to be a referendum on leadership. That’s why the preferred leader polling would have been at the heart of it. The second is who has got the best economic plan to get us out of this mess. Normal big issues will take a back seat”.
Much of the focus has now turned to the backroom figures identified as being behind the manoeuvre.
The Queensland party’s most senior federal MP, Peter Dutton, called on the president, David Hutchinson, to resign, citing the fact he worked for one of Palmer’s companies.
Fingers were also pointed at Bruce McIver, the former Nationals then LNP president who has a longstanding relationship with Palmer and served on the board of several Palmer entities.
McIver has often been called the party’s “faceless man”. A self-described “climate sceptic” and devout Christian, McIver angered several MPs in 2011 when the party hatched a plan to parachute Newman from the Brisbane lord mayoralty to the state leadership. On that manoeuvre, he consulted Palmer, then the party’s most generous donor.
After leaving office, Newman would cite the relationship between the party president and the mining magnate – who began his own party and fell out bitterly with Newman – as a factor that contributed to his downfall.
LNP state executive members Malcolm Cole and Larry Anthony – who run lobbying firm SAS group – also count Palmer as a client.
Palmer to play the role of spoiler again
Called on to resign, Hutchinson instead quit his job with Palmer and has made it clear he intends to stay on as head of the LNP. He did not respond to a request for comment, including whether other party officials should also sever their ties with Palmer.
Court documents from 2014 include accusations that Palmer had demanded preferential treatment for his Galilee basin coalmining interests and told the then deputy premier, Jeff Seeney, that he had “paid a lot of money to get you guys elected and I have a lot more money to continue to do that in the future”.
Palmer denied making those comments but concerns remain about the way he played the role of spoiler in the federal Coalition during last year’s federal election, and whether it was wise to embrace his support in Queensland again.
“We decided to polarise the electorate,” Palmer said. “Our vote got [the Coalition] across the line.”
Questions also remain about his influence in the potential ousting of Frecklington. He is on record saying he has concerns about her leadership and that he intends to campaign against Labor in the state election in October.
“It was sad to see LNP leader Deb Frecklington publicly attacking her own party when she should be focusing on the state election at this critical time,” Palmer said last month.
“I would encourage all Queensland non-Labor political leaders to remain focused on the main game and not publicly attack members of their own party.
“It is so important for Queensland that the Labor party does not win the next election.”