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LNP gets new leader, but not before suffering 50 days of damage

Politics

Last night’s election of a new LNP president is an exercise in damage control as the Queensland Opposition tries to focus its attention on the October 31 state election campaign, writes Peter McCutcheon.

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With all the anticipation of a predictable plot twist in a B-grade movie, the Liberal National Party’s power struggle has limped to its inevitable conclusion, with Cynthia Hardy taking over the role of party state president.

It has taken a long time to get here — 50 days in fact since Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington called out the “back-room bullies” of her party’s organisational wing for leaking a damaging poll against her.

At the time, the move appeared to give her leadership much-needed momentum and her supporters were assuring everyone the dispute would soon be resolved.

Instead, we had seven weeks of stalemate and a series of distracting subplots, including a half-apology from party president David Hutchinson and the dumping of the party’s founder from the LNP executive team.

Although Hutchinson’s resignation and last night’s appointment of Cynthia Hardy as his replacement is welcome news for Frecklington, the events of the past three days are still in essence an exercise in damage control.

Queensland presidents stand out

Party presidents don’t usually make headlines — how many people could name the presidents of the federal Liberal and National parties (Nick Greiner and Larry Anthony)?

The historical exception is the Queensland branch of the old Nationals.

“There does seems to be a history of (Queensland) National Party presidents making an impression,” University of Queensland historian Chris Salisbury acknowledged.

Sir Robert Sparkes ran the Country Party and the renamed National Party with an iron fist for two decades up to 1990, mostly supporting but eventually falling out with premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

While no one is comparing Hutchinson to Sir Robert, this history of the organisational wing having a hands-on relationship with parliamentarians has dogged the merged LNP since its formation in 2008.

The 2015 review of Campbell Newman’s shock election loss by party elders Rob Borbidge and Joan Sheldon cited a breakdown between the party executive and the parliamentary wing as one of the reasons for the LNP’s poor performance.

So the public stoush between the Opposition Leader and party president in mid-June draws on a long tradition, made all the more intense by six years in opposition.

No one has come out of this looking good.

Hutchinson had to take the blame for the leaking of an internal poll, and critics point to the dumping of party founder Lawrence Springborg from the LNP executive as further evidence of Hutchinson’s poor judgment.

But it was supporters of Frecklington who apparently leaked that latter story to the media as the power struggle continued.

One MP has told the ABC the relationship between the Opposition Leader’s office and party HQ got so bad that campaign director Lincoln Folo was being cut out of planning for media events.

This, according to the MP, became the catalyst for Hutchinson’s resignation.

“For Deb’s office to be the de-facto campaign director running an election campaign across 93 seats was unsustainable,” he said.

“There was a basic lack of trust, so ultimately Folo said to the party ‘this can’t go on’.”

Folo rejected this account, and insisted he has had a very good working relationship with the Opposition Leader’s office since he started in 2015.

“We are all united in our desire to change the government so we can get Queensland working again,” he told the ABC.

LNP deputy leader Tim Mander yesterday had a similar message, hours before he even knew who Mr Hutchinson’s replacement would be.

“The parliamentary wing of the LNP and the organisational wing are absolutely united for one quest and that is to make sure this Labor government is not elected for another four years,” he told journalists.

So in the end it became anyone but Hutchinson who, through a series of missteps and accidents, became a symbol for disunity.

Spence was ‘back to the future’

Hardy’s appointment will be a relief for some MPs.

Her main rival on the executive, Gary Spence, is a former president who had runs-ins with sitting members of parliament — including a preselection stoush over the three MPs who used a conscience vote to support the Palaszczuk Government’s abortion reforms.

He’s also a close ally of Hutchinson, and some in the party suspect he was involved in the leaking of the damaging poll against the Opposition Leader.

“The election of Gary Spence would be back to the future,” one MP quipped.

But others yesterday suggested either candidate would have sufficed.

“Philosophically they’re not poles apart — Spence was a good president and she’s sound,” another MP said.

The important thing, that parliamentarian argued, was ensuring Deb Frecklington would no longer be upstaged by the party president.

“Hopefully this is the last time you hear the president’s name between now and the election,” the MP said.

– ABC / state political correspondent Peter McCutcheon

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