LNP must back Langbroek if it wants any hope of survival
SEVENTEEN days after his election defeat and just 19 months as the Liberal-National Party's fifth leader in nine years, Tim Nicholls will this afternoon be dispatched to the dusty shelves of Queensland history.
After six years as a Brisbane City councillor, 11 as a state MP and three as Treasurer, no one has to tell Nicholls politics is always tough and often unfair.
As only the second Brisbane-based leader (after Campbell Newman) in a century to lead Queensland's biggest conservative party, Nicholls will probably be remembered most for co-drafting one of the state's most unpopular public policies - asset privatisation under Newman - and for losing an election the LNP should have romped in after three years of very average Labor government.
But Nicholls should be spared total blame.
For one, history will probably judge him a little more kindly than voters did just two weeks ago. Like Nationals premier Rob Borbidge in 1998, Nicholls had to fight Labor in one corner and One Nation in the other. And the culpability for that should be dropped like a dead bird at the feet of an LNP executive which, as early as August last year, thought it would be oh-so-clever politics to preference One Nation ahead of a Labor Party that so easily exploited allegedly dodgy deals.
It's hardly Nicholls' fault the LNP's faceless men hung a very heavy Hanson millstone around his neck, then expected him to sprint home.
Nicholls has now fallen on his sword over the party's defeat. Will members of the state executive be offering up their own mea culpa?
Either way, Nicholls is now yesterday's man, and on Tuesday the LNP decides which of three directions it will move forward into tomorrow.
First, there's the odds-on favourite, Deb Frecklington. First elected in 2012, Frecklington has been a quiet plodder and valuable support for Nicholls.
If Frecklington today wins 19 of the LNP's 39 votes, she will be the first woman to lead the "Nationals" in its century-long history, and only the second woman (after Joan Sheldon) to lead a major Queensland conservative party.
That will also make Queensland an Australian first where both the premier and opposition leader are women.
Frecklington's strengths are her relative youth, her deputy leadership experience, her safe seat of Nanango in good ol' "Nationals" territory, and her ability to marry urban and rural interests through legal and agribusiness training.
But her liabilities include a remarkably low media profile, her lack of ministerial experience (is being an assistant minister under Newman and Shadow Minister under Nicholls enough?) and - most perilously - her conservative "Nationals" identity.
Put bluntly, no "Nationals" leader has dominated critical Brisbane seats since Joh Bjelke-Petersen left in the 1980s. Just ask Lawrence Springborg.
Also running is the long-odds roughie, Mark Robinson, MP for Oodgeroo (formerly Cleveland) since 2009. Robinson's strengths include hailing from greater Brisbane and being a relatively fresh face.
But his liabilities are significant. First, he has no leadership or ministerial experience. Second, rightly or wrongly, voters in the southeast will see him as too sympathetic to One Nation, with Robinson previously railing against political correctness.
But the third contender, Surfers Paradise MP John-Paul Langbroek, is surely the logical choice. He has extensive ministerial and leadership experience, having led the LNP between 2009 and 2011, and the first Liberal to lead the major non-Labor Party since 1915. During that time, the LNP almost always outpolled Labor under Anna Bligh, with Langbroek in 2010 attracting 42 per cent as preferred premier and Bligh just 34 per cent. Compare that to 33 per cent for Springborg in 2009.
So why did Langbroek leave the leadership? Blame the rain and, again, the LNP organisational wing which - in a fit of panic at Bligh's surging popularity after the Queensland floods - brusquely installed Brisbane lord mayor Campbell Newman as LNP leader in 2011.
Had the 2010-11 floods not occurred, Langbroek would have won the 2012 election with a modest majority, and may still have been premier today. Why? Because Langbroek also holds a safe seat on the Gold Coast - the focus of the Commonwealth Games and, according to University of Queensland analyst Dr Chris Salisbury, the future of the state's progressive-conservatism.
Ultimately, Langbroek's "sensible centre" politics make him the only candidate capable of recapturing crucial southeast Queensland votes.
Critically for the LNP, the decision its 39 MPs will make today will decide the very viability of a merged Queensland conservative party.
Pick the wrong leader and the party limps to - and loses - the next election in 2020. And that will spell the end of the LNP experiment.
Dr Paul Williams is senior lecturer at Griffith University's School of Humanities