February 22nd 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Getting a grip on Japan

EDITORIAL: Kiwibank: lessons from NZ

CANBERRA OBSERVED: NSW Liberals in the spotlight as election looms

WATER: Farmers' water rights at risk in the Murray-Darling Basin

Sugar Summit held in Brisbane

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Destruction of wealth / Negative gearing

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Free trade: where do we stand?

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Protests in Fremantle

Deregulation and growth (letter)

Iraq and Zimbabwe (letter)

Time to get serious about Australia (letter)

QUEENSLAND: Dangers in Qld Nats' move to become 'relevant'

NORTH KOREA: Is time finally up for dinosaur regime?

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Dangers in Qld Nats' move to become 'relevant'

by Victor Sirl

News Weekly, February 22, 2003
The Queensland Nationals new parliamentary leader has announced he will modernise the party. This raises some interesting questions. Victor Sirl reports on the uncertainty ahead.

At only 34 years of age Lawrence Springborg is the new leader of the parliamentary National Party in Queensland, but his younger friend Jake Smith may become equally as powerful a figure inside the party.

Smith works for Liberal leader Bob Quinn as a media adviser but it has been reported in the Courier Mail he is expected to move back to the Opposition Leader's office and work once more for his close friend Lawrence Springborg.

The Liberals were ecstatic with the media profile Smith developed for Quinn. He deftly promoted his new boss in the media, inadvertently playing a pivotal role in the downfall of Mike Horan.

The Springborg-Smith alliance goes back to their time in the Young Nationals where they supported a right-wing grouping of state councillors. An example of this extremity was when Smith as editor of the Young National magazine wrote in favour of apartheid in Queensland for the indigenous population. The grouping also supported right-wing crusades such as the death penalty.

However, Springborg is now the champion of "modernising" the party and policy reflecting "contemporary" moral values. An indication of what this means, as reported by the media, is Springborg's softer line on homosexuality and de-facto relationships. In fact the final catalyst for toppling Horan in the push for "modernisation " was his stance against recent legislation regarding homosexual law reform directed at Christian schools.

Sea change

During that debate, despite forcing Beattie to compromise, criticism was levelled in the media at the National Party, claiming the churches and Christian schools had too much influence upon it. Vaughan Johnson, the former hard man of the party, in a feature article for the Courier Mail apologised for his past remarks against homosexuals and stated how he would gladly have a beer with a gay person. Johnson, the Deputy Leader, then backed Springborg during the recent leadership challenge.

The whole incident highlights the fact the homosexual lobby now not only has strong influence over the left-wing parties but has advanced its cause so well it even holds clout with the National Party. Perhaps, this reflects Johnson's comment to the television cameras that some of the party policies were "draconian". Each year the grassroots members vote on policy at the State Conference, does the new modern Vaughan consider them draconians? I am sure many will ask him the question.

If Springborg moves to radically alter social policies it remains to be seen how party members will respond. Its conservative stance on moral issues in the policy platform attracted membership from the Christian community. Many booth workers on election day come from pro-life groups.

Fundamentally changing the platform of the party, moving it from a conservative to a liberal party, puts these people out in the cold.

Smith is also a close friend of former Premier Russell Cooper who recently unsuccessfully challenged Terry Bolger for the party presidency. The "modernisation" of the party will of course have to extend beyond the parliamentary wing. One wonders if Bolger is feeling a little uneasy at the moment.

Sole city seat

A great irony in the claim by Springborg that the Nationals need to rid themselves of their "redneck" and "rural" image is the fact the only member of the parliamentary team to hold a city-based seat is Mike Horan who lives in Toowoomba. Fortunately, he has announced his intention of contesting the next election. Without him they would almost certainly lose the seat to the Liberals.

Peter Beattie will in due course test Springborg's credentials as a progressive when issues such aboriginal reconciliation, industrial relations and the environment arise. Can the Nationals really shift their policy position on these matters?

Who knows what the future holds? Springborg and Smith may reinvent themselves all over again. What is certain for the Queensland National Party is that its fate rests in the hands of these two young men. They have demonstrated great political acumen in rising to power so early in life.

Time will soon tell if a youthful Lawrence Springborg has electoral appeal. But there is also the more profound question of whether Jake Smith is the next David Oldfield or a new Mike Evans, the brilliant campaign strategist from the Joh era? All the chips are on the table for the Queensland Nationals. Will the gamble pay off? Spin the wheel.

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