September 01, 2004 | Graham

Many more rodents

Accusations by Russell Galt, a former Liberal Federal Electorate Committee Chairman that Senator George Brandis called the Prime Minister a “lying rodent” over the children overboard affair shed more light on Howard’s problems with the Queensland Liberal Party than they do on what he knew and when he knew it.
The accusations don’t prove that Howard knew the children overboard accusation was wrong, just suggest that Brandis may have implied he did. Brandis denies them, but then it is his statutory declaration against Galt’s. There are good reasons for believing neither of them.
Brandis is from the “whatever it takes” school of politics, and a supporter of the leadership ambitions of Peter Costello. He has been agitating for Howard to stand aside for Costello, including frequent briefings of the media, and part of his stock in trade has been to criticise the Prime Minister. “Rodent” is a word that Brandis uses, as is “lying”.
But Galt’s credibility is not particularly good either. He has been criticised for sharp practice as lieutenant to branch stacking MHR for Ryan Michael Johnson. In his legal challenge to the Moggill preselection he partly relied on at least one member of the preselection council voting when she wasn’t entitled to. The presiding judge was not impressed when evidence showed that the offending preselector had been signed up by Galt supporters and cast her vote for him!
For me the more interesting question is why Galt should be doing this at all. Plenty of people lose preselections, but few of them turn on their party so strategically. The answer seems to lie in the machinations of the Queensland Liberal Party, and Howard is probably responsible himself in two ways.
The first is that he has slighted Galt directly. When Galt challenged it was with the explicit approval of the powerbrokers who control the Queensland Liberal Party. The Prime Minister tried to intervene to stop the challenge. He failed.
Then there appears to have been an understanding that the Liberals would underwrite Galt’s costs. That underwriting is likely to have influenced his decision to challenge.
After the court case Moreton MHR Gary Hardgrave offered to use a fundraiser featuring the Prime Minister to help pay Galt’s costs. Howard objected and told the Queensland Liberals that he only raised funds for election campaigns. I am reliably informed that Galt has still to receive any money for his legal expenses from Liberal Party sources. If so he has another reason for ambushing the Prime Minister.
The second is that Howard has failed to control the Queensland Liberal Party, which has allowed the internecine fighting, of which Galt is but one symptom, to continue. After the 2001 state election debacle, where the state team was reduced to only three members, the federal organisation intervened and took control. The intervention should have led to reform of the preselection system and marginalisation of those behind the debacle, principally the Santoro forces, and those allied with them, including people like George Brandis, and Michael Johnson.
Instead, Howard put Senator John Herron in control. Herron was a long-standing friend of Howard’s, but he was beholden in many ways to Santoro and also to Brandis, and he was also angry with Howard because he thought Howard had reneged on the promise of an overseas posting. As a result, little changed in the party, warfare broke out between the party hierarchy and reforming state leader Bob Quinn, and the feds eventually upped stakes leaving the previous disastrous status quo more or less in place.
If Howard had reformed the party when he could have, Michael Johnson would never have become the member for Ryan, and Galt would still be an aspiring party official rather than a wounded has-been. Michael Johnson only became the member because it suited the personal ambitions of both George Brandis and Santo Santoro who appear to run on the maxim that “if you can’t run it, wreck it”.
From Howard’s point of view, the consequence of his failure to control the state branch when he could have is that the organisation has deteriorated to the stage where it is now endangering his reelection chances. Galt’s accusations are likely to mean little to voters – most I talk to, unless they are dedicated Howard haters, are tired of hearing about an issue that is three years old and which had no influence on their votes at the time anyway. What will damage Howard is that they reinforce perceptions that the local Liberals are weak while diverting branch resources to damage control and faction fighting.
When you look at an electoral pendulum there are 5 Liberal held seats with a margin less than 4%, and a redistributed Bowman, which is notionally Liberal, makes 6. On top of that, as this is likely to be an election of uneven swings, the Liberals have good chances of winning Brisbane and Bonner, and may need to so as to offset possible losses.
While Howard is portraying himself as tough on terror and national security he has not been tough on his own party. He also not been tough on “friends” even when they have been acting against his interests. The Liberal Party has a lot riding on this federal election. If they lose power federally, then it is likely that there will be many more Russell Galts and that the whole non-Labor framework in Queensland may tear apart under the pressure, then they will all be overboard.

Posted by Graham at 9:51 pm | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Graham,
    A dominant feature of Liberal party politics over the last 30 years has been the tendency for dissaffected individuals (read: spoilt brats) to “trainwreck” the party. This is a peculiar feature that whilst not entirely confined to Liberals, is definitely prominent among them.
    Notables include Malcolm Fraser, Don Chipp, John Gorton, John Valder, John Hewson, Russell Galt and others.
    The malaise of the Queensland Liberal party truly transcends factionalism and is instead rooted in the self-important backstabbings that these disaffected individuals feel they have to inflict upon the rest of the party. It is amazing to me that these Liberals do not understand that these outbursts never lead to reformist impulses on behalf of the leadership! The overwhelming majority of party members are OVER IT and the public really don’t care! The Australian public has a general image when these things occur that it is just another spoilt silver tail having a go.
    By contrast, the ALP can have huge battles internally but rarely are these battles made public. Perhaps the ALP are just hungrier for victory?
    The disaffected Liberal self-righteous tendency is cross factional but completely destructive. Perhaps it was Jeffrey Archer who said it best after the John Major defeat:
    “The Conservatives grabbed their guns, formed a circle and fired.”
    The Queensland Liberal party has been in statistical decline ever since Terry White self-righteously tore up the Coalition agreement in 1983. Since that time, multiple “groupings” have controlled the Liberal party each presiding over extremely poor party discipline and at best – a mixed record of results.
    The real issue is not Brandis, Santoro or Johnson but the unending stream of wannabes and “could’ve-been-champions” who continually put themselves first and party victory last.
    The lessons out of all of this are clear:
    1) The Liberal party is a team. If members want to fight, fight the ALP. If members want to fight each other, don’t tell the rest of us about it, we don’t care.
    2) Focus all energies on winning. It doesn’t matter what kind of Liberal is elected so long as they are loyal to the party members who got them elected and the constituents who voted for them.
    3) Party expulsion for intentional derailment of the party’s chances should become a very REAL deterrent. Put simply, there is no “I” in “team”!
    Antonio Jardim
    UQ Liberal Club Secretary

    Comment by Antonio — September 2, 2004 @ 1:10 am

  2. Hey, Antonio.
    Seems to me that there’s a fine line in your definition between “former champions concerned for the future” and “disaffected individuals/spoilt brats”. I’m also astonished that you can summarily dismiss Fraser, Gorton and Valder in the same breath as Galt.
    As a general rule, when a former high-ranking and high-performing person of any particular bent offers some criticism, people are well advised to listen. When they start speaking out publicly in record numbers, it’s pretty obvious that something is going wrong.
    Seems to me that a few of the Liberal newcomers and wannabes are too keen to dismiss their forbears’ experience and wisdom – but that’s a tendency that’s in evidence at the very top of the Liberal tree right now, isn’t it?

    Comment by Hughie — September 2, 2004 @ 2:53 pm

  3. Antonio,
    I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what you advocate. As a swinging, policy-oriented and first time voter your suggestion that Libs should ‘focus all energies on winning’ is disturbing. It hints of a ‘winner takes it all’ attitude that is, quite frankly, everything wrong with politics. And summarised so succinctly. I don’t think it’s naive to expect a certain standard of elected reps that goes beyond winning the next election.
    ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of Liberal is elected so long as they are loyal to the party members who got them elected and the constituents who voted for them.’
    Just what politics needs. More talentless factional hacks. Pardon me a moment while I look for an independent – any independent – to vote for.
    ‘Party expulsion for intentional derailment of the party’s chances should become a very REAL deterrent.’
    Although there is nothing wrong with that in principle, it all hinges on the intent. As Graham Young’s experience seems to attest, internal disciplinary processes seem just as often to be misused against factional enemies.
    ‘Put simply, there is no “I” in “team”!’
    Perhaps. But it wasn’t so long ago Liberal MHRs were entitled to speak out on matters of conscience. Indeed, my understanding was that it was one of the crucial factors that led Deakin et. al. to form their own party. Certainly, in my view, strict party discipline is one of the more repugnant developments in Australian politics.
    All of this doesn’t fill me with confidence about the state of the Liberal Party.

    Comment by Mark Platt — September 2, 2004 @ 9:42 pm

  4. Err, sorry. ‘Winner takes it all’ should actually read ‘whatever it takes’

    Comment by Mark Platt — September 3, 2004 @ 8:51 am

  5. Dear “Meh”, perhaps I should have made it clearer – Brandis and Santoro were allies at that time. They aren’t now because Brandis crossed Santoro over Santoro’s pre-selection to the Senate. Brandis backed Russell Trood instead. You musn’t have been involved for long if you think that Brandis has never been in league with Santoro.

    Comment by Graham Young — September 6, 2004 @ 2:51 pm

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