Nicholls toppling Springborg lays bare the still-uneasy marriage of Queensland’s Liberals and Nationals

Tim Nicholls won a partyroom ballot to become the Queensland LNP’s new leader. AAP/John Pryke

Tim Nicholls, treasurer in the Newman government, has replaced Lawrence Springborg as leader of Queensland’s Liberal National Party (LNP) following a Friday partyroom spill.

Fifteen months after the last state election, Nicholls’ victory reverts to the pre-eminence of “urban Liberals” over the merged party’s rural and regional representatives and constituents, as it was under Newman’s premiership.

Why Springborg lost support

Nicholls assumes the party leadership having bested Springborg in the second round of voting. Deb Frecklington, a party rising star from the rural heartland seat of Nanango, was elected unopposed as the new deputy leader. The pairing is clearly an appeal to voters in Brisbane and equally in the regions.

Springborg is considered one of the founding fathers of the merged Liberal and National parties in Queensland. His seat of Southern Downs, which he has held since 1989, rests on the safest margin of any LNP seat.

In the wake of the disastrous 2015 election loss for the LNP, Springborg was seen as a safe pair of hands and someone who could potentially negotiate a path back to government in a hung parliament with the Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) crossbenchers. But he came with the baggage of being a “recycled” leader from the party’s past who had been defeated as opposition leader at three prior elections between 2004 and 2009.

As opposition leader this time, Springborg struggled to land telling blows on the minority Labor government. He has faced speculation of a leadership coup since early this year.

In February, supporters of Brisbane-based MP Tim Mander began testing numbers for a leadership change. This fell flat. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was Mander who this time first nominated as a challenger for Springborg’s leadership. He fell in the first round of voting.

Despite Springborg’s seeming failure to capture the interest of the wider electorate, the LNP has been polling ahead of Labor in Queensland for some months. But, critically for his leadership, Springborg has consistently rated as less satisfactory than Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in the same polling results.

In such circumstances, changes of leader while parties are in opposition aren’t that rare. But Nicholls comes with his own baggage. He is closely associated with the Newman government’s privatisation agenda, which was roundly rejected at the last election.

More recently, Springborg endured a seemingly terminal failure to hold the KAP members close when the LNP’s electoral changes bill was hijacked by Labor with the Katter MPs’ help.

Those Katter MPs and crossbencher Rob Pyne claimed on the morning of the leadership vote that co-operation with the opposition couldn’t be guaranteed if the “consultative” (and regionally akin) Springborg wasn’t confirmed as LNP leader. This came as a noteworthy, but clearly not decisive, intervention in the LNP’s deliberations.

Broader implications

More than rumblings over sliding polls for preferred premier, the LNP leadership spill indicates continuing disquiet over which “partner” should dominate the party, and which personality should head it.

It follows the conventional wisdom that an election can only be won if enough Brisbane seats fall in behind a leader palatable to voters in the state’s southeast corner – in other words, an “urbane”, city-based former Liberal MP. The question now is whether Nicholls will prove such a viable alternative.

The spill also speaks of a continuing tendency in Queensland, as in other state and federal jurisdictions, to be reactive to negative poll results focused on the leader. This year’s federal election, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull only eight months into the job he forcibly assumed, will put this trend to the test yet again.

Ultimately, the move against Springborg represents a long-ingrained tension in Queensland politics. The city-country divide has been a problematic issue for both major parties, but probably more so in recent times for the conservative side. This was witnessed recently in the re-emergence of a “separate statehood” movement in northern and rural parts of the state. LNP MPs have come down on either side of arguments for or against the idea.

The spill lays bare inner-party dynamics still struggling to overcome some antagonism between the LNP’s twin party bases, and probably reflects not doing enough to inject new “talent” with leadership potential into its ranks over the last two decades.

This is evidenced by a succession of tried, rejected and recycled leaders since the LNP formed in 2008, and revolving coalition leaders – though not always in formal coalition – in the decade before that.

Most tellingly, the conservative forces have only enjoyed two single terms in office in that time (2012-15 and 1996-98).

Pundits and party insiders will watch with interest to see if Nicholls can unite the LNP’s urban and regional supporters from his safe Brisbane electorate. His federal colleagues will certainly be hoping he can stabilise the party quickly.

Observers will also watch for any opportunistic response from Palaszczuk, who only recently indicated a readiness to go to an early election to clear any roadblock from the state’s hung parliament.