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Who are Queensland’s unofficial premiers-in-waiting?

If Campbell Newman doesn’t survive as Queensland premier after this month’s election, his health minister, Lawrence Springborg (left), has a strong case to step forward. AAP/Dave Hunt

It’s the question dogging Premier Campbell Newman everywhere he goes this election – who will lead Queensland if his party wins, but he loses?

So far, Newman’s line has been:

I firmly believe that if we have a situation where I’m not winning Ashgrove, actually the LNP will be kicked out of office.

But that’s not a prediction backed up by simple maths or by the betting market.

As local media outlets have been reporting almost daily, the punters’ prediction is that the Liberal National Party will win the election, Newman will lose his seat of Ashgrove to Labor rival Kate Jones, and Tim Nicholls will be the new premier.

So who is Tim Nicholls? And who are the other front-runners to be premier if the LNP regains office without its leader?

Treasurer Tim Nicholls explains the numbers at the 2014 budget. AAP/Dan Peled

Tim Nicholls is currently Queensland’s treasurer. He has greatly enhanced his reputation with traditional Liberal voters as the public face of the government’s “Strong Choices” program.

Nicholls also performed well delivering the 2014-15 budget, which aligned with the LNP’s main message of making “tough choices”, while continuing to attack the opposition over the previous Labor government’s economic legacy.

However, Nicholls has two problems to overcome if he is to win the leadership.

The first is a question of style. While Nicholls is an effective persecutor in the halls of parliament, he has yet to translate this skill to a wider audience. The most significant problem with “Strong Choices” was the government’s – and specifically Nicholls’ – inability to translate the policy and relate it to the average voter.

The second challenge that Nicholls faces is a factional one. A protege of the controversial Santo Santoro, Nicholls had been on the wrong side of the factional divide until Newman’s arrival.

Succeeding Santoro in the seat of Clayfield in Brisbane’s inner northern suburbs, Nicholls attempted a challenge for the Liberal leadership in 2007, which ultimately ended in a tie. Subsequently, Mark McArdle assumed the leadership as a compromise candidate, largely because Nicholls was unable to convince the Liberal party room that he could be a credible leader. As result he has been passed over in every leadership ballot since. Clearly, he would have to be more convincing this time.

Lawrence Springborg addressing parliament in 2013. AAP/Dave Hunt

Despite the infamy of having been an opposition leader who took his party to three election defeats, Lawrence Springborg has been the LNP’s strongest performer since it assumed government.

Newman handed Springborg the health portfolio, long considered to be one of the hardest in Queensland politics. The member for Southern Downs has received plaudits for reducing wait times for elective surgery and overseeing the opening of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, even if it has been subject to some criticism.

The main issue concerning Springborg’s potential leadership is historical baggage. The LNP would conceivably have trouble electing a leader who has already been defeated three times. To amend a phrase from John Howard: could Lazarus have a quadruple bypass?

Queenslanders may be more open to the idea than they once would have been.

Only hours after the election was called, a snap Seven Network/Reachtel poll of 1583 Queenslanders found that Springborg came second behind Newman as preferred LNP leader.

John-Paul Langbroek made way for Campbell Newman to become LNP leader. AAP/Dan Peled

Another former leader, John-Paul Langbroek, could also be a contender for the LNP’s top job.

During the Newman government’s first term, the former Gold Coast dentist has largely kept his head down as education minister. Langbroek is an outside chance of recapturing the leadership, but may be rewarded for party loyalty considering he stood aside for Newman to take the leader’s post.

Science Minister Ian Walker (right), launching a solar biofuels plant in Brisbane with Campbell Newman. AAP/Dave Hunt

In recent months, there has been increased speculation in well-connected circles about the leadership prospects of Ian Walker. The minister for science, information technology and the arts could be seen as a similar type of compromise candidate to McArdle in 2007.

Walker has strong factional support, but is little known outside Brisbane. In many other states, his background as a top lawyer and managing partner in a large law firm would not necessarily be seen as a hindrance. But this is Queensland, with the most decentralised population in Australia, and Walker could struggle to woo voters in Queensland’s vast regional areas.

Scott Emerson with then federal opposition leader Tony Abbott in 2013, announcing funding to upgrade the Bruce Highway. AAP/Daryl Wright

The dark horse in this hypothetical contest is Scott Emerson.

The current minister for transport is seen as a rising star in the LNP’s ranks. This was confirmed when he received a 15% swing towards the LNP in his seat of Indooroopilly at the 2012 election. But many see him as too inexperienced as this point.

Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney launching a major projects report. AAP/Dan Peled

Astute observers will note that betting markets did not include Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, once described in The Brisbane Times as “always the bridesmaid, but never the bride”.

Seeney is not a likely contender for the leadership as his style is more closely associated with the traditional National Party ethos. Consequently he is unlikely to appeal to the majority of urban voters, which is critical in any Queensland state election.

No women in the LNP are close to ascending to the top job. Some may wonder whether this is a reflection of quality within the party’s ranks, or whether this is indicative of the party’s culture.

Though Nicholls is justifiably the favourite to assume the leadership should Newman fall in Ashgrove, in my view it would make more sense for Springborg to take the LNP helm, should Newman be voted out. If that happens, the LNP could suffer serious destabilisation. Springborg’s experience and temperament could be the tonic to counteract this.

But it is worth remembering the awkward reason Newman is in state politics in the first place. In 2011, the LNP decided to parachute Newman into state parliament, after his high-profile tenure as lord mayor of Brisbane.

Back then, the other would-be premiers within the state ranks were seen as lacking the charisma, political connections, experience or ability to ensure that the LNP could win enough seats in the state’s heavily populated south-eastern corner to win an election. Less than four years on, the contenders to succeed Newman as premier remain largely the same.

The LNP will be hoping for a win in Ashgrove to avoid putting any of their premiers-in-waiting to the test just yet.

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