The 1983 Queensland Coalition split - A tale of opportunism, hubris and miscalculation
40 years on, the impacts of the October 22 1983 Queensland State election that destroyed the coalition, wounded Howard and helped keep the Hawke Government in office, continue to reverberate today.
This 22 October marks the fortieth anniversary of the unexpected early 1983 Queensland election that had long term national and state impacts.
It ended of the then 26 year coalition between the Nationals with its more junior Liberal Party partner allowing the Premier Bjelke-Petersen’s Nationals to govern for the first time in their own right. Its impacts on Queensland politics are still reverberating today. Nationally, it also caused a split in the federal coalition, almost permanently destroying John Howard’s career, and contributed to federal Labor’s record 13 years in office.
Yet few remember this landmark election.
The 1983 election was caused when Liberal minister, Terry White in August 1983 broke ranks with his coalition cabinet ministers and voted with a clique of Liberal backbenchers to change the order of business in parliament for their motion for a public accounts committee. Although supported by the Labor opposition, it was easily defeated.
Although a minor issue, White’s actions triggered a series of events few expected. He was immediately sacked by his own Liberal leader and Deputy Premier, Dr Llew Edwards for failing to maintain cabinet solidarity.
The Liberals had been under increasing electoral pressure from the Nationals so White’s revolt was seen by many that the Liberals were at last willing to stand up to the premier and his dictatorial ways. So, in the ensuing euphoria which followed, White, within a week, replaced Edwards as Liberal parliamentary leader.
White and those who supported him, assumed he would take over Edwards’ roles as treasurer and deputy premier, rejoin cabinet, capitalise on his high profile, articulate a more ‘liberal’ policy approach, and restore the Liberals’ fortunes to become the senior coalition partner.
This was not to be.
Premier Bjelke-Petersen refused to accept White in cabinet for the very reasons Edwards had sacked him – he had broken cabinet solidarity. After several weeks of confusion and bluff and counter bluff, the Liberals were forced to leave the government, thus ending the coalition, leaving the Nationals in office to continue governing by themselves. They quickly prorogued parliament and called a snap election. They had the resources of government and projected themselves as a party of stability.
The results saw a large movement of the non-Labor vote from the Liberals to the Nationals. The Nationals’ overall statewide vote rose to 39 per cent – up 11 per cent giving them 41 seats in the 82 seat unicameral legislature. They won numerous Brisbane seats.
The Liberals lost 14 seats – some to the Nationals and some to Labor – and were reduced to just eight seats. Two Liberal defections[i] gave the Nationals the majority they needed to form government in their own right. The Liberals quickly dumped White as leader and were vanquished to the cross-bench with their then six members. It waa political purgatory – neither in government nor in opposition and thus politically irrelevant.
Liberals thought this would be a temporary aberration. All would return to normal at the next election. All they had to do, was sit pat, support the Nationals in parliament, and not consort with Labor, and the electoral pendulum would swing back their way and they would return to office and perhaps even be able to bargain a more advantageous agreement with the Nationals.
This didn’t happen.
Instead, at the subsequent 1986 election the Nationals consolidated their hold on power. Liberals remained stuck on the crossbench. Labor made no further headway. Their turn would come later.
What happened next?
Such success combined with considerable hubris on the part of Premier Bjelke-Petersen convinced the Nationals it could all be duplicated on the national political stage.
At the time, there was considerable frustration with the federal coalition’s performance. It had lost two elections in a row (1983 and 1984). There was dissatisfaction with John Howard’s leadership of the Federal Opposition. Business wanted a more supportive tax regime and promised financial support for a Bjelke-Petersen led tilt at Canberra. And there was traditional State antipathy against the increasingly intrusive Commonwealth government.
So, it was in this atmosphere the Queensland Nationals launched their ‘Joh for PM’ campaign. It sought to completely take over non-Labor politics in Australia.
Nationally, and in Queensland, the ‘Joh for PM’ (later modified to the less ambitious ‘Joh for Canberra’) campaign proved to be a disaster for the non-Labor parties.
Nationally, it caused the federal coalition to split, and the Hawke Labor Government to exploit the disarray by calling and winning the 1987 federal election. The ‘Joh for PM’ campaign produced no substantive gains but caused considerable confusion to the non-Labor campaign.
Although Howard’s leadership initially survived and the coalition performed better than expected at the election, the whole affair nevertheless destabilised Howard’s leadership. Two years later Andrew Peacock replaced him as leader. Consequently, for some time Howard was regarded as a spent force. Some of his federal colleagues even urged him to “fade away”[ii]. While the federal coalition was quickly patched up considerable distrust remained between the two parties thus affecting their performance. Two more leaders after Peacock[iii] and two more election losses (1990 and 1993) followed until Howard returned to lead the Liberals to a landslide victory in 1996.
In Queensland, the failed ‘Joh for PM’ campaign also had adverse impacts on the non-Labor parties. It undermined Bjelke-Petersen’s premiership. He had become increasingly erratic and so was replaced as premier by the end of the year. Two premiers would follow (Ahern and Cooper) over the next two years. The party of stability became the party of instability. Importantly, the Canberra venture had so distracted the Nationals’ normally astute and alert leadership that the Fitzgerald inquiry into police corruption had been allowed to be appointed and to probe deeper. The highly critical Fitzgerald Report released in 1989 allowed Labor under Wayne Goss to have a landslide election win. It decimated the Nationals and largely bypassed by Liberals.
Since then, the Queensland coalition’s return to office has been intermittent and short-lived. They have only held office for five out of the last 34 years.[iv] There has been a high turnover of leaders. Consequently, few current LNP members have had governing experience. Although now united under the Liberal National Party banner, and despite the many mistakes of the incumbent Palaszczuk Government, they are not a certainty to win the forthcoming 2024 election. They are seen to lack a consistent and distinctive policy agenda that both appeals to their own supporters and the general voter. Their recent backflip over the Queensland Government’s proposed treaty with indigenous people which they had supported in parliament earlier this year is, a case in point.
Scott Prasser has written on federal and state politics and his forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition
Davey, P., Joh for PM, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2015
Kingston, B., Johannes Bjelke Petersen, Redland Bay: Connor Court Publishing, 2020
Koch, T., “The Liberal who stood up to Joh”, The Australian, 6-7 November 2010 (on Terry White)
Lowell, D.W., and Blyth, A., (eds),The Art of Coalition: The Howard Government Experience 1996-2007, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022
Patience, A., (ed), The Bjelke-Petersen Premiership: 1968-1983 – Issues in Public Policy, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1985
Prasser, S., “The Liberal Party in Queensland,” Current Affairs Bulletin, Vol 60, No 10, March 1984, 24-30[v]
White, T., (with Koch, T.), A Prescription for Change: The Terry White Story, St Lucia: UQP, 2010
[i] Liberal ministers Don Lane and Brian Austin defected within days of the election giving the Nationals 43 seats in the then 82 seat legislature.
[ii] See Brown, W., “Moore advises Howard: Fade away like a ghost”, Courier-Mail, 9 September 1989 (John Moore, the Liberal Member for Ryan, was a shadow minister and had supported Andrew Peacock over Howard in 1989. He had also previously been President of the Queensland Liberal Party.
[iii] Dr John Hewson followed Peacock and he was succeeded by Anthony Downer who subsequently stood down to allow Howard to return as leader unopposed in 1995.
[iv] The Borbidge led coalition held office from 1996-98 and Newman’s LNP government was in power from 2012-15.
[v] Article can be emailed on request.