What Campbell Newman did next: the making of an unlikely Queensland libertarian

The ousted premier is back on the campaign trail, running for a Senate seat. Can he catapult a niche party to national relevance?

There are nine other people in the room when Campbell Newman comes up to say a few words. The most conspicuous figure in Queensland politics in a generation is standing in an office building in Woolloongabba, selling his comeback to a special meeting of the tiny Liberal Democratic party.

The party’s president and founder, John Humphreys, first talks about Thomas Hobbes and FM Hayek and the idea of individual freedom in a world of Covid lockdowns and closed borders.

Humphreys introduces his latest star recruit, the former army captain Newman, who some think has the profile in Queensland to catapult the niche political party to national relevance.

One small problem remains – Newman’s reputation as a fighter of illiberal governments is, frankly, complicated.

“You had me as a party member until you signed up this arse clown,” one LDP supporter wrote on the party’s Facebook page this month.

Another said: “NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.”

“That fascist arsehole should never ever be near a position of power ever again.”

In 2012 Newman became Queensland premier despite not holding a seat until the election, leading the Liberal National party to the largest parliamentary majority in Australian history.

Three years later his government was turfed from office and the premier lost his seat; accused by the former president of the Queensland Council of Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman, of passing “obscene”, “draconian” and “extremist” anti-association laws that targeted bikie gangs. Humphreys says he rode a motorbike at a public protest against the measures.

Newman speaks to a meeting of the Liberal Democratic party in Brisbane
Newman speaks to a meeting of the Liberal Democratic party in Brisbane. Photograph: Ben Smee/The Guardian

Newman quit the LNP this year and, courted by Humphreys, is now running as the LDP’s lead candidate for the federal Senate.

“I’m actually in the right party now,” Newman says from his office, which is cluttered with mementoes from a lifetime in a different one. There’s a Young LNP life membership plaque on a shelf. The walls are covered in framed newspapers from 2012.

Newman – a formidable political fundraiser and the son of two federal ministers – is pitching himself as an anti-establishment candidate.

He jumps up from his seat, grabs a red marker pen and draws a rough map of Queensland on a whiteboard, then a 5km circle around the Brisbane GPO.

“That’s where the wealthiest, the most well-educated, the leaders of business, the judges, the magistrates, the chiefs in the media and all the bosses and all the smart people live. The intelligentsia,” Newman says.

(He doesn’t mention it, but Newman lives and works inside that circle, too.)

“The trouble is they control the narrative and – no disrespect to your good publication – they are more likely to be your readers and like what you talk about. They’re not the target and they shouldn’t be the target for the LNP either. [Outside that circle] those are people that I like and I can relate to. I share those concerns about the economy and jobs and the future of our kids.

“If I get to Canberra I just want to hold the political class to account, because they need to be.”

‘A pantomime villain’

For consecutive Queensland elections, Labor has campaigned almost as if it were still running against Newman. Six years on, his face still features on attack advertisements about his government’s public sector job cuts and asset sales.

The LNP’s focus groups must tell them the same thing. Opposition leaders since 2015 have distanced themselves from Newman.

There is a view among party members that the Icarus narrative from the Newman years – a tale of hubris and an electoral reckoning – has created an environment where his successors are no longer able to make the case for fiscal restraint; and are not confident to offer anything but insipid criticism of Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government.

Newman has become a pariah of the battle for the political centre. A pantomime villain.

“But being a pantomime villain hasn’t harmed Pauline Hanson’s political career,” says Graham Young, a pollster and executive director of the Australian Institute of Progress, a libertarian thinktank. Newman is a director of the AIP.

“We did some polling immediately after the [2015] election,” Young says. “We found enough people in that sample that said [of Newman], ‘I meant to give him a kick, but I didn’t mean to kick him out.’

“When you’re running for premier, you’re running for 50% plus one, when you’re running for the Senate, you’re running for a quota. I know people who are going to vote for him who would be stalwarts of the Liberal party.”

Newman’s campaign for redemption has emerged from a coronavirus pandemic in which, with some arguments about the detail, mainstream political figures have mostly supported the need for public health restrictions and large-scale economic stimulus.

Some commentators, including Paul Kelly in the Australian and the Queensland political analyst Paul Williams, writing in the Courier-Mail, have dismissed the anti-lockdown movement as an “absurdity” on the rightwing fringe.

There is plenty of competition for that space in Queensland politics but the LDP clearly senses an opportunity. Humphreys has also recruited John Ruddick, a former prominent member of the Liberal party, to head the LDP Senate ticket in New South Wales. He says he has been searching for other high-profile candidates.

The economist (who taught the Nationals senator Matt Canavan at the University of Queensland) says the LDP is a “party of principle” – one formed around classical liberal ideas about small government and individual freedoms rather than personalities or political expediency.

Lockdowns, he says, have presented the party with an issue where its ideology appeals to a potential bloc of disaffected votes. And, particularly since leaving the LNP, Newman has been beating the freedom drum harder than most.

“[Newman] fits that quite small overlap in the Venn diagram of politicians with a high profile, and politicians who are libertarian enough to be in our party,” Humphreys says. “The fact he balanced the budget by cutting spending and not raising tax is quite rare. He was liked for that.”

Some members have resigned in protest but overall the past few months have seen “the strongest growth in membership in our party’s history”.

“On net it’s clearly been a positive,” Humphreys says.

People are ‘upset with Scott Morrison’

“I think it’s truly amazing that Campbell Newman is running as a libertarian,” says Michael Cope, the president of the Queensland Council of Civil Liberties.

“He passed the most extreme legislation that was introduced in Queensland in my lifetime. From our point of view, he was Joh Bjelke-Petersen 2.0. He behaved like a classic Queensland authoritarian.”

Newman still defends the most extreme of those measures, the controversial anti-association “Vlad” legislation introduced after a brawl on the Gold Coast involving bikie gang members.

“That’s probably the major one where some people in the Liberal Democrats would have been concerned about,” Newman says, when asked about the apparent contradiction.

People gather outside Parliament House during an anti-lockdown protest in Brisbane
People gather outside Parliament House during an anti-lockdown protest in Brisbane. Photograph: Russell Freeman/EPA

“What I say is that it was something that had to be done in the time, in specific circumstances. It didn’t happen because I decided one morning to go after bikies. It happened because bikies rioted.”

Newman’s government scrapped same-sex civil unions. He says the move was “democracy” and didn’t reflect his personal position; that he had “backed gay marriage publicly on national TV prior to Penny Wong”.

“I got into a lot of trouble over saying that. I think for a moment [the LNP] thought they’ve got the wrong guy here.”

Newman points to other policies – opposition to lockouts in the Fortitude Valley nightclub district and removing a statewide mandate for local councils to put fluoride in the water supply – as evidence of his liberal credentials. He has also spoken in favour of drug legalisation.

The former premier had been on the outer with the LNP for some time but a final straw came when the former president, Cynthia Hardy, attempted to install him as a party trustee – a position that would tap into his fundraising network. He was appointed but the nomination was opposed by many, including the federal defence minister, Peter Dutton.

“What they’ve done is run away from their own record and where they are now is they’re in a deep dark hole because they don’t stand for anything,” Newman says of the LNP. He is ready for the interview with a printout of the Courier-Mail’s 2015 election editorial endorsing his government, which sacked 14,000 public servants and sold state assets.

“The things we did when we were in government were all policy. So the people who were there … they were their decisions as well. Contrary to the narrative they’d like to have, it was very democratic. The asset sales or asset leasing stuff was something I was very lukewarm about.

Campbell Newman, former Premier of Queensland and Lord Mayor of Brisbane.
Campbell Newman with his dog Sassy. ‘The problem for any political party that builds its popularity on the back of a candidate’s personality is that it becomes hostage to that personality,’ says one LNP politician. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

“I think that it’s the case that the people who I’m trying to attract will be LNP voters first and foremost, there’s no doubt about that. There’s many who are really upset with the LNP and the Liberal party, they’re upset with Scott Morrison … they’re still disappointed and concerned with where [Queensland leader] David Crisafulli is going.”

On Morrison, Newman says: “I’ve gone from being a strong supporter 18 months ago, and I thought he got a rough trot during the bushfires, to a point where I honestly would really have no time for him whatsoever.”

‘Brand and baggage bigger than any party’

Newman is standing in his office, having a conversation with himself.

“You can ask me anything … what would you like to know?” a recording of the former premier’s voice says, through a smart speaker.

“Do you have a dog?” the real Newman asks aloud.

“We have a two-year-old female dog named Sassy!” he responds from the speaker. At that moment, Sassy herself is under the table, quietly nibbling at my shoelaces, before she’s told off.

The speaker trick is a gimmick being prepared for the campaign; there are still a few bugs to be ironed out, he says.

At first the notion there are two Campbell Newmans in the room feels awkward. Then Newman’s recorded voice announces that he doesn’t do drugs but that “I sure as hell like a drink!” and the sentient version gestures wildly to a stocked liquor cabinet in the corner. It’s clear the two Newmans are a double act; one that underscores his own set of contradictions.

Newman takes me through his garage to show off his Tesla battery. Upstairs in the office where he runs a capital investment fund, he has a binder full of decades-old articles about climate change, which he flips through to argue that past predictions have been wrong.

An LNP politician – one who likes Newman – says he believes his Liberal Democrats venture will come apart sooner or later.

“The problem for any political party that builds its popularity on the back of a candidate’s personality or a leader’s personality is that it becomes hostage to that personality,” the LNP figure says.

“That was the case when he led the LNP. With the greatest respect to the Lib Dems, Campbell Newman’s brand and all of his baggage in this state is always going to be much, much bigger than that party.”

Newman stops me as I’m about to leave his office. He opens an audio file on his computer, cranks the volume to 72 and plays his new campaign advertising jingle, a Slim Dusty-style ramble about freedom and “the Australian way”.

“Hi, I’m Campbell Newman … ” his voice comes from the speaker, partway through the song, as the real Newman sinks down in his office chair, puts his hands behind his head and nods along in agreement.

Contributor

Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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