How drinks on Clive Palmer’s yacht as LNP sank sparked a coup
Of all the events that might trigger a revolution in Queensland's troubled LNP, one of the most unlikely had to be a Brisbane River superyacht cruise, complete with canapes and flutes of Moet.
But, in the eyes of some MPs, the party hit rock bottom on the deck of a luxury vessel on the stormy and humid night of October 31, 2020, while votes were counted in the state election.
As Annastacia Palaszczuk swept to a third term and the conservative Opposition was consigned to another four years in the political wilderness, Clive Palmer was in host mode on board his grand vessel, Nancy Jean.
It was the election party guest list of Palmer that stunned many in the LNP.
Enjoying the festivities with the head of a rival political party were all three of the LNP's past presidents - Dave Hutchinson, Gary Spence and Bruce McIver.
Hutchinson had only recently stepped down as LNP boss after being blamed for trying to launch a coup against party leader Deb Frecklington when polling leaked in June.
For state and federal MPs already furious after what they believed were years of head office political treachery, photos of their ex-presidents on the yacht crystallised a determination to fix the dysfunction once and for all.
"The final straw came when people saw who was on Clive's (Palmer) boat on election night," one senior MP told The Sunday Mail.
"That was a sellout."
The party had been "hijacked", the MP said, but the division would end "when the revolution starts".
WHO IS THE ENEMY?
A few kilometres away from Palmer's boat, on a night which ended fast and badly for the LNP, Frecklington rose to the podium to deliver her losing concession speech.
The evening had become somewhat of a blur for the Nanango MP, who was exhausted after weeks on the campaign trail in trying to beat Labor's Palaszczuk in an election that had become a referendum on COVID-19.
In the hectic, muddled maelstrom, she came to the microphone at exactly the same time as the premier was delivering a victory speech across town, which for many was a metaphor for the campaign and the way party headquarters had handled the campaign - chaotic and ill-timed.
But it was what Frecklington said that shocked many party volunteers and officials.
"I will continue to be leader of the LNP," she vowed, with a steely look in her eye.
This was never going to happen.
The knives were being sharpened as early as 7pm that night.
Frecklington was clearly stung by the result and her vow to remain on - more out of defiance than any political logic - was said with several people in mind, insiders say.
One of those was the state director, Michael O'Dwyer, who she eyeballed during the speech.
The others were the LNP past presidents sipping champagne with Palmer on the river.
The next morning, after speaking with her husband Jason and former Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg, Frecklington fell on her sword and resigned as leader.
She'd run out of steam and saw the writing on the wall.
In fact, with current LNP leader David Crisafulli looming in the background, those close to Frecklington said that, even if she had won, her reign as leader may not go full-term.
A senior Liberal figure said the knives had been out for Frecklington for "certainly many months, possibly even years".
A source close to McIver said he had a major row with Frecklington in early 2020 over the LNP's inability to neutralise COVID-19 as an electoral winner for Labor.
"Bruce would often say it's hard to sell sour milk," a colleague said.
"He was of the firm belief that the parliamentary team were underperforming.
"I don't think the organisation are angels but the MPs and candidates have to take some responsibility."
The enmity between Frecklington's office and some of party's 30-member state executive as well as other influential figures was so bad that Frecklington did not even take McIver's calls in the final 12 months of her reign as Opposition leader.
"The big question you need to ask the LNP headquarters is this - why would they leak against Frecklington, not just the polling but at other times, to undermine the party cause," the MP said.
"Why would these people put their own ego and their own power before the party? Who could possibly prefer four more years in Opposition than government?
"My sense is that even if she'd won, she would have been rolled at some point. She couldn't be controlled, and like others before her, that was fatal."
Like several LNP leaders before her, Frecklington enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts with the hierarchy.
The so-called faceless men had formed an alliance with the parliamentary leadership team, including Frecklington, to fend off a challenge by a factional group of religious and more conservative members known as the Christian Soldiers, who were stacking branches and trying to get control of certain electorates.
Ultimately the challenge from the so-called Christian Soldiers was dissipated, but only after compelling action from the most senior echelons of the party and parliamentary wings, who eased most of the leaders out of the way.
This rare show of unity between the parliamentary and organisational wings gave Ms Frecklington the confidence to believe she had the support of headquarters.
However she had a significant political problem.
While published polling had the LNP competitively placed (a Yougov poll in early June put the LNP in an election-winning lead of Labor, 52-48, two-party preferred), the numbers on Frecklington's personal popularity were dire.
Both in early 2020 before COVID-19 hit the state, and in June, polling showed less than a quarter of Queenslanders believed she would make a better premier than Palaszczuk.
Frecklington was yet to land a cut-through message with Queensland voters and had made a misstep by describing the premier as a "princess" and criticising Palaszczuk for wearing high-end brands.
But soon after the Yougov poll showed the party was on track to win came the sensational leak of internal LNP polling which painted a far more grim picture.
The usually tightly held party polling suggested the LNP was trailing Labor in many of the key seats and Frecklington was well behind Palaszczuk on key personal attributes - including who voters thought was "intelligent, articulate, capable and competent", "likeable" and even who would "deliver good things for regional Queensland" and "has a family of her own and shows strong compassion".
Multiple LNP insiders say the leak was aimed at creating a party room spill to unseat Frecklington and likened it to the internal manoeuvrings which led to the removal of John-Paul Langbroek nine years earlier after the Brisbane flood disaster.
Frecklington and her party room colleagues immediately blamed the party hierarchy for trying to trigger a coup, with the leader declaring it the work of "a few blokes sitting in the back room who want things to go back to the way they were" but that she was the leader and was "here to stay".
"I will not be bullied by the backroom boys of the LNP," she said.
Within days, Federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton took the extraordinary step of publicly demanding Hutchinson's head, describing the party organisation's undermining of the state leader as "unprecedented" and the president's position "untenable".
Then there was the issue of Clive Palmer. Hutchinson was a property adviser at the tycoon's Coolum resort.
"You can't be the president of the LNP and the employee of the principal of another political party at the same time," Mr Dutton said.
The aborted coup was ham-fisted and clumsy - HQ's preferred candidate, Crisafulli, didn't have the numbers and it laid bare festering divisions in the party.
Amid the chaos, Crisafulli was forced to make an emotional plea to his colleagues and the public that he was not involved in the leak and had no intention of forcing a party room vote.
An LNP insider said: "Come on. Getting rid of Deb Frecklington six months out (from the election) was never an option. It was amateur hour by the backroom boys. No wonder the leaders try to keep them out of policy."
While insiders drew comparisons with the political assassination of Langbroek, there was one difference.
There were no blow-ups or warnings of the coming attempted coup.
It's understood that when Dutton publicly criticised party headquarters, backroom moves began to destabilise him.
If that wasn't surprising enough, the power and bloody-mindedness of the LNP powerbrokers was on full display when the most respected person in Queensland conservative politics, Lawrence Springborg, was thrown under the bus after raising his concerns about the poll leak.
What made it all the more remarkable was Springborg made the criticism behind closed doors at a state executive meeting.
As a trustee, Springborg had a place on the executive with voting rights and the ability to influence decision-making.
Back in 2011 when the party knifed Langbroek, Springborg had given a clear warning to the back room: "I am saying to the organisation, 'You got away with this once, but don't ever think you can get away with it again'."
Nine years later, for daring to raise the elephant in the room, Springborg was told by Hutchinson, still at that point president, that he would be stripped of his position as a trustee and that "the executive wanted to go in a different direction".
It seemed that anybody who had a contrary view to the main players was being banished.
The Frecklington coup scandal was a gift to Labor, an own goal by the LNP back room.
But it was clear the COVID-19 pandemic had also changed the political dynamic and Palaszczuk's message on keeping Queenslanders safe resonated with voters.
Australians have given government a big tick on coronavirus and in Queensland that meant Labor, despite integrity scandals and fiscal folly, was always going to win.
Certainly, say LNP insiders, Crisafulli, or whoever was drafted in to replace Frecklington if a coup was successful, would not have won.
Former Nationals premier Rob Borbidge said the frustration within the organisational arm of the party was borne out by a perception, even among Labor heavyweights, that the ALP was "cooked" before COVID hit.
"With COVID-19 helping Labor so much in the polls, I felt maybe there was a sense of defeatism, certainly at party headquarters, that we were not going to get there," he said.
"We probably should have tried to neutralise on COVID. That's an example where Labor has its act together and we don't."
Another party insider questioned whether LNP headquarters was resigned to defeat and ran dead on the campaign.
"There is a school of thought that the party left a fair bit in the tank (during the campaign)," a senior former MP said.
The LNP organisational wing effectively outsourced the negative ad campaign to Palmer, who spent a fortune having a crack at Labor's "heartless" and strict attitude to those enduring COVID-19 hotel quarantine protocols.
The LNP had a $6 million war chest but was massively outspent on advertising by both Labor and Palmer.
The strong attack ads against Labor from the LNP never came.
The question many within the LNP are asking is where were the attack ads on former deputy premier Jackie Trad's integrity scandals?
Where were the attack ads on Labor's economic record?
Where were the attack ads on Labor's appalling child safety record or the juvenile crime crisis?
Some insiders claim the war chest wasn't fully spent.
LNP candidates, many of whom worked their backsides off for 12 months before the election, were angry and perplexed.
"It was as though we were hitting our heads up against a brick wall," said one candidate in a crucial target seat.
"I know for a fact I was in front a week out and Labor knew that and they sent in the big guns in the last week and ramped up the robocalls and the negative ads against Deb.
"I think it's a terrible indictment on us as Queenslanders when the only thing Labor has to say to win is that we will 'sack, cut and sell' just like the Newman era.
"The fact that the public actually believes that rubbish it is even more disappointing."
One theory circulating among some within the party was that HQ wanted to set aside some of the war chest, anticipating having to make a large payment to former Brisbane LNP councillor Kate Richards, who is suing members of the state executive, including Hutchison, for $1 million, alleging she was defamed.
Richards was dumped ahead of the 2020 council election, with the party referring her to the Crime and Corruption Commission, claiming she had wrongfully tried to get around a developer donation ban.
Richards, who was cleared of any wrongdoing by the CCC, has said the real reason she was dumped was for "rejecting cronyism and backroom deals", claiming she had "been treated appallingly by a group of faceless men in the LNP who wield far too much power".
She also accused "backroom political powerbrokers" of snooping into candidates' sex lives during extreme vetting sessions.
"The internal processes are akin to a Star Chamber. They are downright intimidating and disrespectful," she said.
Hutchinson, who stepped down three months before the election, said he believed the LNP spent more on its 2020 campaign than in 2017.
And says he does not believe there was a conflict of interest with his role helping Palmer run his Coolum resort when he was party president.
The poll leak wasn't the final piece of internal drama to dog the Opposition leader.
Less than three weeks from election day, news was leaked that the LNP had referred Frecklington to the state electoral watchdog fearing a series of fundraising events may have violated laws which stop the political influence of property developers.
The party's official spokesman denied the story, but it dominated the news cycle for 48 hours during the campaign, blunting Frecklington's momentum at a crucial point.
After the demise of Frecklington, new leader Crisafulli was elected unopposed, walking into the party room with the vanquished woman he replaced in a show of unity.
But among the LNP's rank and file, insiders say, there is "white hot" anger over the 2020 election loss and current president Cynthia Hardy - who succeeded Hutchinson in August - is "in denial" and will be replaced by the middle of the year.
Well-placed insiders say her replacement will either be Borbidge or Springborg.
The only way to smash the cycle of mediocrity and division is to "blow the thing up" and start over again, one MP said.
"The grassroots are very, very angry," they said.
"They saw the party hierarchy undermine their own leader.
"Now we all know you could have put Jesus Christ up against Annastacia Palaszczuk and he would have come second.
"But that didn't give them the licence to leak polling which threatened to destroy Deb Frecklington's leadership.
"The question being asked by members is - who is the enemy here, Labor or the LNP headquarters?
"There's a movement beginning."
Another federal MP said Hardy and Crisafulli were facing hostile crowds as they travelled the state.
"Crisafulli is bailing her out because she won't accept that the problem is ripping the heart out of the party," he said.
A former LNP aide says the organisational wing of the LNP has gone from raising money and selecting candidates to being "a full blown part of the political process".
"The lines have blurred," the insider said.
"They now want to get into policy and that's always going to end badly."
Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner said that at state level the LNP needed to work out how to win seats in Brisbane.
"It can be done at council level and federal level, yet there's this disconnect at state level," he said.
"There's a lack of focus and it's tearing the party apart. I sense a clean-out coming."
A state MP said the LNP had lost many good members, through either suspension or leaving in disgust.
"We need to get them back," they said.
"We've lost some very good people."
At a recent love-in for Crisafulli's parliamentary team, the 35 MPs tucked into their surf and turf dinners at Kawana Surf Club, the conversation turned to the elephant in the room - problems with the party machine.
As the wagyu and prawns were washed down with shiraz, the question hung in the air: What should happen?
Many believe Crisafulli is in a tricky position and that, after getting the endorsement of the LNP hierarchy, he must show solidarity and loyalty.
Others are more direct.
Ex-federal MP Gary Hardgrave says the party hierarchy will "own" Crisafulli unless he shows he is truly independent.
"If Crisafulli wants to be premier, he has to be Queensland's boy, not the party headquarters' boy," he said.
Originally published as How drinks on Clive Palmer's yacht as LNP sank sparked a coup