Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper has a mini-me in the land down under

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BRISBANE -- Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a mini-me in Australia.

In the northern state of Queensland there's a political party modelled on the highly successful Conservative Party of Canada. Heading it is Premier Campbell Newman, whose age, balding forehead and short stature rule out any suggestions he sprang from Harper's loins.

But in political terms there's no doubt he's Harper's progeny. Like Harper, Newman heads a successful melting pots of centre-right political parties straddling the cosmopolitan-country divide, uniting the rustics with the refined.

Unfortunately for Newman, his melting pot boiled over last weekend.

First the backstory. The Liberal National Party, which rules the northern state of Queensland, swept into power last March in a spectacular victory, which left the state dumbfounded.

The LNP didn't win every seat, but with 78 of the 89 seats in the legislative assembly, the Labor Opposition didn't have sufficient numbers to muster a football team.

The LNP was formed in 2008 by uniting two centre-right parties much in the manner of the 2003 merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party.

The first party leader, Lawrence Springborg, a likeable Queensland farmer who has spent most of his adult life in politics, actually visited Canada to see how Harper managed to merge the interests of rural Western Canada with the political preoccupations of the urban centres.

Like a micro version of the Conservative Party of Canada, the LNP was born with much fanfare and quickly developed teething problems. It failed in its first attempt to secure power in 2008 but still scored an impressive swing of eight seats.

With former Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman taking charge in early 2011, the party stormed the barricades in the 2012 election, to much cheering and applause amid right-leaning pundits who predicted the left would take a generation to recover in Queensland.

This week, an age-old problem the LNP was designed to smother woke up and reared its ugly head -- regions versus cities.

A lanky cattleman, Ray Hopper, who runs a small farm west of the capital of Brisbane, angrily walked out of his wildly successful party, joining forces with a fledgling party with just three members representing the interests of the bush.

Hopper had had "a gutful'' of a city-centric LNP ignoring the concerns of the regions, including a decade-old problem in the dairy industry -- miners taking over good agricultural land -- and a world-view excluding the preoccupations of those living, geographically and spiritually, millions of light years from the inner city.

The defection means barely a blip in terms of the LNP's fat electoral margin but it does highlight an almost intractable problem.

The LNP has developed into a sophisticated political machine but it's tertiary educated and urbane leadership team is still going to have to cater to those country cousins living back on the farm.

This week, Premier Newman had to reassure the most decentralized state in the nation that the regions were not being forgotten in a party with its historical roots deep in the bush.

While the alliance between region and city appears (from an outsider's viewpoint at least) to work well in Canada, in Queensland it was always going to be like herding blowflies. A deep cultural divide runs across the state with the regional population deeply conscious of its historic financial, political and even social power, anchored in an age when wool, sugar and beef were the economic bedrock.

With the rise of the information age, the power dynamics have shifted rapidly but the cries of the regions for attention will still be shrill for at least another generation, and Harper's mini-me will have to listen to them.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2012 A12

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