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Could this man be our next premier?

Matt Canavan’s political career took a surprising swerve in the middle of the leadership dodgem-car chaos that engulfed the National Party when Parliament resumed in Canberra this month.

Feb 10, 2020, updated Feb 10, 2020
Nationals Senator Matt Canavan. (Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan. (Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

After his colleague and former deputy leader Bridget McKenzie walked the plank for her administration of the rorted community sports grants program, Canavan watched his old boss and close ally Barnaby Joyce throw caution to one side and challenge party boss Michael McCormack.

McCormack survived but Joyce’s attempt to get back his old job led Canavan to exit Cabinet using, by any measure, a tenuous excuse that he was a “regional supporter” of the North Queensland Cowboys rugby league team, which had received a Commonwealth grant for which he was responsible but hadn’t administered late last year.

It looked like what it probably was – an abundance of caution or a brain explosion. It was reminiscent of Canavan’s decision in the middle of 2018 to step aside from his role as an active senator after it was revealed he’d been signed up as an “Italian resident abroad”. Honourable but totally inexplicable.

Canavan recovered from that citizenship blip and he may well recover from this latest career turn but this time it might be a more difficult manoeuvre and will certainly take a lot longer.

McCormack made it clear he didn’t like Canavan’s staunch backing of Joyce and as far as he was concerned the Queensland Senator shouldn’t expect a quick return to the front bench.

Given the Nationals have few pieces on the Canberra chessboard to move around – and once someone gets there they won’t want to return to the less-interesting and less-well-remunerated cheap seats – Canavan might be facing a longish stint on the backbench.

If Canavan is to avoid being shunted on to a political siding, someone could revive an old but never developed LNP plan to extract the former Productivity Commission economist from Canberra and parachute him into the calmer waters of Brisbane’s Parliament.

It’s an idea whose time may now have come. Canavan is still young – he’s not even 40 until this coming December – and he’d run rings around any of the 93 MPs in the state house when it comes to politics or policy.

Canavan is a conviction politician on economic and social issues. He can argue LNP policies using his Productivity Commission background, taking a clear-eyed rational examination of policy rather than being hidebound to old Nationals ideology.

Progressives don’t like his steadfast support for the fossil-fuel industries but this makes him a hero in LNP branches and provides a basis of solid support in the suburbs and regions.

His social views are more controversial and divisive. In April, 2017 Canavan was one of only 10 senators who swung behind former Liberal Cory Bernardi’s motion to ban abortion on gender grounds.

These edgy social views place Canavan firmly in the camp of the so-called “Christian soldiers” faction of the Queensland LNP but party power brokers say this wouldn’t be a deal-breaker if the former minister did want to make the leap into state politics.

There’s no doubt someone of his talent and energy would be welcome. Current leader Deb Frecklington has been damned with the paperweight praise that she’s a nice person who tries hard.

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While not in the Olympic disaster class of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Frecklington’s start to 2020 has been untidy.

She started with an ill-considered attack on Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s character and dress sense. As one LNP insider remarked, you don’t try to shoot Bambi.

At the moment Frecklington’s leadership is hostage to the LNP’s performance at the by-election for the southern Gold Coast seat of Currumbin scheduled for the end of March.

The contest has been sparked because sitting LNP member Jan Stuckey quit protesting she’d been subjected to vilification and bullying by fellow conservative MPs and party bosses, particularly over her support for a Labor bill to decriminalise abortions in Queensland.

Stuckey had lined up a replacement for her seat but he was unacceptable to the party’s state executive which voted him down 25 to nil. Local branch members don’t like the candidate who has been picked instead which could put what should be an easy LNP hold in doubt.

Given Currumbin is a conservative seat with an ageing demographic, it’s hard to see Labor bucking history and winning it from government. However, the real damage done to the Liberal brand by Morrison’s January from hell and the local party discontent means the LNP is handicapping itself at every turn.

If the LNP lost Currumbin, Frecklington’s leadership would be not just in doubt but on the line. She might not survive.

In such circumstances, emergency measures might be called for. Would the party be desperate enough to dust off the old idea to draft Matt Canavan?

It’s not as silly as it sounds.

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