Newman expresses 'dismay' at defection
Premier Campbell Newman says he feels "extreme disappointment" at the defection of backbencher Ray Hopper from the LNP to Katter's Australian Party.PT1M37S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2a269 620 349 November 26, 2012
Long-serving rural Queensland MP Ray Hopper says he defected from the Liberal National Party because his conscience would not allow him to serve under the Newman government's leadership.
Mr Hopper, the member for Condamine in south-west Queensland, has also revealed he changed his phone number and dodged calls from Premier Campbell Newman ahead of Sunday's announcement that he would join Katter's Australian Party.
The Premier himself was dramatically chasing me and I did not return his calls.
Mr Newman told reporters he felt a "deep sense of betrayal" on behalf of the Condamine electorate as Mr Hopper would no longer be a voice in government arguing for the local community.
Ray Hopper's defection is a blow to Campbell Newman and indicates elements of the LNP are concerned about the government's direction.
"I'm here today to express my extreme disappointment, indeed dismay, that he's chosen to let down the people of his electorate in this way," the Premier said.
Asked whether he was embarrassed by the defection, Mr Newman simply said he was focused on sorting out the state’s problems.
Mr Newman said grassroots LNP members were furious as Mr Hopper had previously vowed to serve a three-year term as an LNP member.
Mr Newman has asked the LNP, which swept to government in March with 78 of the 89 seats in Parliament, to quickly preselect a new candidate for Condamine, who would represent the electorate's views to government well before the next election, due in 2015.
Mr Hopper will join state leader Rob Katter, the son of federal MP Bob Katter, and earlier LNP defector Shane Knuth as the third parliamentarian in the minor party in Queensland.
The news comes on the eve of the final parliamentary sitting week of the year and follows a war of words between the Newman government and LNP life member Clive Palmer, who denounced Mr Newman's leadership and quit the party on Thursday.
Mr Hopper's defection is a blow to Mr Newman and indicates elements of the LNP are concerned about the government's direction.
Coal seam gas drives defection
Mr Hopper, who was elected to the former seat of Darling Downs as an independent in February 2001 before joining the National Party 10 months later, said coal seam gas was a key issue behind his decision to quit.
Mr Hopper said he had sat in Parliament for the last few months and watched what was happening.
He said his electorate was the richest agricultural area in Queensland but he had no doubt the LNP would allow coal seam gas drilling to occur there.
Mr Hopper said he would have the ability in Katter's Australian Party to move a private member's bill to protect his electorate.
“I will make it that hard, that hard, that they will not be able to vote against what I put forward,” he told Fairfax Media.
Mr Hopper was not supportive of a blanket freeze on the coal seam gas industry.
“We can't have a moratorium at the moment but what we can do is make sure coal seam gas is done where it should be done,” he said.
“There's some places where it can work but it simply can't work in good prime agricultural land and where there's underground water that will be affected.”
Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney said Mr Hopper’s use of coal seam gas as an “excuse” for the defection did not stack up as the MP had been given the opportunity to have input every step of the way.
Mr Seeney added that the government had “worked very hard to calm down the issues and concerns out there”.
Mr Newman said he could assure Condamine residents he would take steps to ensure they had a voice in the government.
Mr Newman said Agriculture Minister John McVeigh would take the “lead role” in looking after the interests of the Condamine electorate, while he had also asked the LNP to quickly preselect a new party candidate for the seat.
The Premier said he would treat the person chosen by the LNP as the government’s representative of the people of Condamine.
How deep is the unrest?
Mr Hopper said he had not spoken to senior members of the Newman government before announcing his defection, adding he had even changed his mobile number on Friday.
“The Premier himself was dramatically chasing me and I did not return his calls,” Mr Hopper said.
Mr Hopper said other LNP MPs were very unhappy with the government's direction and were considering their options, including possible defection.
“There's about 15 members that are very very scared because they're going to lose their seats the way the leadership is happening at the moment,” he said.
However, it is unclear how many MPs will actually take the dramatic step of defecting.
Contacted on Sunday morning, long-serving Gregory MP and former National party figure Vaughan Johnson was reluctant to speak about Mr Hopper's defection or whether he intended to remain in the LNP.
"No comment at all, no comment whatsoever," Mr Johnson, the chief government whip, told Fairfax Media.
But when pressed on whether he would remain in the LNP, Mr Johnson said: "I'm a member of the LNP and I'll be staying in the LNP."
Warrego MP Howard Hobbs told News Ltd he was disappointed with his friend Mr Hopper's decision.
"I don't know of any others. I'm not going. I always believe that if there are changes to be made they should be made from within," Mr Hobbs told News Ltd.
Mr Newman disputed Mr Hopper’s suggestion that other LNP MPs were considering defecting.
“Clearly he’s got it wrong because people are saying they’re not going to let down their constituents in the way that he has sadly chosen to do,” he said.
Mr Newman said LNP MPs would “have a good discussion about all this” at the party room meeting on Monday.
Asked whether he would seek pledges from existing MPs that they would not follow suit, Mr Newman said: “My people are totally committed to getting the economy of Queensland going. There is no question about that.”
The Labor opposition currently has seven MPs in total, while Katter's Australian Party now has three.
Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was sure LNP members would be feeling a sense of betrayal over the defection.
“The people of Queensland voted for good government, not this soap opera,” she said.
“Obviously there is a feeling of discontent, not just out there in the electorate but in the LNP as well.”
Hopper 'to keep government honest'
In a swipe over the controversial job cuts that dominated the LNP's first six months in power, Mr Hopper said the Newman government should have relied on natural attrition to trim the size of the public service rather than pushing people out the door.
Mr Hopper said as an experienced MP he would now be able to hold the government to account from the crossbench.
“I'm not worried about how I'll be treated by the LNP in Parliament,” he said.
“This is a move I believe will be good for Queensland. I will keep the Newman government honest.”
Mr Hopper was also worried about the loss of dairy farmers, a core concern shared by Katter's Australian Party.
He said senior members of the LNP had shown animosity towards former National Party figures including Bruce McIver, currently LNP state president.
“My conscience won't let me sit under this leadership,” he said.
Asked whether Mr Hopper had had any policy wins since the LNP formed government, he said: “I've had wins and the reason is they were scared I'd do what I did today.”
Mr Hopper argued his defection would help the Condamine electorate because a hard-fought battle would occur at the next election.
“This will be hard for some of my people to understand … but in 12 months' time they'll look back and see that we certainly have made the right decision,” he said.
In his maiden speech in April 2001, Mr Hopper outlined his farming background, denounced globalisation and said deregulation of the dairy industry had “totally destroyed the most viable source of income for our family farm” - all themes that match Katter's Australian Party rhetoric.
Mr Hopper became a member of the combined LNP in 2008 when the formerly separate Liberal and National parties merged into a single entity.
He served in a number of shadow portfolios when the conservatives were in opposition, including as spokesman for primary industries, fisheries and food security policy.
However, Mr Hopper was passed over for a ministerial position following the Newman government's election and was appointed as chairman of Parliament's Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee.
A profile on Queensland Parliament's website shows Mr Hopper's “interests include rodeos, horse training, shooting, farming and family”.
The minor party's state leader, Rob Katter, said Mr Hopper would feel more at home in Katter's Australian Party.
“If you've got a conscience and you're sitting in a party that's dictated by one Liberal member in Brisbane and you have the values that he [Mr Hopper] has which a lot describe as old National, it's pretty hard to stay where you are,” Mr Katter told ABC Radio.
“He wants to join a party where there are core values and principles, you're allowed to represent your electorate.
“People shouldn't be surprised that he's come across to us because that's exactly what we represent.”
A spokesman for Katter's Australian Party said he understood Mr Hopper had resigned from the LNP on Saturday night.
Other defections in Queensland politics
There have been signs of discontent in the past.
For example, in November 2011 Mr Hopper signalled he wanted changes to the LNP's supportive coal seam gas policy, saying there were still “a lot of things we need to get right”.
Mr Knuth, the member for Dalrymple, defected from the LNP to Katter's Australian Party in October 2011, arguing the LNP had silenced rural representation and the two major parties had broadly the same coal seam gas stance.
Both sides of politics have previously suffered defections.
In October 2008, Labor MP for Indooroopilly Ronan Lee defected to the Greens. Mr Lee lost his seat the following year to LNP candidate Scott Emerson, now Transport and Main Roads Minister.
When he defected, Mr Lee said he was not the only Labor MP dissatisfied with the government's environmental policy and others may defect or quit.
Mr Knuth defected from the LNP to Katter's Australian Party last year but, unlike Mr Lee, managed to hold onto his seat at this year's state election.
Beaudesert MP Aidan McLindon, who is still heavily involved in Katter's Australian Party, and Burnett MP Rob Messenger both quit the LNP in 2010 and then lost their seats at the 2012 election.
Dr Messenger said he knew from personal experience that Mr Hopper had not chosen the easy path, even though some may claim he had.
The former Burnett MP said "thugs, rumourmongers and backstabbers will attempt to drag his name through the mud in order to destroy him".
"They’ll do it out of revenge and in an attempt to send a message to those in the LNP who may be thinking of following Ray’s example," said Dr Messenger, who served as an independent until his 2012 election loss.
He said it was best to "cop it on your feet fighting for your people and what you believe is right".