Bruce McIver has always won.
He built a huge trucking empire from humble beginnings in rural south-east Queensland. He entered politics and brought the Queensland Liberal and National parties together to create a formidable political machine that delivered three-quarters of Coalition gains at the last Federal election. In a masterstroke McIver drafted Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman to head the state LNP, which secured the party 78 of Queensland’s 89 seats, and left Labor a rump.
The LNP President now has a new goal. ‘I want to get Tony [Abbott] elected,’ he tells me when we first meet in his office at the LNP’s bunker-like headquarters in the city fringe suburb of Spring Hill. ‘Tony will change Australia for the better.’
The LNP has become like one of McIver’s rigs tearing through Queensland with unstoppable political momentum; and McIver clearly wants to keep it going at the Federal level.
But McIver has been frustrated: he would like to play a role in the Coalition beyond Queensland, and he — and others — believes he has the skills and experience to help win government. Yet the man he wants to get elected, Tony Abbott, has so far blocked him.
The Opposition Leader thwarted a move for McIver to challenge Liberal President Alan Stockdale, which helped trigger a screaming match between Abbott and McIver’s friend, eccentric billionaire Clive Palmer.
The mooted McIver challenge was seen as a ‘Joh for PM’-style push from Queensland, and Abbott clearly believed it would destabilise the party. But McIver says he was approached by ‘senior interstate’ party members to challenge for the presidency — evidence that others outside of Queensland are eyeing off his skills.
Who, I ask? ‘That’s confidential.’
McIver says he has moved on from the Presidency bid, and is focused on helping Abbott win by delivering the best outcome for the Coalition in Queensland.
With the federal polls narrowing, unity and a strong working relationship between Abbott and the LNP is crucial; and there are now signs that relations between McIver and Abbott are improving.
‘My relationship with Tony is very good,” McIver said recently. ‘He’s a good man.’
McIver, despite his enormous power, remains a somewhat mysterious figure, even in Queensland. He has given few interviews and later expresses surprise he agreed to speak with me.
He is described as a formidable and hard man, but in person the Caloundra-based 61-year-old grandfather of two is open and affable: in his beige trousers, white checked shirt, tasselled loafers and sleeveless jumper he looks like a trucking magnate — working roots but stroked by affluence.
McIver’s LNP work is voluntary and his commitment is all-consuming: he doesn’t have time to attend his beloved Broncos games, though he still squeezes in fishing and scuba diving.
‘Politics is my game now,’ he says, adding, ‘I’ve learned it pretty well.’
McIver was born in Dalby on Queensland’s rural Darling Downs and grew up in the small town of Bell. His father was a trucker, and carted pigs, sheep, cream and general goods around the Downs.
‘I loved being with working men as a boy,’ McIver says. ‘They were real. I think that’s stuck with me right now. I like real people. People that are upfront with you, they’re real.’
One of his political heroes — along with the likes of John Howard and John Anderson — is former Labor leader, Bob Hawke. ‘I liked old Bob. Bob was one of those guys who was a straight shooter.’ (Campbell Newman is also ‘real’.)
McIver says his was a ‘loving family, a Christian family’. His father was an extremely hard worker. ‘A disciplinarian; I suppose that’s where I get it from’, he says.
McIver is now a Baptist and openly describes himself as an ‘evangelical’ Christian, but he doesn’t ram it down people’s throats. ‘I have never heard Bruce talk about his religious position, once, on anything,’ says former National Party president and QC, David Russell, who grew up near McIver.
After a career in the trucking industry in the 1990s and 2000s, McIver was approached by veteran Queensland MP Vaughan Johnson to see if he could help the Nationals, and he joined the party in 2005.
McIver says he wants to make Australia a better place for his grandchildren. Australians should run Australia, ‘not world bodies’, he says, and his three priorities if the Coalition wins federally are to get rid of the carbon tax and mining tax, and fix the education system. ‘The education system tells a jaundiced view of climate change and of many other things as well,’ he says.
The LNP’s success in Queensland has given the party, and McIver, serious clout and they clearly want their skills employed nationally. ‘They are expansionary,’ a Queensland political player says. ‘They see the LNP as the future of conservative politics in Australia. Queensland isn’t big enough for them.’
McIver says the LNP has learned to campaign well. The party showed extraordinary discipline in the Queensland election amid one of the most vicious personal attacks, on Campbell Newman, seen in Australian politics; a strategy Labor is expected to repeat against Abbott.
‘A lot of people wanted us to change tack,’ McIver says. ‘There was no question we were going to change tack. We had a plan and we stuck to it.’
But Abbott has moved to check that power and expansion; he’s trying to slam the breaks on the LNP juggernaut, and its big egos and ambitions, to maintain crucial stability.
Not only has he blocked the McIver push for President and his bid to ban lobbyists in the Federal Executive, but he’s also played a role in dissuading Clive Palmer from running for Parliament.
Abbott also scored what was deemed a win against McIver when Mal Brough secured preselection for Fisher against James McGrath, the architect of the LNP’s Newman election strategy, who was backed by McIver and LNP powerbrokers.
McIver has gathered enemies, which could explain Abbott’s wariness. They accuse him of being a control freak who runs the LNP like his personal company. The Newman government has bridled at the party’s attempts to control it, particularly through finances.
When McIver recently went on leave to have a knee replacement, a public stoush erupted between the organisational wing and the government after Newman scrapped laws that delivered the LNP $2 million in funding.
Then Palmer, a long-time LNP member, launched a public attack on Newman’s sacking of public servants.
McIver, a director of one of Palmer’s companies, won’t comment on Palmer’s bitter falling out with the LNP, but says as President his first priority is to uphold the party constitution. ‘And I’ll do that.’
And despite the recent tension, McIver strongly backs Newman. ‘It’s a difficult job Campbell’s got, and his team. He’s got my full support and my party’s full support.’
Both issues have subsided since McIver returned from sick leave.
Some think it is strange — and a shame — that the two conservative warriors, Abbott and McIver, aren’t closer. I suggest they share similar beliefs. ‘I don’t know about that,’ McIver says. ‘That might be true.’
LNP insiders suggest that controversial former Howard government minister Santo Santoro remains a considerable source of tension; and the LNP question Abbott’s support of the divisive figure. ‘I get on fine with Santo,’ McIver insists.
There does seem to be a thawing of tension between Abbott and McIver. McIver says he and Abbott do meet and talk regularly. ‘We had half an hour on the phone at 7.30 this morning,’ he said recently.
McIver has been critical of the Liberal party’s federal organisation, and believes it could be improved. When Abbott was riding high in the polls, McIver maintained the next election would be close, and said the Coalition should be attacking the toxic Labor brand, not Julia Gillard. He also called for a more positive agenda from Abbott.
The polls have turned, but McIver says in recent times the federal party has changed tack and lifted their game. ‘I’m very happy with where they’re going federally at the moment,’ he says. ‘Their focus now is much better than it was.’
He says the party should stick with Abbott despite his poll wobbles. ‘Abbott should take us to the next election.’ He says that Malcolm Turnbull is a ‘very talented person, but we need unity at this time’.
McIver says his priority is Queensland. ‘I’m flat out worrying about Queensland. That’s my focus. I’m helping Tony by getting Queensland right.’
I had previously suggested he was frustrated and would like to play a greater role federally. ‘I was hoping to if the opportunity came up,’ he said. ‘But the opportunity is not there. I have moved on.’
But what if he was drafted?
‘I’d consider it,’ he says.