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Here we Joh again: in a state of wild swingers, Newman cannot rest on conservative laurels

24 May 2014 139 views No Comment

SOON Queensland will again dominate our political agenda. In the next nine months, Queenslanders will go to the polls in an election that will be a referendum on the performance of Premier Campbell Newman’s first term in office.

Although no one seriously ­expects the Liberal National Party to lose, political interest will focus on just how many seats, out of its record majority, that the Queensland government will retain.

Newman has the advantage of presiding over a traditionally conservative state, but he would do well to study Queensland’s history as he ponders the election date. In the long-term, the conservative nature of Queensland may not save him.

The three premiers who have commanded the largest majorities in the one-house state Parliament are Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, Peter Beattie and Newman.

In terms of majorities, Newman is the most successful conservative Premier and Beattie the most successful Labor leader.

Queensland is a state where when it swings, it swings radically, as Beattie and Newman have proven.

But holding big majorities is tricky. Bjelke-Petersen’s biggest majority was in 1974 when, in a huge anti-Whitlam swing, Labor in Queensland was reduced to a cricket team of eleven state MPs.

After the Bjelke-Petersen landslide, it took 15 years for Labor to wrestle office from the National Party in Queensland in 1989. That was only achieved on the back of the sensational hearings of the Fitzgerald inquiry, which reshaped public opinion by exposing widespread government and police corruption.

Beattie’s biggest win was in 2001 when he garnered 66 parliamentary seats out of 89, but he also had landslide wins in 2004 and 2006.

For Labor in Queensland, these large victories were in stark contrast to the tough results for the ALP since changes to the regional workforce in the mid to late 1950s.

Under Anna Bligh, Labor lost office in 2012. Beattie had retired in 2007, leaving Bligh in charge.

Winning only seven seats, Bligh’s deeply unpopular government suffered the largest defeat in Australian political history. In ­defeating her, the LNP won 78 seats — the biggest conservative win ever.

Beattie, Bjelke-Petersen and Newman are all controversial ­figures who boast many boosters and detractors.

But Newman is different to the other two long-serving premiers. Even their detractors knew that Bjelke-Petersen and Beattie had done some positive things.

For Bjelke-Petersen it was the development of the coal ­industry and leading a strongly pro-­development government.

For Beattie it was his innovation, high-technology and education agenda, based around his Smart State policy and developing new industries in aviation and coal-seam methane gas.

Both populist premiers had a clear vision for the state.

Both also had serious flaws: Bjelke-Petersen led a deeply corrupt government and Beattie made serious errors of judgment in promoting corrupt Gordon Nuttall to the ministry and handing over the premiership to Bligh — instead of Beattie’s talented education minister, Rod Welford.

Newman’s primary problem is that Queenslanders largely know him for his negatives. There is no overriding positive which balances his public service sackings, consideration of privatising government-owned assets, and bringing the state’s Crime and Misconduct Commission to heel.

To argue that Newman is rectifying the economic mess he inherited from Bligh is not enough. Unless he starts to sell a positive message of achievement, he may well shortly suffer one of those large Queensland swings against an incumbent government.

Newman’s task is made more difficult because he does not have the larger than life, charismatic personality of a Beattie or the canny folksy appeal of Bjelke-Petersen.

Both men commanded the Queensland media, whereas ­Newman is facing an increasingly fractured relationship with the Queensland press, which is being finally forced to acknowledge the authoritarian nature of Newman’s style of governance. Hence this local joke gaining currency about what’s going on behind the Banana Curtain: “Here we Joh again!

Even though Labor is likely to make up some ground with voters disenchanted with Newman’s jackboot-style of government, it would seem that Newman has too big a majority to lose the next state election.

But the seeds of his future defeat may have been laid in his first term. He should remember that, because of their widely ­acknowledged positives, premiers Bjelke-Petersen and Beattie were never defeated at the ballot box.

But now there is a significant wild card: the Palmer United Party (PUP), which has already begun letterbox drops in Queensland and which recently captured the seats of three disaffected ­sitting government members — all indigenous — in the Northern Territory.

In Queensland, as in the rest of Australia, when it comes to renegade support, the big-spending federal MP for the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax has clearly eclipsed the maverick MHR for Kennedy, Bob Katter, and his Katter’s Australian Party.

Palmer and his PUP are eerily reminiscent of Pauline Hanson and One Nation — which in the 1998 Queensland election gained nearly 25 per cent of the vote, winning 11 of 89 seats.

Much hated by the LNP (and vice versa), the PUP might well ­attract a sizeable protest vote in the forthcoming state election from those Queenslanders who are similarly alienated from the political system and the major parties. The PUP is also likely to bolster its vote by playing on the federal government’s massive cuts to health and education. Paradoxically, Newman’s tough response to the Abbott-Hockey budget leaves the way open for Palmer to argue that, despite Newman’s current stance ruling out tax hikes, a vote for PUP is the only defence against an increased GST.

Then there is the tricky question of Newman holding his own marginal seat of Ashgrove, which contains a high percentage of ­disgruntled public servants. It is likely to be a tough fight for him at every state election.

It would be wise for the LNP to consider moving Newman to a safer seat. There is already a Labor precedent. ALP Premier Wayne Goss did this when he moved to the safe seat of Logan and remained there until his retirement in 1998.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 36 books.

The Weekend Australian, May 24-25, 2014, Inquirer, p 24.

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