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Bligh’s woes may cost Rudd

21 November 2009 1,548 views No Comment

THE timing of the departure of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s highly talented chief of staff Mike Kaiser last Friday could not have been worse. Kaiser’s announcement that he will join the federal government’s national broadband network from December 1, as head of government relations, came only a day after the scrapping of the controversial Traveston dam by federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

Brisbane’s Courier-Mail reported that the day before his retirement announcement, Bligh’s office had denied Kaiser had quit.

Kaiser’s retirement and its timing sent a message that the Queensland Labor government and the Premier are in so much political trouble they have difficulty managing the exit of one of their own trusted people. His exit invites comparison with the departure of John Howard’s chief of staff and close confidant Arthur Sinodinos in 2006. Some observers rightly noted that Howard’s administration never recovered its equilibrium.

If Kaiser’s departure has the same effect on Bligh, it will have national implications. As the ALP federal president for Kevin Rudd’s next election year, Bligh will be nothing but a liability for the election campaign. After her March 21 election victory, she was elected as one of the ALP’s rotational national presidents with strong backing from Rudd.

There is no doubt Kaiser’s exit is a blow to Bligh’s premiership. He was her right-hand man and key strategist. While he had political baggage going back to his involvement in the ALP’s electoral rorting problems and subsequent Criminal Justice Commission inquiry in 2000, he was well respected for his tactical skills, which included masterminding NSW Labor under Morris Iemma and helping win the previous unwinnable election. Kaiser will be paid $450,000 a year in his new job.

There is no one left around the Queensland Premier with the political nous and talent akin to Kaiser’s. Bligh’s inner team of advisers is Deputy Premier Paul Lucas, Treasurer Andrew Fraser and director-general of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Ken Smith. None have the tactical skills of Kaiser.

Lucas is struggling to hold together Queensland’s ailing health system as Health Minister, the 33-year-old Fraser is fighting to regain Queensland’s lost AAA credit rating and Smith has his hands full dealing with the mess resulting from the failed downsizing of public

service departments.

There is fury in the Bligh government at Garrett’s decision to scrap the Traveston dam. Media reports in the Smart State last weekend included backgrounding attacks from government officials on Garrett for approving the Gunn’s pulp mill in Tasmania , new uranium mining in South Australia and the Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia but knocking back a much-needed dam in Queensland .

Garrett was criticised for playing politics and for primarily wanting to re-establish his green credentials. He reportedly gave Bligh only 10 minutes’ warning of his decision before his media announcement. Hardly the basis for a close working relationship.

This anger is not healthy for Labor going into a federal election year and the real loser could be Rudd in his home state.

The other problem for Labor coming into an election is whether Bligh can survive as Premier. The prevailing wisdom among commentators is that while she is in serious trouble there is no alternative leader and hence she is safe.

This view ignores two factors. First, an increasingly desperate caucus will start to weigh up all the alternatives and second, the political skills of Speaker and former Peter Beattie government minister John Mickel.

Most senior ministers in the Beattie government knew that as premier Beattie was determined to have a woman succeed him as part of his obsession of turning Queensland into the Smart State.

He was so determined to have Bligh take over from him as premier that other ministers had to watch as she was openly groomed for succession and given the pick of the best ministries. This meant talented former Beattie ministers such as Mickel (transport and industrial relations), Rod Welford (education and now out of parliament) and Judy Spence (police) had no chance for the top job and were passed over.

Spence’s political skills were obvious in the past couple of weeks when she was interviewed on the ABC’s Four Corners program about pedophile Dennis Ferguson.

As Beattie’s decision to support Bligh is being criticised for the first time in some senior sections of the ALP, an increasingly desperate caucus may turn to one of Beattie’s best performing ministers in Mickel and ask him to give up the lofty heights of the Speaker’s role and return to the political battle to save the party from electoral defeat in Queensland.

A leadership team of Mickel and Spence would have experience and appeal.

There is nothing to stop a speaker from winning a caucus battle for leadership and then resigning from the post to become premier. Beattie wanted to create history by having a woman succeed him. History could be created again in Queensland if a speaker

becomes premier.

Rudd and Mickel worked for former Labor premier Wayne Goss in the 1990s and know and like one another. Rudd has a close working relationship with Bligh but would not be fearful of a move in Queensland Labor to Mickel.

One thing is clear, with a federal election due next year, unless the Premier’s political fortunes improve quickly, the ALP and state caucus will not be able to ignore the political realities much longer.

Bligh and her state Labor colleagues won’t be able to do what Beattie did last week. When asked about the present sorry state of Queensland Labor, the state’s Los Angeles trade representative and self-proclaimed former media tart simply responded with an email that said: ” I have retired from politics and therefore my views are irrelevant to contemporary politics other than on matters of trade. I don’t believe it is in the best interests of Queensland for me to comment on the decision of the Rudd government.”

It was another first for Queensland.

Ross Fitzgerald, Inquirer p7. The Weekend Australian 21-22 November 2009

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