Bounty wasted on Bligh
Her political inheritance was replete with riches but the Queensland Premier has squandered it
ANNA Bligh is only surviving as Queensland Premier because there is no one else willing to lead the ALP into near certain defeat at the next state election due in 2012. The Bligh government is a political disaster lurching from one terrible poll result to the next.
There is no doubt the poor standing of the Bligh government was a significant contributing factor to the ALP’s poor showing in the federal election. Based on a post-redistribution assessment, the ALP lost a massive nine federal seats in Queensland and will be left with as few as eight seats out of 29 in the state.
When former premier Peter Beattie retired from politics after carefully orchestrating Bligh into the premiership, Queensland had a budget surplus, a AAA credit rating, was building the biggest infrastructure program in the nation, had just introduced an extra prep year of school and, according to Newspoll, the Labor government would have been returned with an even larger majority had an election been held.
Beattie had built an international biotechnology industry that was the envy of the other states, and a new billion-dollar coal-seam gas industry, and had lured the headquarters of Virgin Blue to Brisbane, all under a “Smart State” strategy that focused on innovation.
Queensland was under increasing pressure from interstate migration, but under a long-term strategy led by the then head of the Premier’s Department, Ross Rolfe, a huge infrastructure spend on projects such as the duplication of Brisbane’s Gateway Bridge, the Ted Smout Memorial Bridge to Redcliffe and the Tugan bypass on the Gold Coast was designed to ease the pressure.
Population growth was also straining the health system but as a result of the Bundaberg Hospital inquiry, which Beattie had established, record amounts of money were being spent on health. This expenditure was timed to come to fruition in time for the 2009 state election.
To the delight of the ALP machine, Beattie had refused to increase the number of seats in Queensland’s one-house parliament, which meant the 2009 redistribution had to favour Labor as the seats moved to the increasingly populated south-east corner and the home of ALP support.
Labor notionally had 66 seats going into the 2009 state election. This huge advantage, together with large majorities in electorates from the 2006 Beattie landslide, meant Bligh virtually could not have lost. Beattie set up the transition and his successor perfectly. No political leader in Australia has inherited such a strong political position.
Bligh became Premier on September 13, 2007, and she will have been Premier for three years on Monday. Yet these days she is in a toxic political situation of her own making.
Bligh’s problem is not so much the decision to privatise key parts of Queensland Rail, some ports and government-owned timber plantations, but the fact a large majority of Queenslanders think she lied to them.
Instead of putting the privatisation issue to the people at the 2009 state election many believed she kept her plan a secret and, as soon as she was re-elected, went down the privatisation road. Bligh lost the trust of Queenslanders and she is highly unlikely to get it back.
She has squandered the financial and economic legacy she inherited from Beattie, Rob Borbidge, Wayne Goss, Mike Ahern and Joh Bjelke-Petersen and will go down in history as one of Queensland’s worst premiers. Beattie made a serious error of judgment in mentoring her into the premiership. He clearly over-estimated her capacity and Queenslanders are paying the price. As a result, Beattie must share some of the responsibility for the present mess.
Treasury and its economic rationalist approach dominate the government. Large sections of the ALP and union movement believe the Bligh government has betrayed Labor principles. This means Labor’s army of campaign and union workers will go missing at the next state election, clearly giving the Liberal National Party a political advantage. It now seems the LNP could be led by a drover’s dog and still win the next Queensland election.
The organisation of government is in turmoil. The creation of super departments has caused stagnation; ministers are regularly missing from key events around Brisbane and in key regional centres; business feels alienated from government; the solid work done by the former business department of state development has been lost and the new Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation is not only poorly run but is so large and cumbersome that business finds it virtually impossible to access.
The Bligh government boasts the worst Queensland state ministry since the 1950s. Deputy Premier Paul Lucas has failed as health minister, running a department that can’t even pay health workers properly. The bureaucrats rule Treasurer Andrew Fraser; Bligh’s departmental head in the Premier’s Department, Ken Smith, is out of his depth and provides no leadership to the bureaucracy.
The wise counsel of popular senior ministers such as Robert Schwarten, who understand regional Queensland and are politically savvy, is ignored by Bligh who after the 2009 election removed three of Labor’s best ministers — Judy Spence, John Mickel and Lindy Nelson-Carr — in favour of a bunch of “yes” people too afraid to raise opposition in cabinet.
According to senior party members, the present Queensland cabinet is more like a social gathering than the state’s highest decision-making body. Bligh’s ministers are generally young, inexperienced, lazy and incompetent and promoted by Bligh to ensure their support. This means they are subservient and do not have the courage to raise their voice in opposition to the Premier.
In a strategy doomed to failure, Bligh, to the surprise of many Labor MPs, has sought to distance herself from Beattie and his government, of which she was a member for almost 10 years.
As soon as Beattie departed the scene, Bligh attacked the former premier at the party’s conference on the grounds he spent too much time focused on the six o’clock news. Former ministers are now saying she should take a leaf out of the Beattie book about selling the government’s message.
Her explanation of the assets sales has been a disaster. If her message had been more convincing on the six o’clock news she wouldn’t be in the hopeless political position she is. Publicly attacking Labor’s hugely popular former state leader is not seen as smart.
To the annoyance of senior party members and some unions, Bligh has never defended the Beattie government and has sought privately to blame it for her own incompetence. In doing so she has effectively undermined the Labor legacy and set Queensland Labor up for certain defeat.
The support of Australian Workers’ Union powerbroker Bill Ludwig is crucial to Bligh’s survival. He is the last person of influence standing in her corner. Industrially, the AWU needs the support of the state government more than any other union.
The problem for the AWU is in 18 months that support will be gone and the union will be confronted by an LNP government. Eventually the AWU will realise Bligh is a lost cause. If Ludwig changed his position it would be the immediate end of Bligh’s premiership.
The mutiny against her is already starting in the caucus, where senior and well-respected former ministers Dean Wells and Judy Spence are critical of Bligh’s leadership.
The problem for Queensland Labor is it has utterly lost its way. There have been no new significant decisions from the state government since Bligh became Premier.
The infrastructure being built was all started and planned under Beattie. The abandonment of the Smart State strategy has meant a large section of the research community is offside and the government’s replacement “Q2” strategy is merely a collection of motherhood statements.
Next year the people of NSW will dispatch their state Labor government to electoral oblivion. The people of Queensland will have to wait a further 18 months to do the same to their incompetent government, which is as bad as that in NSW.
The Weekend-Australian, September 11-12, 2010