Brisbane Council elections are Labor’s only hope
IN a desperate bid, Heather Beattie has entered the fray. How the ALP handles its defeat in NSW, Victoria and Queensland will determine the length of time it spends in opposition. In NSW and Victoria the party still has time to rebuild but in Queensland the ALP is facing another crucial electoral test with national ramifications.
In Queensland, Labor finished with a meagre seven out of 89 seats at the March 24 election; the worst result of the three states. But the next test for the Labor party is not three years away; it is on April 28 when local government elections are held across the state.
Hardly having had time to lick its wounds, the ALP will be fighting to get a bridge head in Australia’s largest local government, the Brisbane City Council, with a greater population and budget than the state of Tasmania. Its full-time councillors represent wards similar to state members and have almost as much presence in the city and state.
When Premier Campbell Newman retired as lord mayor to make his successful bid to enter state politics, his deputy mayor Graham Quirk took over. The Liberal National Party controls both the lord mayoralty and 15 of the 26 council wards.
With its 10 Brisbane councillors, the ALP has more representatives at City Hall than it does in the state parliament, hence its importance. A Brisbane businessman, Ray Smith, is running for the mayoralty for the ALP at probably the worst possible time and circumstances imaginable for him. Notwithstanding the thrashing handed out to state Labor, it is unlikely the anti-Labor feeling has been totally extinguished in Brisbane.
The Quirk-Smith contest will come down to a well-funded LNP campaign running on its eight-year-old record at City Hall and an ALP pitch based on Smith’s successful skills as a businessman with a new plan arguing for political balance in Queensland. Smith’s biggest problem will be to overcome the toxic Labor brand.
Historically the Brisbane City Council has been the base for the Labor party when it was in the political wilderness. This is particularly true under former lord mayor Clem Jones in the 1960s and 1970s during the Bjelke-Petersen years when the ALP was out of state government and only had three years of the Whitlam government between 1972 and 1975.
With the Labor party likely to be out of state government for a generation and the Gillard government facing defeat next year, the Brisbane City Council election offers the only hope for the Labor party for the foreseeable future. If it fails to win a majority of councillors and loses its bid for the lord mayoralty, Queensland will have wall-to-wall Liberal National party governments with little or no opposition.
On the same day as the local government elections there will be a by-election for the state seat of South Brisbane, vacated by former premier Anna Bligh. Its only relevance is whether the ALP will have to wear the unpleasant tag of the ”six pack” or not.
The LNP is throwing everything it can at the seat to try to drive another nail into the dead Labor carcass but despite becoming marginal at the state election the people of South Brisbane are very unlikely to give Premier Newman another seat to add to his existing 78. The real interest on April 28 will be on the result at City Hall.
In an extraordinary move, Dr Heather Beattie, wife of former Labor premier Peter Beattie, has nominated for the inner Brisbane city ward of Central. The previous Labor candidate for the ward resigned the day after the state election and the defeated member for the local state seat Grace Grace was prevented from running for council because her state poll had not been declared. Dr Beattie, a former professor of nursing, was forced to throw her hat into the ring to try and save Labor from a meltdown amidst the post-state-election shock.
It is a high stake move which has big risks for the ALP. The ward was only just won by Labor at the last council election by a little over 100 votes when popular local councillor David Hinchliffe was the Labor candidate; Hinchliffe is now retiring. The Central ward covers almost the same boundaries as Peter Beattie’s former seat of Brisbane Central, which Labor lost at the recent Queensland election, losing every polling booth.
Courageous as Beattie’s bid is regarded in Labor circles, in the current political climate, Labor may well be defeated in the ward. If so, this would further contribute to Labor’s electoral despair just over a year out from the forthcoming federal election.
If Labor pulled off a miracle and won a majority of wards and the lord mayoralty, its mayoral candidate Smith would go down alongside Campbell Newman in the state’s history as a master politician.
The chances of that are slim but the Brisbane City Council election will again be determining whether the Labor Party in Queensland is a viable political force or not in the state. Hence this should not be regarded as just another council election.
The reality is that, just like Peter Beattie in bygone days, the political fate of Dr Heather Beattie will have national ramifications.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s latest book is the co-authored political satireÃ‚Â Fools’ ParadiseÃ‚Â set in a fictitious Mangoland. Canberra Times, April 13, 2012