Campbell Newman does for the ALP what it can’t do itself
SOME amazing things have been happening recently in Queensland. A little more than six months ago, the Newman government swept to office with a historic majority, devastating and humiliating the Labor government of Anna Bligh.
Informed commentators predicted the ALP would be in the wilderness for a generation as Bligh deserted the party and resigned from Queensland’s one-house parliament, forcing a by-election.
At the federal level, things looked extremely bleak in Queensland for the ALP. Indeed, polls indicated that Labor could lose all its federal seats in the state, including Kevin Rudd’s seat of Griffith.
Then Premier Campbell Newman came to Labor’s rescue. He used the old playing card of getting an ex-political friend, former treasurer Peter Costello, to do an audit of the state’s books, exaggerating the state’s admittedly weak financial position.
Newman then used the Costello audit report to try to justify the savage sacking of 14,000 public servants, including 4100 from the Health Department.
As a result, the political position has changed dramatically. If things continue as they are it is even possible that, in the next election, Labor could hold its federal seats, with the exception of Moreton. Newman has single-handedly done what Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Labor could not do: stage a massive revival of the Labor vote in Queensland.
Newman has given Labor a powerful campaigning weapon to use against Tony Abbott at the next federal poll. Pointing to the fact the Coalition has indicated plans to reduce the size of the federal public service, Wayne Swan is claiming the Opposition Leader will “do a Newman” if he becomes prime minister.
Morale in the Queensland ALP, which was at rock bottom after the Bligh defeat, has improved quickly. The seven-person ALP state opposition has healed its fracture with the union movement caused by the Bligh assets sell-off and they are working closely together again.
The ALP owes Newman a huge debt. Aspiring Labor leader Rudd and Treasurer Swan have exploited the Newman government’s sackings effectively – with Rudd attending a rally of public servants warning Newman that it could cost him the premiership.
Newman believes that with his huge majority and 78 seats he has plenty of fat to play with and that, after this “tough medicine” of sackings, he will be able to rebuild his vote. But, as Bligh discovered, this is a dangerous strategy.
The problem Newman faces is that Queensland’s public servants and their families will not quickly forget the savagery of his sackings. With a state population of 4.5 million, 200,000 angry public servants with long memories is a serious political problem.
He may well find himself confronted with the same electoral hostility Bligh found after she sold off public assets such as Queensland Rail straight after the 2009 state election without consulting voters at the ballot box.
Both Bligh and Newman broke election promises and Labor paid a heavy price. It will be interesting to see how heavy a price Newman pays. Very few leaders in Australia politics have burned their honeymoon so quickly by acting so arrogantly after achieving office. With friends like Newman, Abbott needs no enemies.
Newman will soon discover that his huge parliamentary majority is also a weakness. None of his parliamentary members will want to be “oncers” and, if his polling continues to drop, the rumblings will begin.
Unlike Bligh, who had no likely leadership contenders in her caucus, Newman has talented former opposition leader and now Health Minister Lawrence Springborg who could easily take over the reins of the premiership.
Treasurer Tim Nicholls is also very capable and is handling Treasury well. Together they offer a much steadier team than the Newman-Jeff Seeney leadership duo. Deputy Premier Seeney has managed to put offside the whole environmental vote and is already widely seen as a liability.
With Bligh and Newman, Queensland has now had two badly performing governments in a row. The populace must be wondering what lies ahead.
Traditionally, when Queenslanders decide to swing, they swing; Bligh found that out in March. With its huge majority, it is too early to write off the Newman government, but the early signs are not good. Apart from Queensland Labor, the main electoral beneficiary will be Bob Katter’s Australian Party, which will campaign vigorously against the massive public service cuts, especially in regional cities and country towns.
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett made some tough decisions to turn around Victoria’s financial fortunes. He lasted two terms and seven years. But Queensland does not have the same degree of financial problems as those confronting Victoria in 1992 and Newman does not have the political and parliamentary skills of Kennett.
Newman has said he admired former Labor premier Peter Beattie’s media skills. Beattie would never have made the massive communication mistakes Newman is making. Nor would he have been guilty of Newman’s arrogant and personally abusive political style, which manifests itself all too often.
When Bligh said she was leaving Queensland to be with her husband in Sydney, where he works, Newman’s unpleasant comments and lack of charity won him few friends. The constant berating of the Opposition and its former leader in and outside parliament is ugly and unnecessary.
Newman may still be bristling from Bligh’s ill-advised personal attacks on his family during the election campaign but he does himself no good by making inaccurate public remarks about Beattie’s children, for example.
In a breathtakingly brief period, under Newman Queensland is returning to the vicious politics of the National Party government under Johannes Bjelke-Petersen.
Queenslanders deserve much better.
Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 35 books
The Weekend Australian September 22 – 23 2012