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Newman’s threats could backfire, but ALP’s mountain looks too high

31 January 2015 292 views One Comment

IN the one-house 89-seat Queensland Parliament, Premier Campbell Newman’s Liberal-National Party holds 73 seats and the ALP a mere nine. This was after Labor won two by-elections to add to the abysmal seven seats it gained at the last state election in 2012.

Hence, despite considerable voter dissatisfaction with the conservative state government and with the federal Coalition, don’t be surprised if the LNP wins today’s Queensland election with more than a few seats to spare.

But even though he may have clawed back some ground, it is possible the autocratic Newman may not retain his leafy inner-Brisbane seat Ashgrove, which he holds by a margin of 5.7 per cent. This is in part because Ashgrove is riddled with disgruntled former state public servants, as well as ex-academics and teachers who are also strong environmentalists.

This would mean a return to parliament of the hardworking Kate Jones, who was a minister in the fundamentally disastrous Labor government of Anna Bligh.

The fact is, on the hustings and in the media, Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has not proved to be a strong performer. This negative has been compounded by the fact that, four days into the election, Palaszczuk’s deputy, the long-serving MP for Mackay, Tim Mulherin — a former minister for agriculture, fisheries and primary industries — announced he would quit politics “for personal reasons.

As well as the LNP, the ALP and the Queensland Greens, also running in today’s election are a number of independents, plus candidates from One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and the Palmer United Party.

It is the performance of the independents and especially of the minor parties in Queensland that may be of considerable interest.

This is in part because the new state Palmer United Party leader and candidate for Callide — currently held by deputy premier Jeff Seeney — is John Bjelke-Petersen, son of the long-serving and deeply divisive Country/National Party premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Intriguingly, in a rare example of unanimity with the Greens, one of PUP’s main pledges is to re-establish an upper house in Queensland — which in 1922 had been abolished by reformist Labor premier and later federal treasurer E.G. (“Red Ted) Theodore.

Even though the federal PUP MP for Fairfax, Clive Palmer, may have spent considerable money supporting his 50 state candidates, it seems unlikely PUP will today end up winning any seats.

This is because electoral support for Palmer and his party seems to be slipping away, even in his home base of Queensland.

It also is likely that the chances of serial election campaigner Pauline Hanson winning the seat of Lockyer are zip.

Yet even though in terms of federal media coverage Palmer has been eclipsing Bob Katter — who holds the vast federal north Queensland seat of Kennedy — it is possible that Katter’s Australian Party may finish up with one or two state seats. KAP holds three state seats in Queensland — Dalrymple (held by Shane Knuth since 2009); Mt Isa (held by Bob Katter’s son Rob Katter since 2012) and Condamine, held by the state leader of KAP, Ray Hopper — who, like Knuth, is a defector from the LNP.

To make matters more complicated, in today’s election Ray Hopper is contesting the nearby seat of Nanango for the KAP, while his son Ben Hopper is trying to retain Condamine for the KAP.

It also seems possible that, as an independent, former mayor of Mackay Julie Boyd may pick up Tim Mulherin’s vacated seat of Mackay — which he only held with a margin of 0.5 per cent. Moreover, the popular independent MP for the Sunshine Coast-based state seat of Nicklin, Peter Wellington, looks like being a shoo-in to be returned.

Following the 1998 state election, Wellington briefly held the balance of power in Queensland — along with fellow independent MP for the state seat of Gladstone, Liz Cunningham. As Cunningham is not standing in today’s election, her seat could be a Labor gain.

Memorably, it was Wellington’s decision in 1998 to support the state ALP that led to Peter Beattie becoming a longstanding and extremely popular Labor premier of Queensland.

A la the unsubtle old days of Sir Joh and his gargantuan sidekick Russell Hinze, Premier Newman has warned that those electorates that do not vote in an LNP candidate could miss out on promised funding for local projects.

Wellington and Bob Katter have referred Newman’s threat to the Queensland Electoral Commission. Perhaps more seriously for Newman is the potential that, rather than shore up marginal seats, like his own, this echo of the Bjelke-Petersen regime may backfire and encourage voters for independents and minor parties to use their optional preferential vote to include the ALP.

If Newman is defeated in Ashgrove, but the LNP retains government, it will be fascinating to see who takes over as party leader and, hence, who becomes Premier of Queensland.

The two main contenders are Brisbane-based, Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls (who is a protege of conservative Queensland powerbroker and ex-Liberal senator Santo Santoro) and the well-performing LNP Health Minister, Lawrence Springborg.

In recent months, two extremely capable former journalists and broadcasters from Ten News Brisbane — Cathy Border and Cathie Schnitzerling — have joined Springborg’s office as senior media advisers.

Although as conservative leader Springborg lost three Queensland elections in a row (2004, 2006 and 2009), if the LNP retains power, and if he decides to stand against Nicholls, he may at last become state premier.

This is because Springborg — who at age 21 was the youngest MP ever elected in Queensland — is an able yet low-key media and parliamentary performer.

Importantly, he is perceived as being a safe pair of hands and a highly competent leader who will not frighten the horses.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’.

The Weekend Australian, January 31-February 1. 2015, Inquirer, p. 16.

One Comment »

  • ross (author) said:

    ‘Picture of self-destruction’ by Tony Walker.

    Campbell Newman’s shellacking at the hands of Queensland voters last weekend in which he was ejected from his own seat and lost government has echoes in the following piece of local folklore.

    The late Bob Katter senior, member for the federal seat of Kennedy, is driving his utility vehicle in the vicinity of Charters Towers with his window down when he passes an Indigenous woman on the roadside.

    The woman shouts out “pig” to which Katter responds to an imagined insult with his own epithet at which point – distracted – he runs into a wild boar.

    The punchline is: “It’s easy to be misunderstood.”

    This story may be apocryphal – it probably is – but never mind it tells you a lot about Queensland and Queensland humour that owes much to the rawness of the physical and political environment in which Queenslanders find themselves.

    If we substitute Newman for the late Bob Katter senior and radio broadcaster Alan Jones for the wild boar, it might go some way towards explaining what happened in Queensland last weekend.

    A combative Major Campbell Kevin Thomas Newman engaged in various shouting matches with Queenslanders on all sorts of issues until he managed to alienate much of the state, including Jones who has made it his mission to limit coal mining in his precious home region on the Darling Downs.

    There is not much doubt the conservative radio talk show host contributed significantly to the Liberal National Party election loss via an incendiary two-week intervention in the election on Fairfax-owned local radio 4BC.

    Ross Fitzgerald, author of many works on Queensland and professor emeritus at Griffith University, credits the talk show host with amplifying Queenslander’s misgivings about Newman.

    “He speaks the language of Queenslanders,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s rather simple and colloquial and black and white… and can be utterly devastating.”

    More to the point, Jones’ incendiary sound grabs from his radio broadcasts reached audiences far beyond Brisbane in what is the country’s most decentralised state.

    By the time, the LNP’s image-makers woke up to the fact that Newman was on a losing trajectory it was too late to save him in his suburban Brisbane seat of Ashgrove and, as it turned out, the government itself.

    An image that sticks in people’s minds is of Newman in a devastated banana plantation after Cyclone Ita had done its worst. Somehow, a picture of a Putinesque Newman alone with the plantation’s owner in a storm’s aftermath did not quite gel.

    In the end, Queenslanders did not simply take a truncheon or a cricket bat to the Newman government, they employed a bullwhip and both barrels of a 12 gauge.

    It was an historic loss and appears to have been the final straw breaking Tony Abbott’s hold on the prime ministership.

    In explaining the loss, much has been said about Newman’s combative style echoing that of Abbott himself, of unpopular asset sales, wars with key constituencies such as doctors and lawyers and a feeling of doing too much too soon.

    But is this analysis adequate? What lessons should Canberra truly take from Queensland and which factors were unique to the the Sunshine State? How did Newman really lose the unlosable election?

    Newman had come to power pledging to remove “green tape” to fast track mining projects that had been stalled under his predecessors, but in the process he and his government revived memories – whether fair or not – of influence peddling and out and out corruption of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen-era.

    Among damaging images for Newman and his government during the election were slogans on T-shirts that read: “Here we Joh again.”

    The point is there was not one single issue that brought Newman unstuck, but a combination of factors that date from the election of 2012 in which the LNP thrashed Labor, reducing it to 7 seats out of 89.

    In less than three years, Newman’s support not simply curdled but putrefied. This has contributed to restlessness, bordering on panic, in the federal Coalition.

    Queensland with its rapidly shifting demographics over the past three decades returns 30 members to the federal Parliament of 150 seats compared with 37 for Victoria and 48 for NSW.

    Abbott holds power by virtue of the Coalition’s strength in Queensland where it occupies all but a handful of seats.

    A Queensland senator sums up his home state as a mix of California and Alabama which is not necessarily good news for a federal Liberal leader under siege. “The banjos are still playing,” this senator observes.

    He might have added the banjos are playing discordantly for the Coalition.

    No participants in or observers of Queensland politics interviewed by AFR Weekend, including serving and former politicians, academics, long-term observers, newspaper editors, and the man and woman in the street could nominate one single issue that brought Newman down.

    However, apart from the Jones factor, those interviewed agreed Newman’s problems and those of his government dated from the 2012 election campaign itself in which the premier had told Queensland public servants they had “nothing to fear” from an LNP government.

    As it turned out the public sector, which occupies a bigger chunk of Queensland’s economy than the southern states due to its vast distances and decentralisation of population centres, had plenty to fear.

    On gaining power Newman set about sacking 12,000 public servants. He cancelled the Premier’s literary awards, a small thing maybe but it rankled in a state that chafes under its red-neck reputation.

    His war against thuggish drug-dealing bikies might have seemed fair enough, but when it came to interfering with basic rights of assembly that proved a bridge too far.

    His undertaking during the election not to proceed with sale of state assets proved a vexed issue.

    In the end, Newman settled on a fudge. State assets would not be sold. They would be leased for 45 years with an option for an extension up to 99 years. This fed into Labor’s narrative of the government’s untrustworthiness.

    It is unclear to what extent the asset sales issue had an impact on the election itself. Labor’s own internal focus group polling had found it was an important issue, but not necessarily a defining or dominating one.

    AFR Weekend’s own anecdotal soundings tended to indicate that asset sales, demonised by critics to suggest that higher electricity prices would be an inevitable consequence, had an impact.

    At the Breakfast Creek hotel in Brisbane’s suburbs, where more than a few political careers have been made and unmade, Pete (from Brisbane) and Dave (from Rockhampton), were on to their second or third lunchtime schooner of XXXX. In the local patois, they expressed the view quite forcefully that asset sales had weighed heavily in their calculations.

    “Nah, mate, if Campbell f—ing Newman had gone easy on asset sales he’d still be premier and we wouldn’t be landed with this other bunch of f—ers,” says Dave.

    It will be no consolation for Newman and his LNP colleagues that people acknowledged the state’s debt trajectory was unsustainable and something needed to be done.

    But when it came to remedies Queenslanders baulked and not simply baulked, dug their heels in. Newman may well have made a miscalculation when he imported former treasurer, Peter Costello (a Victorian, heaven forbid) to conduct a commission of audit.

    Costello’s blueprint of asset sales and spending cuts, including cuts to services, enabled Newman’s opponents, in the public sector unions and in the community at large to mobilise against what was portrayed as a heartless government out of touch with real Queenslanders in the boondocks.

    Tony Mitchelmore, who conducted focus group polling for the ALP, concluded very quickly that not only did Queenslanders not like Newman and his parade ground sergeant-major approach to governing, they did not trust him.

    “It was not just a matter of Newman’s arrogance and a perception that he had lied about his policies,” says Mitchelmore. “It was that he was anti-community, that he was not governing for us as opposed to them.”

    Whether this was justified or not the perception became entrenched to the point where the more people saw of Newman during the campaign the less they liked him. Swings against the government exceeded poll predictions, and were particularly pronounced in LNP strongholds.

    “His poll numbers went down and down,” notes Mitchelmore.

    The pollster also concluded that a view of Newman as being anti-community was a metaphor for concerns about corruption, and a return to the bad old days of the Joh era.

    It is hard to exaggerate the impact of the corruption issue and the gutting of what was known as the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) that had grown out of the Fitzgerald commission of inquiry of the 1980s into institutionalised corruption and had led to the jailing of prominent figures of that period, including the police commissioner.

    Now renamed the Crime and Corruption Commission its independence has been curtailed by removing the need for bipartisan support for the appointment of chairman, the raising of the threshold for investigations and vesting authority for the organisation’s research programs in the Attorney-General.

    On the eve of the election, an open letter authored with the help of Tony Fitzgerald QC, who occupies a special – even divine –status in Queensland as a fighter against corruption, warned against a weakening of the CCC, and the government’s misuse of its constitutional powers to “legislate without regard to proportionality and individual liberties”.

    The letter was signed by Alan Jones, among other prominent Queenslanders.

    Not only had Newman run into a wild boar in the person of the “bloke from Sydney”, as Newman described Jones, he had collided slap bang with the Queensland establishment.

    As Queenslanders might say: “It is easy to be misunderstood in Queensland. Just ask Campbell Newman.”

    Tony Walker, ‘The Australian Financial Review’, 7-8 February 2015, Perspective p 19.

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