LESS THAN THREE YEARS after scoring the biggest election win in Australian political history, Queensland’s conservative LNP government arrives at today’s state election facing a huge swing against it and contemplating defeat. The Red And The Blue nonetheless endorses the LNP for a second term, but that endorsement is qualified, and looms as a larger test of the LNP’s political maturity than the election poses to its survival in office.
The political career of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is set to end today, as voters in the inner-city electorate of Ashgrove exercise their prerogative to select a local member to represent them and eject him from state Parliament; Newman is unlikely to resurface in any official capacity in George Street once the dust from today’s election has cleared, and there seems no realistic prospect of him returning by way of an orchestrated by-election for reasons we covered at length yesterday.
As Newman departs the political scene in Queensland, with him should go the abrasive, confrontational and at times downright noxious manner in which his government has gone about its business; it is ironic that a highly competent government that has done exactly the job it was elected to do, and which was expected of it, should have alienated so many of its subjects through poor communication, an endless procession of scandals, and belligerent political methods.
Three years ago — in my hotel room on Brisbane’s North Quay — I wrote a mostly glittering recommendation for a vote for the LNP during an hour I had spare between two business meetings I had flown to Brisbane to attend; from the contemporary perspective of that time it was an apt and noble aspiration for a belated return to conservative government in Queensland.
Three years later, it is difficult to provide such a fulsome or compelling case for the re-election of the LNP, which — despite making the changes in Queensland that circumstance demanded of it — has frittered its public goodwill away through a bizarre combination of iron-fisted brutality and torpid organisational mediocrity.
The simultaneous attraction of a reprimand from Tony Fitzgerald QC (who should have had the good grace to decline to interfere in party politics) over a supposed lack of probity whilst needing three attempts to disendorse a sitting MP provides a good idea of the farcical contrasts to which I allude.
To be sure, the LNP came to power in Queensland facing a huge challenge of governance that required tough and urgent solutions to grave problems that were the sorry consequence of 14 unbroken years of Labor government — the state’s shameful $80 billion debt bill chief among them — and it was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the tough medicine required and doled out would ostracise and even enrage some people in some sections of the electorate, and especially those who had benefited personally from the largesse and excesses of the ALP.
Yet even so, I can only think of one instance, ever, of a government being elected in such an avalanche and squandering both a massive majority and the goodwill and patience of its constituents in a single term in office, and the story of the 1993 and 1997 state elections in South Australia provide an object lesson in how not to operate in office.
In some respects, the parallels between South Australia in the 1990s and Queensland now are breathtaking: both featured conservative state governments elected upon the near-annihilation of their Labor opponents, were led into the subsequent elections by deeply unpopular Premiers who were disliked and/or distrusted by the voting public, and even the ever-present issue of electricity privatisation features in both cases.
In the case of the SA Liberals, the 1997 election saw it return to office as a minority administration before losing to Labor four years later; with the average of all the major opinion polls (including final surveys) showing a swing to Labor after preferences of some 11.5%, the LNP faces voters today at the very real risk of suffering a similar fate: with an inherent bias toward Labor of somewhere between 2% and 4% in Queensland’s electoral boundaries, the 51.8% of the two-party vote these numbers represent would, if reflected in tonight’s results, leave the LNP at the mercy of how its vote is distributed across particular electorates to stand a chance of retaining majority government.
(As an aside, I should note that no incumbent government since World War 2, state or federal, forced into minority at one election has ever won the subsequent election; the SA Liberals, beaten in early 2002, remain in opposition today: a salutary warning to Queensland’s LNP, perhaps, but I digress).
On the plus side, the LNP has trimmed Queensland’s bloated public service, restored the state budget to balance, reined in the explosive spending growth bequeathed to it by the ALP, and set in train measures to deal with the $80 billion debt pile that stands today as a continuing damnation of Queensland Labor.
On the flipside, it has treated the Queensland public to a smorgasbord of crises, scandals, public embarrassments and own goals — Michael Caltabiano, Bruce Flegg, Scott Driscoll, fights with lawyers, fights with doctors, Peter Dowling, Ros Bates, Bruce Flegg (again) — alongside the noisome opprobrium it has generated by its handling of initiatives such as the VLAD laws and the combative style of its soon-to-depart leader.
And Labor, to put not so fine a point on it, has scarcely done anything to warrant the trust of Queensland voters.
Led by an affable enough but ineffectual mediocrity, Labor has offered no plans of substance to govern Queensland (its plan to rip dividends out of state-owned corporations as a “debt reduction” measure notwithstanding), preferring instead to recycle a gaggle of failed and beaten ex-ministers from the last Labor government who are jointly responsible, in part, for the mess the state was left in to begin with.
One of those ex-ministers — Kate Jones — will return to George Street after today, expediting Newman’s departure; no world beater, Jones has been feted with generous (and undeserved) press coverage in Brisbane, casting her as a “young mum” seeking to “do something for her community” when she was as much a hack and a failure as a minister as many of her colleagues, and who has failed to even produce the ministerial diaries she solemnly declares left her offices in 2012 to be appropriately transported to the state archives, which never received them.
It’s impossible to believe this cock-and-bull story — just as it is difficult to believe very much of what anyone from Labor has to say at all.
But the ALP has been content to try to slither back into office on the back of a disgustingly personal and abusive campaign to smear and damage opponents personally, and distastefully enough, it could very well succeed if the final round of polling is accurate or, worse still, understates Labor support as Queenslanders go to the polls today.
We do not suggest the LNP is perfect; we do not claim its record in office is without blemish; and we do not deny that there is scope for the party, if re-elected today, to improve substantially on its performance over the past three years.
Yet in considering everything that was wrong with the decrepit Labor administration it replaced and especially in light of the complete absence of any meaningful ALP agenda, presented for the consideration of voters, to now govern at all, this column provides its endorsement to the LNP for a second term in office in Queensland: and should it secure that privilege, a wish that the mistakes of its first term be in no way repeated in the second.
If the 51.8% aggregate of its support proves accurate, it may or may not receive that opportunity: time will tell, and I will be watching tonight’s count with great interest.
But I place one important caveat on my endorsement of the LNP, and it is this: should it form government, its first order of business will be to elect a leader to replace Campbell Newman as Premier.
That leader must come from Brisbane or, at the very least, the conurbation of the south-east: and this means the Treasurer, Tim Nicholls, is the candidate this column advocates as the new Premier.
Ironically, the only real alternative is the man pushed out of the leadership to make way for Newman, former leader John-Paul Langbroek. Nicholls is the better bet.
And naturally, if the LNP loses then all bets are off, although I think the 46-49 seat range I predicted yesterday is probably the point at which a mauling at the hands of angry voters is likely to be survived — just.
But should the LNP return to the tired and obsolete practice of selecting leaders from west of the Great Divide, today’s endorsement of the LNP should be regarded as void; three-time election loser Lawrence Springborg is a fantastic bloke with no electoral appeal in Brisbane, whilst Jeff Seeney is an unmitigated liability in the south-east wherever any requirement to garner voter support is concerned.
Neither of these gentlemen are therefore suitable candidates to be Premier of Queensland, and if elevating either to that position is what the LNP chooses to do in its leadership ballot, ex-Liberals would be better served in the long run by leaving the LNP and reforming the Queensland division of their own party. Without a leader from the south-east, Queensland conservatives will not win another state election, and the experience of the past 15 years or so proves it.
Star candidate or not, Newman would not have won in 2012 had he not been from Brisbane. The days of the cow cocky and the country bumpkin giving gerrymandered providence to city slickers in Brisbane are over. And if it determines to test that theory, the LNP will again learn the hard way that Queensland is no longer the Bjelke-Petersen state when it next faces voters in three years’ time.