Queensland Politics: Things That Make You Go “Hmmm”…

Queensland has a new deputy Premier today; the 35-year-old Treasurer and member for Mount Coot-tha, Andrew Fraser, has filled the vacancy created by the retirement of the outgoing Paul Lucas.

Lucas — a 15-year veteran of state politics in the Sunshine State, is calling it quits after a spate of health scares in recent years and, he says, to spend more time with his family.

Don’t they all.

Excuse my cynicism over what ordinarily would be a simple alteration of executive arrangements. There’s more to this, and it’s not buried too far below the surface.

By his own admission, Lucas is the seventh of the 51-member ALP caucus to announce his retirement ahead of the looming election, and he denies it has anything to do with the pending slaughter Labor appears certain to suffer.

“There are 51 members in the parliamentary Labor party and there’s seven of us who are retiring,’’ Lucas said. “That’s hardly a massive number when one looks at the stats of it.”

Well, quite. Certainly it’s not the 21 retirements NSW Labor posted prior to their own electoral belting earlier this year. But then again, in addition to 51 members in the NSW lower house, NSW Labor also had 19 upper house members, which tends to square up the proportionality of the comparison somewhat.

And there is still six months before the Qld government’s three-year term expires, so there’s plenty of time for others to jump ship too.

On a margin of 12%, Lucas’ seat of Lytton will be interesting to watch if the swings indicated in Queensland opinion polling this year materialise: the most recent Newspoll showed a statewide swing of 14.2%.

Lytton, then held by Tom Burns, is one of the eleven seats that held for Labor — just — at the 1974 bloodbath; on the other hand, Lucas’ retirement probably robs the ALP of 2-3% of the vote by way of a personal following before the polling stations even open.

I think Lucas’ reasons are genuine; of happy coincidence is the fact he will probably dodge a bullet by going now.

And Lucas hasn’t exactly been clear of the scandals that have characterised Labor’s tenure in government in Queensland; a speeding fine in 2007 that was handballed to his driver, and the fiasco last year over the bungled rollout of a new payroll system in the state’s health sector, are two incidents that spring to mind.

Good luck to him; but whichever way you cut it, it’s still a senior, long-standing government minister who has walked out with his suitcase of baggage before a likely election massacre.

More deserving of raised eyebrows is his replacement as deputy Premier — and the way in which the appointment of the member for Mount Coot-tha is being presented by the Premier, Anna Bligh.

At just 35, Andrew Fraser also carries his share of Queensland Labor’s baggage; as Treasurer for four years, he has presided over a budget that has fallen deeply into deficit, in a state that has racked up colossal levels of debt, and was a key figure in the Bligh government’s privatisation misadventures — exercises solemnly ruled out before the last state election.

Never mind the flood disaster in January; these specific issues have been in evidence for several years prior to this year’s flood event.

On paper, Fraser is impressively credentialled: academic scholarship student, double-degree holder, university medal winner.

It’s clear the right opportunities have come his way and that he has made the most of them.

It’s also clear that in electing him unopposed to its deputy leadership, the ALP in Queensland have anointed Fraser as its leader-in-waiting.

And that moment of tactical brilliance may well prove a colossal strategic mistake.

Certainly, there are question marks over Fraser’s performance as a minister, and not least as a result of the Treasury portfolio he holds and the concurrent mess the state’s finances are in.

LNP leader Campbell Newman probably got it about right in describing Fraser as “a lousy Treasurer.”

And he’s certainly not a patch on the best of the previous four Treasurers — David Hamill — the current ALP regime produced.

Even leaving that aside, Fraser is insecurely seated in Parliament, and history is against him.

Fraser’s seat of Mount Coot-tha was initially won for Labor by his predecessor, Wendy Edmond, in the Wayne Goss landslide at the 1989 election.

Prior to that, it had been a safe Liberal electorate for decades.

Admittedly the old seat of Mount Coot-tha was a sprawling electorate, reaching much further west to Moggill and the Brisbane River. The electoral redistribution of 1985 created the very safe Liberal seat of Moggill (which the then-member for Mount-Coot-tha, Bill Lickiss, transferred to) and the safe-ish Liberal seat of Mount Coot-tha, which was held by the Liberal Party from 1986 until Goss’ triumph took Wendy Edmond — and the seat — into the Labor column.

In the last 75 years, Queenslanders have had a habit of producing occasional electoral results that radically redraw the political map. In 1935, first-term Premier William Forgan-Smith was thumpingly re-elected with two-thirds of the seats in the state; in 1957, a large transfer of seats to the Coalition put Frank Nicklin into the Premier’s office after five consecutive defeats; 1974 saw Joh Bjelke-Petersen record the largest victory in Queensland history, winning 69 of 82 seats and reducing Labor to a cricket team; 1989 saw Wayne Goss sweep most conservative electorates away in Brisbane, a situation yet to be redressed; and 2001 saw Peter Beattie inflict a defeat on the conservatives that rivalled 1974 in scale.

The sole Coalition win, after the 1995 election — despite the huge swing it recorded, and significant majority of the two-party vote it won — did not translate into a sweep of seats in the order that might have been expected of a party winning nearly 54% of the two-party vote. Indeed, it failed to win a majority.

I’m sorry for the history lesson, but it’s relevant.

At virtually all of the “big swing” elections I mention, “traditional” seats of one side have been snatched by the other — especially in 1935, 1974, 1989 and 2001.

2012 will be another.

One of the traditional Liberal seats Labor holds is Mount Coot-tha.

Yes, it’s a very different seat to the one Bill Lickiss once held. But it includes a lot of areas traditionally the purvey of moderate Brisbane Liberals — Bardon, Toowong, and Auchenflower for instance — which are ripe receptors for the message of a leader along the lines of Campbell Newman — a moderate Brisbane Liberal.

It was one of the additional seats the Liberal Party probably should have won in 1995; the Liberal candidate at the time ran Edmond close, but Edmond survived.

The LNP stands to make massive gains in Brisbane at next year’s election; finally righting, in the process, the colossal political imbalance in the capital that is the enduring legacy of Goss’ win in 1989.

And one of those seats the LNP will win is Mount Coot-tha.

It’s not the first time in Queensland that a governing party has made a marginal seat holder its deputy in an attempt to shore it up — in 1989, following the replacement of Mike Ahern by Russell Cooper as Premier, the National Party made Paul Clauson (member for Redlands on a 3.9% margin) its deputy Premier.

Clauson was swept away along with most of the other metropolitan conservatives.

No joy for Labor there.

Yet the tackiest aspect of Fraser’s ascension was executed by his leader, who tried to paint the move as a poor reflection on the LNP.

“What we now have is a solid, clear leadership team on the Labor side of politics going into the 2012 state election,” Bligh said.

“Of course on the other side of politics we do not know who the deputy leader will be if there is a change of government. The conservatives have yet to determine who their leadership team will be.”

Well…if that’s the best Anna Bligh can do (no pun intended) then it’s fairly obvious why she didn’t run off to an election the day Campbell Newman was confirmed as LNP leader from outside the Parliament, with Jeff Seeney managing opposition business in the chamber.

She knows she’s history; a dead woman walking.

It’s also why the election in Queensland is likely, but by no means certain, to be on schedule in March next year.

Bligh’s presentation in this matter is little short of pathetic. It smacks of desperation and belies a leader — like Kristina Keneally in NSW earlier this year — with little to say of any quality or substance.

If Fraser really is the chosen successor — and the talent pool in the Queensland ALP is already shallow, before its anticipated draining at next year’s election — then Labor has a problem.

A big problem.

Fraser’s electorate currently sits on a margin of 5.3%; hardly secure against the tidal wave seemingly about to hit the ALP in Queensland.

Barring some last-minute debacle that strips votes away from the LNP in droves, Fraser too is a dead man walking.

Of course, Labor could have nudged some seat warmer aside, say on Brisbane’s outer southern or western fringes (no names mentioned here at The Red And The Blue 🙂  , and made his re-election a near-certainty.

Or it could have really shown some balls, taken a deep breath and rolled the dice, called the LNP’s bluff, and declared GAME ON and made Kate Jones in Ashgrove its deputy leader.

Interesting idea, isn’t it?

A deputy Premier versus an aspiring Premier?

Ashgrove — like Mount Coot-tha — is one of those traditional Liberal electorates lost in 1989 that the LNP desperately wants back.

I think that today’s movements by the ALP stink of desperation and amount to little more than a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What do you think?

Please keep comments on-subject…