BY NOW most of Australia has heard the news that former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss has died today, aged just 63, three weeks after the passing of his idol Gough Whitlam; the former Premier deserves acknowledgement for some worthy reforms in Queensland, but sober consideration of the shortcomings of his government — and its legacy — should temper the torrent of praise and adulation his passing continues to elicit.
First things first: I was genuinely moved this morning to learn that former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss had died after a decades-long battle with cancer, aged just 63; younger than both of my parents (and elected Premier when younger than I am today), the ebb and flow of time sometimes manifests itself in unpleasant ways, and in unfortunate and untimely events such as this one.
Despite being a proponent of “the other side” and representing an early first-hand experience of “real Laborites,” readers know I am emphatic that members of Parliament of all political persuasions are to my eyes human first, and adherents of whichever political creed they follow after that; and in the case of Wayne Goss, I am eager to extend my condolences and very best wishes to his family at what I am sure is a very difficult time indeed.
Yet this ALP trailblazer — Labor’s first Premier in Queensland in 32 years, and whose election (by his own declaration) ended forever the Bjelke-Petersen era — leaves behind a mixed legacy: some good, some not so good, and some ghost stories best left untold.
I met Goss in 1989 six months before he won the state election that December: as a senior student, I organised (on separate occasions) visits by Goss and by Liberal leader Angus Innes to our high school; Innes was a personal friend, but it was the first (and only) time I had met Goss, and whatever reservations I had about him politically, I can honestly say that I found him engaging, perfectly charming, and a highly intelligent speaker and conversationalist.
Even so, I’m not going to indulge either Goss’ memory or the staunch band of slavering sycophants out in force tonight with any drivel about lights at the end of tunnels, silly catchcries about the “Goss Gloss,” or a lot of the other rubbish that has already consumed far too much space in news portals not just in Queensland, but across the country.
But by the same token, I am neither going to catalogue the successes of his government, nor — out of respect — itemise its failures, aside from noting that in spite of the best PR efforts now being orchestrated to the contrary, the latter list would be considerable, and perhaps longer in the end than the former.
The Goss government was a modestly effective outfit that quickly became engorged on the same trappings of office it pilloried its predecessors for indulging in, and what might have been a shiny new beacon of public administration in 1989 was a discredited entity that had well and truly lost touch by the time it slid from office six and a half years later.
Its defeat came despite “fair” electoral boundaries introduced on its watch in 1992 which, to this day, retain a bias toward the ALP of somewhere between 2% and 4%: an indictment on a regime elected on a promise to make elections in Queensland fair and transparent.
And in addition to launching such objectionable and loathsome specimens as Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd on an unsuspecting Australian public, I contend Queensland Labor from that time onwards carries a heavy responsibility for shaping much that is wrong with Labor politics — and Australian politics more generally — now.
Its vicious brutality and its culture of petty, narcissistic populism — coupled with a penchant for photo opportunities and an unreasoning mentality of never being wrong — are all traits that find their modern genesis in the operation conducted by then ALP state secretary Wayne Swan to elect Labor in Queensland in 1989 for the first time in 32 years, and which have subsequently infected the ALP nationally and poisoned to a great degree the politics of this country and the esteem in which it is held by a battle-weary electorate.
To give credit where it is due, it must be acknowledged that much of the entrenched infrastructure of institutionalised corruption, which had been allowed to fester in Queensland under the Bjelke-Petersen government, was demolished on Goss’ watch; in its place was an attempt — sincerely contrived, I believe — to restore honesty and transparency to public administration in the Sunshine State.
Sometimes it succeeded, and sometimes it didn’t.
But his government was nowhere near as good as its proponents might argue; and in many cases where great success has often been credited, reality has been found short of the mark.
It is to be hoped that Goss — first diagnosed with a brain tumour 17 years ago — is able to rest in peace.
But unlike Whitlam, his legacy does not warrant the great magnanimity and goodwill the passing of the former Labor Prime Minister elicited; and whilst not unsympathetic to those around him — including his former colleagues, and even those whose politics I viscerally detest — I cannot bring myself to pen any kind of eulogy to his record in office.
Rightly or wrongly, the Goss government did what it was elected to do, and in the chief interests of those who voted for it. Beyond that, it did few people any favours. On the former count it did no more than was expected of it, and on the latter nothing to warrant any accolade of greatness or inclusivity.
And it certainly made no attempt to heal the raw wounds and divisions in Queensland from the tumultuous final years of the 1980s which immediately predated its ascension to office.
AND ANOTHER THING: Wayne Goss was elected as Premier at a state election in Queensland on Saturday 2 December 1989; he was not — as has been widely written in the publications of both Fairfax and Murdoch today — elected on 7 December: that was the day he was sworn into office, along with his ministers. To the journalists responsible for this basic error of fact (and/or for copying each other’s work) I simply have to say this. GET IT RIGHT!