THE HARD REALITY of Queensland’s new Labor government was starkly highlighted yesterday, as no fewer than five first-time MPs were handed senior ministries in Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s first Cabinet; the sheer inexperience the ALP brings to running Australia’s third-largest state is troublesome, and is evocative of an unpalatable precedent set 30 years ago in what another Queensland Premier dismissed as the “degenerate south.”
Today’s article is really a case of “wait and watch” — something we will do with the keenest of attention over the next three years — but for those who expect sound governance and constructive outcomes from the new Labor regime in Queensland, the early indications are not encouraging.
We spoke at some length on Friday about the pathetically narrow mandate secured by Queensland Labor in the course of scoring the political upset of the century thus far at the recent state election there, and the lack of a concrete comprehensive agenda covered at that time is only the start of the problem.
One point I declined to make last week is that the Labor caucus in Queensland is now dominated by the party’s Left — not an artifice known for its responsibility and prudence where the sound management of affairs of state are concerned — and is underlined by the little-reported fact that hundreds (or perhaps thousands, for nobody can really tell) of CFMEU operatives made the trek from Sydney and Melbourne to campaign in Queensland ahead of the state election: and Palaszczuk, rather tellingly, is already attracting attention for her inability to adequately respond to suggestions her government is subject to disproportionate levels of union influence and control.
(A bit like the not-so-shiny new Labor regime in Victoria, although that’s another story).
Compounding the rather obvious handicaps Queensland Labor faces itself encumbered with — thanks to its lack of mandated policies and the unions having it by the throat — is the announcement yesterday of the Palaszczuk Cabinet, which boasts five first-time MPs as ministers in addition to others (including Deputy Premier Jackie Trad) already in Parliament prior to the election but also completely lacking in any ministerial experience whatsoever.
In some respects, given the near-extermination Labor suffered at the polls three years ago, the fact its unexpectedly early return to the ministerial suite should be accompanied by a distinct lack of experience comes as no surprise.
But lacking in experience it is, and it presents the same problem faced, ironically, by the Labor governments that followed conservatives into office after decades in the wilderness: Gough Whitlam’s federally, Wayne Goss’ in Queensland and of course, John Cain Jr’s in Victoria.
Of course, these governments performed very differently in practice, with Whitlam’s and the Labor administration of John Bannon in South Australia that was elected in 1982 after a single term in opposition ending in train smashes, where Goss was brought undone by unseeing arrogance more than any sin of governance.
But Cain was the worst of them all.
The Palaszczuk ministry is unimpressive, to say the least.
Its five ministers with prior experience might be fair enough, but offer some glaring drawbacks at a glance.
Palaszczuk herself, as Premier and minister for the Arts, is fair enough.
With so much at stake, why is Cameron Dick — a prospective leader — marooned in the sensitive Health portfolio? It would seem that with a slender hold on office and the unmistakable reality that Labor governs purely on the back of distaste for the administration of Campbell Newman and his and its methods, any petty rivalries are a luxury it cannot afford.
Stirling Hinchcliffe might have been no world beater in the last Labor government, but relegating him to an assistant ministry at a time his party sorely needs experienced hands appears a curious call, to say the least.
And for all the hype that has surrounded Kate Jones in recent years (which has had nothing to do with her competence or otherwise, but everything to do with her capacity to defeat one individual in one electorate) it remains to be seen whether she is up to the job of tackling a super portfolio comprising Education, Tourism, Major Events, Small Business and the Commonwealth Games.
Baubles as rewards for electoral triumph rather than genuine merit are not confined to expressions of gratitude to Jones for slaying Newman; a day care teacher yet to spend a day in Parliament has been made a minister ostensibly as a pat on the back for defeating rising LNP identity David Crisafulli in his seat of Mundingburra.
And the unmistakable taint of union dominance sits over the whole Cabinet, with many returning and inexperienced MPs having served as union officials: “experience” which, so many times and in so many places, has proven thoroughly inappropriate as a grounding for competent and efficient effective government.
To me, the parallels between the Cain government in Victoria in 1982 and Palaszczuk’s in Queensland now are almost frightening.
Both took office after the defeat of competent Liberal regimes: Cain after a 27-year-old administration died of old age, Palaszczuk’s after her predecessors were defeated after offending far too many voters far too quickly.
Like Cain in 1982, Palaszczuk arrives in office with a party full of first-time MPs and desperately lacking in experience, and both governments are characterised by the kind of early exuberance that could, if misapplied, lead straight into trouble.
Like Cain after 1982 — taking office at the epicentre of the union movement in Australia as he did after a decades-long drought — the unions seem set to wield enormous influence and power over Queensland Labor now: partly as a result of the bolstered union presence now embedded in the ALP’s parliamentary ranks, and partly as a result of the need for good old-fashioned payback for “services rendered” in helping Labor win the election in the first place.
Palaszczuk’s narrow mandate, weighed against the reality her party will need to do something for three years to justify itself at the next election, makes its inexperienced hands ripe candidates for blunders into misadventure: and whilst Queensland has no State Bank and no apparent Tricontinental or Pyramid disaster awaiting detonation, it should be noted that in its last period in office Labor nonetheless saw its way clear to rack up $85 billion in state debt and a ten-figure annual budget deficit to boot.
And the propensity for Labor to throw Queensland back to the dark ages is very real; just two days ago, the Courier-Mail detailed the agenda for government that was somehow omitted from Palaszczuk’s election campaign, which formed the basis of its pitch for the support of Labor-leaning “Independent” Peter Wellington.
Clearly, the ingredients for a disaster are all there in George Street, just waiting to be half-baked.
As an old Brisbane boy I certainly wouldn’t wish to see it and I hope that this Labor government serves Queensland better than its last — so incompetent as to have overseen an unnecessary flood in Brisbane and the waste of tens of billions of dollars for nothing — but with the damage from its last stint in power barely contained by three years of Liberal rule it won’t take very much for an unmitigated debacle to unfold.
The argument the public service might act as a brake on the excesses of its masters is based on a false premise: it didn’t under Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh and in any case, it remains disproportionately stacked with Labor appointees from last time, with a large number of LNP appointees set to be given their marching orders in coming weeks.
We will watch and wait and see as we always do in this column but I just think the comparisons between this government and the Cain government in Victoria cannot be easily dismissed.
Queenslanders will find out soon enough what their state election has saddled them with. All I will say is that I wouldn’t want such a ragtag bunch of misfits running my own state.
Then again, here in Victoria we have our own union-controlled band of Labor’s hooligans. The eastern states might be swinging back to Labor, but it remains to be seen at what cost.