Bjelke-Echo: Qld Labor’s One-Fingered Salute To Democracy

IN THE CONTEXT of post-Fitzgerald Queensland politics — emphasising clean and transparent government — Queensland Labor has committed a brazen act of electoral self-interest that would make Russ Hinze and Joh Bjelke-Petersen blush; the abolition of optional preferential voting at 15 minutes’ notice is a shameful act that merits retribution from voters, but the poorly led LNP has made itself implicit in an outrageously indecent event.

When I first heard on Thursday (appropriately enough, whilst wandering around in Brisbane) that Queensland had abolished optional preferential voting (OPV), I thought there must have been some kind of belated April Fools’ prank played on news services, but regrettably, the news was no joke.

OPV — introduced by Labor in 1991 by the Goss Labor government as part of sweeping Fitzgerald reforms to clean up the rotten state of governance in Queensland after the Bjelke-Petersen era — has long since become a headache for the ALP, as the effects of its left flank being hived off by the Communist Party Greens was compounded by the merger of the Liberal and National Parties north of the Tweed in 2008 as a response to the impact of OPV on traditional three-cornered contests in seats featuring both Liberal and National candidates.

Even so, Labor has prospered in Queensland over the quarter of a century since OPV was introduced; so much so that it has held office for all but five years since 1989, and so much so that Queensland’s only rival for the mantle of Labor’s best mainland state* is Victoria: and in Victoria, the Liberal Party has governed over the same period for more than twice as long as its northern counterparts.

At every turn, Queensland Labor has paraded itself as an unimpeachable beacon of post-Fitzgerald integrity and virtue, so much so that it has had little reticence or compunction in falsely labelling its opponents as corrupt on the most spurious grounds ever since, with an endless stream of referrals of conservative identities to the state’s anti-corruption watchdog that have invariably been found baseless, and even to the point of smearing former Premier Campbell Newman as “little Bjelke.”

Bjelke-Petersen — and the stench of corruption that forever stains his legacy — indeed lives on, it seems, through an act of wanton electoral fixing that would make even Bjelke-henchmen Russ Hinze and Don “Shady” Lane blush, with the wildcat abolition of OPV on Thursday afternoon in an unforgiveable attempt to entrench the ALP in office in the Sunshine State.

First things first: readers can peruse some additional coverage from the Courier-Mail here and here; that paper’s characterisation of this distasteful episode as a “dark chapter” in Queensland politics is absolutely correct, and anyone remotely interested in standards in public life is entitled to be outraged.

The indecently subterranean manner in which this disgrace has been foisted on unsuspecting Queenslanders and on an unsuspecting Parliament is one of the more insidious aspects of the sordid affair; confronted by the knowledge that the LNP-sponsored bill to enlarge the Legislative Assembly from 89 to 93 seats had secured crossbench support, the Palaszczuk government did a secret deal of its own with the crossbench to pass an amendment to restore compulsory preferential voting (CPV).

(For those in the southern states who don’t know, the LNP wanted the parliament enlarged slightly: not to rig it — by the party’s own admission, it knew the extra seats would appear in and around Brisbane — but in the hope the “ripple effect” on boundaries pushed outwards would result in slightly smaller rural electorates, geographically, for its MPs to need to travel across to cover. “One vote, one-value” was never at risk in this scenario).

There was no warning, no debate, and no public discussion whatsoever; there has been no groundswell of support in Queensland for the restoration of CPV either. Quite the contrary, for the “exhaust” rate at Queensland elections now averages 50%, which is solid evidence that Queensland voters increasingly do not wish to allocate a preference to candidates other than the one they opt to vote for.

This, in turn, destroys the argument used by Labor hacks that CPV is the “most democratic” option: yet forcing people to express preferences for candidates they have no interest in voting for is not at all democratic. Clearly, those who wish to do so under OPV can, but the rest aptly exercise their democratic right by choosing not to. In my own case, I vote Liberal. The rest of the candidates on the ballot paper can go to hell. There are millions of voters in this country who take a similar approach to the voting process. Forcing them is simply not on in my view.

But the introduction of OPV was the direct result of the reform process overseen by Tony Fitzgerald QC at the end of the 1980s, and OPV was an explicit recommendation of the Electoral and Administrative Review Committee (EARC) charged with the abolition of the zonal electoral system (the gerrymander) and its replacement with an open, transparent system that was most democratic and which sought to most accurately produce results that reflected the “one vote, one value” principle.

The Queensland ALP has now thoroughly trashed that principle. CPV, had it applied at last year’s state election, would have netted Labor nine extra seats and a solid majority. It’s not difficult to ascertain the motivation for this change.

Even so, any measure of public policy that becomes known just 15 minutes before it’s dropped like a bombshell in Parliament — and the bill presented as a fait accompli — is inherently malodorous, to say the least.

But Labor doesn’t seem to care, and indeed is jubilant about the rort it has just implemented; Transport minister Stirling Hinchcliffe — the so-called architect of the plot — dismissed the Fitzgerald reforms as “something that happened 25 years ago,” to which I can only respond, as someone who grew up in Brisbane in the 1970s and 1980s and witnessed the worst excesses of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s junta first hand during my formative years, is that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

In deference to the late Lane, perhaps Hinchcliffe should, in future, simply be referred to as “Shady.” After all, if the shoe fits…

It is not the place of the electoral system to do the bidding of any particular party (although an earthy view compels me to note that the evolution of Australia’s voting systems has mostly been driven solely by self-interest); Labor — with the three-cornered contests once fought out by the Liberals and Nationals a thing of the past, now finds itself bleeding on account of the quarter of its vote that has been annexed by the Greens over the past 20 years and the increasingly unreliable flows of preferences that have derived from them under OPV.

The Liberals and Nationals found a solution that involved adaptation on their own part rather than rorting the system: amalgamation, whether you’re a fan of it or not.

Labor’s solution? Rig the electoral system.

It comes as no surprise that critics and sometime allies alike have condemned the Palaszczuk government over the past 48 hours; even Fitzgerald — who over the years has done nothing to actively dispel public perceptions of passive support for the ALP — has indicated he is disgusted, stating that he “has found refuge in a zone of indifference.”

But probity and decency have never meant much to the ALP in Queensland; the party that rigged the electoral boundaries in 1947 in the first place only became indignant about it once it discovered someone else — Bjelke-Petersen and his Country Party — was even better at “fixing” things than Labor was. The fact Labor was the beneficiary of the fallout at the 1989 election had more to do with being in the right place at the right time than with any particular standards of principle or decency.

It is to be hoped Queensland voters respond with a violent lurch against the ALP when next it goes to the polls; to say Labor is now thoroughly unfit to govern Queensland is an understatement, but unless it is hit by a massive backlash — and quickly — it will be entrenched in office for the foreseeable future, stitched up with a rock-solid flow of Greens preferences in marginal seats, and shutting the door on the LNP for another generation.

This is, of course, precisely the desired outcome.

In closing, I ask readers (and especially those floating around the LNP, telling themselves how brilliant and politically astute they are) to spare a thought for embattled LNP leader Lawrence Springborg.

Once it became obvious what Labor’s game was, neither Springborg nor his minions made any attempt to withdraw their bill; hurried “negotiations” on the sidelines with the pivotal Katter MPs, yes, but no attempt to kill the whole thing off.

As a consequence, Springborg got his four extra seats in the state Parliament: but his bill, violated and exploited to permanently advantage the ALP, was allowed to sail through passage unmolested. Yes, any attempt to withdraw it might well have failed, but Springborg didn’t even try to stop it.

It speaks to the truly shocking lack of political judgement that characterises his leadership of the LNP, and underscores in graphic detail the reasons this column has called for him to be replaced (or preferably, to never have been restored to his post at all after the defeat of the Newman government).

Labor has engineered a ruthless and ethically bankrupt coup in an area that should have been off-limits in a state with such a protracted history of institutionalised corruption, and should have been beneath it to even contemplate had its hot air and bullshit about standards been based on conviction rather than expediency.

Springborg, for his part, has the four extra seats he wanted added to the chamber as part of the upcoming state redistribution: but he is also the sponsor, and now the proud owner, of a tarnished set of electoral laws that will put future elections beyond his party’s reach.

That’s a hell of a price to pay for enlarging the size of Parliament.

My final thought is that with such a fatally flawed and chronically defective leader, the LNP simply doesn’t have the mettle to fight the fight over this issue at a state election: the only way to reverse the travesty sprung on Queensland by Labor is to so turn public opinion against the government that it loses — and loses so badly the ALP will never attempt this sort of stunt again.

Springborg can’t convince voters in Brisbane to vote against Labor at the best of times, as has been shown at all three elections he has previously contested as leader. If he couldn’t prevail at any of those — two of which should have been unloseable — there is no reason to believe he could make a decent fist of trying to capitalise on a political gift like this either.

 

*I’m not counting South Australia, with its rigged boundaries and the supposedly “fair” process that contrives to entrench the ALP in office: little better than an actual gerrymander, nobody can seriously claim South Australian politics — despite the ineptitude of that state’s Liberal Party — operates on anything less than an institutionalised stitch-up.