Beating up Beattie


‘Hello, my name is Peter, and I’m a recovering media-holic. I know that it’s killing me and harming my friends and colleagues, and this time I am determined to give it up.’

So determined was he to show his days of pulling media stunts were behind him, that Peter Beattie immediately thought of a clever way to illustrate his new-found media sobriety the only way he knows how. He pulled a too-clever-by-half media stunt by not turning up on Monday for his weekly post-cabinet media conference. (Geddit? See how over being a media tart I am!)

Not only did it backfire badly, allowing the opposition to run the line that Beattie was ‘sulking’ after two, weekend by-election loses, it shows just how hard it will be for the nation’s premier political prima donna to break the habit of a lifetime.

Thanks to Peter Leahy at the Courier-mail

Thanks to Peter Leahy at the Courier-Mail

Beattie has lived his entire professional life inside a self-made ‘Political Big Brother House’, and may no longer know the difference between reality and ‘media reality’ as he constructs it for the six o’clock news. (Unlike Paul Keating, Beattie doesn’t flick the switch to vaudeville, he is political vaudeville.)

It all started back in the 1970s when Beattie was the Secretary of the Railway Station Officers Union. So adept was he at using the media to explain the union’s case and the reasons for going on strike that, even in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, his union prospered. As Labor State Secretary from 1981 to 1988, he outshone the party’s many leaders to such an extent that the state executive at one point put a media gag on him to give the leader half a chance.

Beattie is also incredibly adept at off-camera media stunts – the background briefings, the leak, the nudge in the right direction, the friendly personal note to journalists, the long lunches he has used them all already. He has measured out his life in media moments.

Living in Beattie’s Queensland is to live in democracy’s version of a cult of personality, where the Dear Leader is ever present, his face, his voice seeming to stalk your every move. (Beattie would always want to be loved as the Dear Leader rather than be the Great Leader.)

When something goes wrong, the Dear Leader is never to blame others have always let him down, and they will be hunted down and punished, just as soon as Peter (who feels your pain) has said sorry, wiped the tears from his eyes and set about putting things right.

In Beattie’s world, the buck always stops out there somewhere, anywhere but where he is. And it is extraordinary that he has been able to get away with this political fantasia for so long. Rorting in the Labor Party, as revealed by the Shepherdson Inquiry? Not Beattie’s fault. I’m sorry and I’ll fix it. (And in fairness, it did have nothing to do with Beattie.) A child protection crisis? Not my fault, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it. Power failures and an energy crisis? Not my fault, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it. Health crisis? Not my fault, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it.

It says much about Queensland, none of it flattering, that Beattie has turned on this same, lame old political pantomime for years and still survives. As with the rotten-to-the-core Bjelke-Petersen Government, it has taken a Royal Commission to bring an abrupt end to what neither the media nor the wider body politic has been able to stop.

The local media does a tradesman-like job of reporting and describing local politics, but it lacks the insight, wit, corporate memory and especially a larrikin streak to highlight the madness of it all, to show how the strings are working the puppets, and make fun of it.

Worse, it lacks the nerve to report it straight – ‘the Premier pulled another media stunt today’.

Beattie is lucky to be operating in a one-newspaper town with a sadly depleted local ABC, and even luckier to have such useless political enemies. Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg is a boy on a man’s errand, Liberal leader Bob Quinn (who didn’t want the job) is plain old dull, and their respective parties are engaged in an endless cold war that occasionally erupts publicly. They are out of coalition, out of ideas, out of charisma, low on talent, out of office and short of ideas on how to get back.

So it has been left to chance in the form of a fatally incompetent surgeon to show up problems in the health system, and to the passage of time, to do, or at least begin to do, what Queensland itself could not set right.

Beattie has been Premier for seven years. The claim that it is ‘not my fault’ should have lost credibility long ago. The failings of the health system, being illustrated in graphic, sometimes gory detail by the Morris Commission of Inquiry, go beyond the incompetence (if that’s all it was) of Dr Jayant Patel, more widely known as ‘Dr Death’ – they, like the electricity crisis before them, are a failure of public administration, a failure of the Government to provide good governance.

On Monday, the Beattie Government’s woes were added to substantially by the revelation to the Morris Inquiry that, at the same time as a ‘secret’ waiting list of 108,000 patients lining up for appointments with specialists was being drawn up, Queensland Health gave $1 million to the Broncos rugby league team in a sponsorship deal. (The political gods it seems, do have a sense of poetic justice – the Government, like its leader, is in trouble for putting spin ahead of substance.)

Can Beattie now forsake spin, show real (as opposed to faux) administrative substance, and do it in time to save his Government?

Perhaps, although once again that may be more due to good luck than his own good management. The local media pack will no doubt bark more loudly and it now has a different narrative into which any new developments must fit but it can’t be counted on to grow real fangs in the short term.

The Opposition will be somewhat invigorated, the new Liberal Member for Chatsworth, Michael Caltabiano, has talent, energy, a strong network and an ability to attract more political funding, but the systemic problems on his side of parliament will remain.

The swings against the Government were not entirely outside the range expected for by-elections in the prevailing climate (Redcliffe, 8.4 per cent; Chatsworth, 13.8 per cent) and Labor still holds 61 of the 89 seats in the unicameral Parliament.

So Labor is unlikely to be thrown out of office in 18 months time, even if the inveterate media tart that heads up the show reverts to form, as is likely – but Beattie had better not push his luck. As with all illusionists, success lies in not letting the audience in on the trick, and there are signs the Queensland electorate is beginning to see right through Beattie.

As an unexpected campaign ploy showed, he may be coming to be a liability for his party. When voters turned up at polling booths last Saturday they were confronted by Liberal Party banners displaying an unflattering photo of the Premier with the words: ‘Hospitals in crisis, asbestos in schools, roads in crisis – it’s just not good enough.’ Liberal officials told the Courier-Mail that these posters were the result of focus groups which ‘showed voter annoyance at the Premier over what they perceived was a failure to tackle pressing issues, including the hospitals crisis.’

Ideology has been drained out of modern state politics. It is now all about competent management, doing what Mussolini is meant to have done – make the trains run on time, and most of all, ensure the health system works. (Everyone uses the health system at some time, few people these days catch trains in Queensland.)

History shows the management record of the Beattie Government is poor, even worse when it comes to dealing with problems before they become an issue, rather than reacting to them after the fact.

The question of how much substance Beattie actually has is one that has dogged him throughout his time in parliament. For reasons of political payback, and out of a fear that he would not be a team player, Wayne Goss famously kept Beattie out of his cabinet for most of his term as Premier between 1989 and 1996 (a control freak like Goss could not have stood having such loose-lips with ready access to so much leakable material).

When asked to explain this glaring omission from the cabinet ranks, Goss minders invariably said Beattie was not up to the job, that he lacked substance and application, only to have it dismissed by commentators as a handy political line.

Perhaps they are about to be proved right a decade or more later. Only Beattie himself can prove them wrong.

(And a footnote that again highlights the mischievous nature of those political gods referred to earlier. When Beattie finally made it to the Goss cabinet in July 1995 he was given, wouldn’t you know it, the Health portfolio. And he immediately embarked on a grandstanding, barnstorming, 100-day listening tour of Queensland hospitals, with the media in tow. What, if anything, did he really learn?)

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.