As Queensland electoral analysts always like to remind southern readers, politics in Queensland is different.
From Joh Bjelke-Peterson to Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and Peter Beattie, personality has always counted for a lot up here, and the appeal of strong leadership perhaps means more in Queensland than in any other State.
There is perhaps no better illustration of these phenomena than the continued popularity of Peter Beattie.
On any fair assessment, it’s been a horrible couple of years for Queensland Labor and Beattie’s Government should be on the ropes. The landslide victory of 2004 was barely bedded down before Indigenous Affairs Minister Liddy Clark got herself embroiled in the ‘Winegate’ scandal tying herself in knots trying to explain who brought a bottle of wine on a Government jet to a dry Aboriginal community in the State’s north. What should have been a simple explanation was buried in layers of spin as it began to appear that Clark had lied about the incident. Beattie sacked her and reshuffled Cabinet.
Then, a severe storm season in 2004 led to tends of thousands of Queenslanders being left without power for a week during summer. For years, the Queensland Treasury had been raiding the coffers of the Government-owned energy company Energex, to prop up its Budget surpluses. Beattie’s spin doctors tried to shift the blame for decades of under-investment in the State’s power grid onto Energex, and an investigation began into Energex CEO Greg Maddock’s expense account.
When Maddock threw himself under a train at Wilston Station, near Beattie’s home, the Premier was so upset he didn’t turn up for a press conference (previously unheard-of behaviour). Beattie reshuffled Cabinet again.
2005 was the year for Queensland Health’s problems to finally surface spectacularly assisted by the ‘Dr Death’ scandal at Bundaberg Hospital. In southern media, the scandal has largely focused on the actions of rogue surgeon Dr Jayant Patel. But the ensuing Queensland Public Hospitals (QPH) Inquiry revealed disturbing facts about Queensland Health more generally. Quite apart from the tragedy at Bundaberg Hospital and the fact that the government bureaucracy had hired Dr Patel without checking his medical record, it emerged that Queensland Health paid the lowest wages to medical staff in the country, kept secret waiting lists, and reduced funding to public hospitals that didn’t meet their elective surgery targets.
The Dr Death scandal cost Beattie his Health Minister, Gordon Nuttall, who got caught fibbing to the QPH Inquiry. The Cabinet was reshuffled again.
Thanks to Sean Leahy
This year, there’s a crisis which sees Brisbane in very real danger of running out of water. Beattie’s procrastinated on the issue for years essentially praying for rain. When Level 3 water restrictions were introduced in south-east Queensland, he could no longer ignore the issue, and instead ‘took charge’ of the entire water portfolio, moving it into the Premier’s Department. It was classic Beattie take the blame, announce a huge new dam in a safe National electorate, and deluge the media with positive spin.
At the beginning of the election campaign, Labor looked vulnerable. The Courier-Mail published a poll suggesting the Coalition were neck-and-neck with Labor on a two-Party preferred basis. And yet last weekend’s Newspoll suggested the ALP might even win seats from the Coalition on 9 September. Why?
The answer is the enduring weakness of the Coalition in Queensland. Ever since Bjelke-Peterson destroyed the Liberals in 1986 to win an absolute majority in Queensland Parliament and then launched the ‘Joh for PM’ campaign that probably cost John Howard victory in the 1987 Federal election the Liberals have been the junior Party of Queensland conservative politics. The result has been 20 years of Coalition instability with Labor ruling for 15 of the last 17 years.
Federally, Queensland is a conservative State. In 2004, the Liberals won 17 Federal seats in Queensland to Labor’s 6, with the Nationals holding 4. Since the March 1996 Federal election, when Labor won just two seats in the whole State, the Liberal Party has held on to nearly all its south-east Queensland gains. Brisbane also has a popular Liberal Lord-Mayor, Campbell Newman.
It is these ‘Beattie Liberals’ who vote Labor in State elections who best explain why the ALP seems likely to canter to victory on Saturday.
On every count, this has been one of the most disastrous Liberal campaigns of recent history. It began with the dumping of the underwhelming but experienced Bob Quinn as leader, in favour of the underwhelming and inexperienced Dr Bruce Flegg. Flegg’s timing proved inauspicious: the Premier called an early election almost immediately, leaving Flegg with no time to bed down his leadership or gain profile in the electorate. The Liberals also had to re-shoot their TV campaign ads, which had all featured Bob Quinn.
Flegg, a former GP with extensive business interests, must have looked an ideal candidate to win votes from Peter Beattie on health. But he has proved an unusually inept media performer, seemingly unable to state a line and hold to it.
Flegg’s inability to decide who would be Queensland Premier in the event of a Coalition majority was a key early error. Would it be Lawrence Springborg, the Nationals leader, even if the Liberals won more seats? First Flegg said no, then reversed himself, then compounded the gaffe by referring to the confusion as ‘having a blonde moment.’ His blonde-haired chief-of-staff, Cathy Uechtritz, is reported to have tried to resign after the comment. Senior Federal Party staffer Graeme Hallett had to be flown in to try and clean up the mess.
Even basic event management has been beyond the Liberals during this campaign a point hilariously demonstrated when Flegg got kicked out of a shopping mall meet-and-greet in suburban Kippa-Ring by security. His staff had apparently neglected to check the media call with the shopping mall’s management.
Throughout it all, Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg has soldiered on bravely, fighting a seemingly impossible battle against both the slick Labor machine and at times against his not-so-slick Liberal colleagues.
Springborg, a self-educated farmer from south-west Queensland, is a solid if uninspiring campaigner, and preserves an image of moral decency in an increasingly slippery political scene. The recently floated Liberal-National merger (as ‘New Liberal’) was Springborg’s cherished dream the only way, he believed, to wrest government from Labor. But the idea was cynically shot down in a week by Federal power-brokers from both Parties.
Despite Beattie’s lead in the polls, the Liberals and Nationals (for they are barely a Coalition) are running hard in the last week of the campaign in the hope of exploiting a belief in the electorate that Beattie is certain to win. They are airing some unusually hard-hitting TV ads, featuring relatives of patients who died in Queensland public hospitals.
But it is unlikely to matter. Pauline Hanson might have summed it up when she was recen
tly quoted by AAP: ‘ She said Mr Beattie was not the man to run Queensland but he was standing against œshit opposition. ’
With a strong economy (unemployment in Queensland is running at 4.5 per cent) and strong, if ever-apologetic, leadership, Team Beattie looks set to entrench its position as the longest-serving Labor Government in Australia.
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