He's A Can-Do Guy, But Can He Do It?

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They say that Queensland politics is different — and Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman’s decision to tilt for leadership of the Queensland Liberal-National Party certainly fits that description.

Newman, a high profile and popular two-term Lord Mayor, is not even a member of parliament. He’s said that he’ll seek pre-selection for the seat of Ashgrove in Brisbane’s inner west. If successful, he will resign as mayor and campaign for the premiership from outside Queensland Parliament.

In the meantime, the LNP’s previous leader, John-Paul Langbroek, has resigned, leaving hardline Country National Jeff Seeney in an unorthodox role as stand-in leader of the LNP in parliament. In other words, the new Opposition Leader is not even in the Opposition. As they say: only in Queensland.

As usual, colourful former premier Peter Beattie had the best quote of the day, when he called it "either the smartest thing the LNP ever did — or the dumbest".

There’s no doubt that Newman has a better chance of defeating incumbent Labor Premier Anna Bligh than the hapless Langbroek. Running the largest municipality in the country, the former Army engineer has been a popular and reasonably effective Lord Mayor and is well known for his "Can Do" demeanour, a number of controversial roads and tunnel projects, and his focus on the "roads, rates and rubbish" basics of local government. After seven years running a council with a budget larger than Tasmania’s, he’s certainly better qualified to be premier than his media-shy predecessor.

But can Newman win? To do so, he has to hold the notoriously disunited LNP together from outside parliament, as well as taking on a resurgent Premier in Anna Bligh. As the floods crisis showed, Bligh is a tough operator who relishes a challenge. She is also a much better campaigner than many in the media give her credit her for, taking Labor to an historic fifth term in 2009.

Six months ago, Bligh and her government looked headed for oblivion. The global financial crisis hammered the state’s already stretched finances and Bligh and her Treasurer Andrew Fraser decided to repair the balance sheet by selling off assets, which meant breaking an election promise. Fraser and Bligh went ahead and privatised Queensland rail network, which caused trouble in Labor’s union ranks and proved unpopular with many voters. Then a crisis in Queensland Health’s payroll office erupted, as thousands of nurses went without pay for weeks. Voters will forgive state governments many things, but when the government couldn’t even pay its nurses’ salaries, Queensland Labor suddenly looked every bit as incompetent as its cousins south of the Tweed.

Indeed, most normal political trends should be running in the LNP’s favour. Labor has held office for all but two years since 1989, and there have been no shortage of crises and scandals in that time — most notably the Jayant Patel affair (in which a rogue surgeon’s errors led to the death and injury of patients at Bundaberg Hospital) and the Gordon Nuttal scandal (the former minister is now in jail for corruption). Add in Queensland’s sluggish non-mining sector employment growth and the ceaseless infrastructure pressure stemming from south-east Queensland’s rapid urban development, and the LNP should be every bit as popular as Barry O’Farrell’s Coalition in New South Wales. And as late as November, it was.

But all that was before the "summer of sorrow", in which Queensland faced record floods and then a category five cyclone. All concerns about over-crowded trains and hospitals were put aside as the state faced a series of vast natural catastrophes that at times threatened to destroy entire communities. Through it all, Bligh remained calm and constantly available, taking command in a way that made voters feel she was giving the crisis her full attention. At the height of the crisis, the Premier was giving press conferences every two hours. Her tough-but-sensitive media performance proved popular — Bligh’s approval ratings have soared back into the positive, and Labor’s two-party preferred vote has recovered from a dire 41-59 to an election-winning lead of 52-48.

Newman performed well during the flood crisis too, but he certainly has a tough task ahead. The seat he is trying to win, Ashgrove, is far from a safe conservative seat. Held by Environment Minister Kate Jones by 7.1 per cent, it’s not even marginal. Taking in the green and leafy suburbs around The Gap, the seat also includes some public housing precincts around Gaythorne and a substantial number of ADF personnel in the Enoggera Army barracks — who might not necessarily vote LNP, despite (or perhaps because of) Newman’s former career as an Army officer. Jones is also considered to be a strong campaigner and will have more than a year to "sandbag" her margin.

In the meantime, Bligh and her government can point to the ridiculous situation in state parliament, where the man trying to lead the state is not even allowed inside the chamber. Labor will no doubt point out that if Newman loses and the LNP win a majority, the Premier of Queensland will in fact be Jeff Seeney.

Nor can further destablisation inside the LNP be ruled out. The LNP is already a strange factional beast, the result of an amalgamation of the Liberal and National parties in which hatreds and rivalries go at least as far back as Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s government (in which the Nationals double-crossed their Liberal coalition partners and governed in their own right). Far from calling a snap election, smarter observers think Bligh will run full-term, giving Newman and the LNP plenty of rope to hang themselves.

In the meantime, who is running the Brisbane City Council? At a time when Brisbane ratepayers could reasonably expect their mayor to be working around the clock to restore ferry services and tackle the huge clean-up from February’s floods, the Lord Mayor appears to spending most of his time kissing babies and pressing the flesh of voters in Ashgrove.

Although it’s true that Queensland’s conservatives have never been particularly respectful of the Westminster conventions of parliamentary democracy (in a famous 1980s interview Joh Bjelke-Peterson proved incapable of explaining the concept of separation of powers to ABC journalist Quentin Dempster) this latest maneuver is certainly one of the strangest yet.

If Newman wins, it will be brilliant. If he loses, the move risks destroying the LNP experiment in Queensland altogether.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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