The Sun Shines On QLD's Conservatives

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In the end, the landslide was even more momentous than anyone expected.

Campbell Newman’s Liberal-National Party has virtually wiped Queensland Labor off the map, sweeping to power in one of the most remarkable elections in modern Australian history. The defeat claimed most of Labor’s front-bench, as well as the sitting Premier herself: Anna Bligh announced yesterday morning that she would quit parliament.

We knew Queenslanders wanted a change. We had no idea how badly they wanted it. The LNP polled 49.5 per cent on first preferences across the state. Bob Katter’s Australia Party polled a handy 11.6 per cent. Labor could muster only a desultory 26.8 per cent. Queensland is now a conservative bastion. Labor will not — cannot — return to office in George St for a decade.

In fact, for Labor, it’s worse than this. This is a generational turning point for politics north of the Tweed. The LNP now has so many members that its main problem will be keeping the new army of backbenchers happy. With no upper house to constrain him, Campbell Newman has a blank cheque like few other leaders in Australian political history have had.

Lawrence Springborg’s quixotic attempt to unify the conservative forces in Queensland — so long the subject of ridicule, so confidently predicted to fail — has suddenly revealed itself to be a master stroke. The united force of rural and regional conservatives and urban Liberal Party voters is now the dominant majority in Queensland politics. If you add the the votes of the Katter party to the LNP state-wide, nearly two-thirds of Queenslanders voted conservatively on Saturday.

The stark maths of the electoral reality speaks for itself. There is nothing positive for the ALP and the Greens to take away from this result. It was a massacre. It could easily be 12 years before the LNP faces anything like a close election.

The transformation of the Sunshine State into a conservative heartland will have national implications. It has already flexed its muscles federally, taking a swag of seats off Labor in 2010 and nearly delivering government to Tony Abbott. Now the LNP will have vast new resources and a newfound confidence with which to campaign in the 2013 federal ballot.

In contrast, Labor will be bruised and battered. If Saturday night’s results were repeated in a federal election, Labor would not hold any seats north of the border: none. Not even Kevin Rudd wold be safe. The LNP has established itself as an electoral juggernaut. It is now, as the Courier-Mail’s Dennis Atkins writes, a monster truck.

The most shocking aspect of last night’s results was the fall of inner-city seats like Mt Coot-tha and Brisbane Central. Anna Bligh’s own seat of South Brisbane teetered for a time. These were the inner-city strongholds of progressivism in Brisbane — incorporating suburbs like Fortitude Valley, West End, Paddington, Red Hill and New Farm. If Labor could not hold these seats, it had no chance in the middle-ring seats like Everton, Ashgrove, or Greenslopes.

But there was just as much carnage in the outer suburbs and the regions. Ipswich — held by Labor since World War I — fell. Labor lost Mt Isa to the Katter party. Labor will likely hold only one or two seats outside south-east Queensland. No wonder Anna Bligh decided to pull the plug.

All of Labor’s future leadership prospects lost their seats: Cameron Dick, Kate Jones, Murray Watt, Andrew Fraser. The party will have to rebuild from ground zero.

In contrast, the LNP is now totally dominant. Campbell Newman can take his place as a true hero of the conservative movement in Australia. The scion of two senior Liberal parliamentarians — his mother, Jocelyn, a former minister in the Howard government, was there on the podium on Saturday night — Newman can now lay claim to being one the most popular figures in conservative politics nationally.

Newman’s agenda is likely to be reasonably modest. He has not promised wholesale cuts to public spending; indeed, much of the LNP’s election platform is about bread-and-butter state issues like better service delivery, more front-line police, and state development for local industries such as agriculture, tourism and construction. There is a sprinkle of ideology in policies such as a commitment to introduce so-called "independent public schools", freed from the direction of Education Queensland, and in an overt pro-development tinge to many planning policies. But many of the announced policies could belong to any state government, Labor or Liberal; there is no Kennett-style revolution promised in the black letter of the LNP platform.

Newman’s tenure as Lord Mayor of Brisbane gives some inkling to the way he might govern. The tunnels and roads are of course his stated legacy, even if most of them were only half-finished after seven years in office. Newman showed a prickly persona with the media and an authoritarian streak with staff. He was an interventionist who liked to hire and fire, and the Council found its mid-level policy priorities radically reshaped to a back-to-basics "roads, rates and rubbish" agenda (one of the first things Newman did on Sunday morning was to fire the state’s top bureaucrat).

Newman might find the far larger state bureaucracy a tougher nut to crack, but he will certainly have the mandate to push his policies through. But he will find the local media a challenge: he has a hostile relationship with the Courier-Mail and can expect no honeymoon from its attentions. On the other hand, there will be no effective opposition for his entire first term, so any errors he makes should be recoverable.

As we enter a new era in Queensland politics, another era passes. The post-mortems on Labor’s disastrous campaign are already being written. Clearly, the negative campaigning against Newman and his family business dealings backfired.

Labor, knowing it was on the nose, put all its energies into attacking Newman and his probity; once the Crime and Misconduct Commission cleared him, Labor’s campaign looked dishonest and desperate. Many will also point to the disastrous decision after 2009 to sell a number of state-owned assets, such as Queensland Rail. This decision was justifiable in the narrow calculus of economic rationalism, as it enabled the state to moderate its heavy debt burden. But Bligh and Labor had campaigned strongly in 2009 against privatisation; the decision proved catastrophic to Bligh’s credibility and turned many in the labour movement against her and her Treasurer, Andrew Fraser.

Ultimately, the real cause of the debacle might lie in the vicissitudes of the political cycle, and the innate conservatism of Queensland’s electorate. Throughout the last decade, Labor has held many state seats in areas that voted Liberal federally. The ongoing failure of the state Liberals to build a meaningful local political machine, or to put up an electable candidate, ensured that many votes stayed parked with Labor in 2006 and 2009. By 2012, the LNP had put its house in order and built a competent campaign machinery. The ascension of Newman provided the final piece of the puzzle: a plausible conservative candidate for premier.

How should we assess Labor’s two-decade reign in Queensland? In many respects, the state party has re-made modern Queensland. In 1989, Labor took over from one of the more notoriously corrupt regimes in Australian political history. The unravelling of the Bjelke-Peterson system in the wake of the Fitzgerald inquiry left conservative politics in the south-east almost completely discredited. Queensland’s police commissioner, Terry Lewis, went to jail for corruption, along with several deputies and four cabinet ministers.

It wasn’t just governance, either: Queensland’s public services were antiquated and decrepit. Spending on social services was the lowest of any mainland state in Australia. There was little support for things like child protection, mental health or the arts and culture. Abortions were illegal. Public demonstrations were rarely permitted. Police violence against Indigenous Queenslanders was routine. Liquor licensing was so heavily regulated that it was difficult to buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant, or indeed eat in a restaurant after 8pm. Coffee culture was largely unknown. The only beer in many pubs was XXXX, and a Crown lager was considered an exotic drink. Queensland was routinely mocked in southern states for its backwards ways and attitudes. Talented people tended to leave soon after graduating from university. The situation was so difficult that it spawned an activist music and literature. Community radio station 4ZZZ and writers like John Birmingham and Andrew McGahan chronicled the unrest.

Twenty-three years later, Queensland is in many ways unrecognisable from the sleepy deep north town in which I grew up. It is far more modern, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. It has a police force that appears largely free of systemic corruption, and a strong and independent anti-corruption body enshrined in law (the CMC). The gerrymander has been reformed, meaning all Queenslanders have the same equal value for their vote. Social services are now largely on a par with southern states. The state has invested in significant amounts of infrastructure, and not just in terms of pouring concrete; iconic cultural institutions like the Gallery of Modern Art have been built. Under Peter Beattie’s Smart State initiatives, considerable investments were made in diversifying Queensland’s economic base in areas like tertiary education and biomedical research. Huge new resource developments, meanwhile, are transforming the mineral-rich centre of the state.

Compared to the Bjelke-Peterson government, therefore, Labor has governed substantially better and more competently, dragging the state into the 21st century. South-east Queensland, in particular, became a more normal place, more like the rest of Australia, with normal problems like traffic congestion, rather than special problems like a compromised police force. In the end, it started to experience more normal politics, too, with voters gradually forgetting the Bjelke-Peterson years, and focusing instead on Labor’s shortcomings.

Not that Labor hasn’t had its own share of scandals. Indeed, there have been many. The most unsavoury remain the problems in Queensland Health. This giant organisation has regularly shown itself to be disastrously mismanaged. Rogue surgeon Jayant Patel, for instance, was employed without proper background checks, and his lethal medical miscalculations were covered up by hospital administrators. When a senior nurse blew the whistle, she was bullied and persecuted. The health minister at the time of the scandal, Gordon Nuttall, was later revealed to be on the take from a coal mining company. He was convicted of corruption, and languishes in jail.

Years later, Queensland Health was still so dysfunctional that it couldn’t pay its nurses for many months. Nuttall is not the only Labor cabinet minister to exit politics via the paddy wagon. Merri Rose, a minister under Peter Beattie, was jailed for extortion. Beattie government Deputy Premier Jim Elder and senior party operative Mike Kaiser were sacked for forging signatures. And there have been plenty of other scandals and stuff-ups in service delivery, from asbestos in school buildings to the engineers at Wivenhoe who lied about their role in last year’s floods.

All that now is history, along with Anna Bligh and her government. "It is much more than a loss, it is without doubt a devastating defeat," Bligh said on resigning today, and she is right. The next long cycle of Queensland politics will be conservative. It will be dominated by Campbell Newman. Queensland really is the Can-Do state.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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