In his victory speech on election night last March, incoming Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said "I pledge to you that we will conduct ourselves with humility, grace and dignity. We will work for all Queenslanders regardless of their vote tonight". His actions since then mark this statement as his first broken promise.
Newman’s pledge is reminiscent of John Howard’s comments upon unexpectedly winning control of the Senate in the 2004 federal election, when he stated that "the government will use its majority in the new Senate very carefully, very wisely and not provocatively" and would not "allow this unexpected but welcome majority in the Senate to go to our heads". Workchoices would follow not long afterwards.
The distorted Queensland election result saw the LNP gain just under 50 per cent of the primary vote, but win 78 out of 89 seats in a Parliament with no Upper House. It would be hard not to let an unprecedented landslide of this magnitude go to the head of the most cautious premier. With Campbell Newman’s energiser bunny style, it is a given that he will charge ahead with little assessment of the real consequences, as opposed to the alternative reality painted by political rhetoric.
As Possum Comitatus recently wrote, key figures in the LNP government still behave as if they were in opposition, a place where it had become "acceptable practice to just make things up as required". The exaggerated sloganeering of the opposition years has continued on unabated now they are in government.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in some of the wild claims about the alleged weakness of the Queensland economy and in particular the state’s budget situation. It has become standard practice for incoming governments to immediately point to an unexpected budget blackhole as a way of getting out of spending promises they no longer want to keep and to justify cuts they want to make but didn’t flag before the election.
Campbell Newman has taken this to new heights (or depths) with his inflated claims about the levels of government debt and the size of the public sector. Of course, this hasn’t stopped him from appointing a bunch of Liberal mates to publicly funded positions, including paying Peter Costello $3300 a day to conduct an "audit" of the state budget.
Newman has used this audit to justify wild claims about inheriting a $100 billion debt. This figure is actually a projected figure based on assumptions about theoretical future expenditure over another seven years. Queensland’s actual debt is less than half this amount. This isn’t to say that there is no need for any spending cuts, but the scale of the cuts needed is being grossly exaggerated.
Campbell Newman’s claim this week that "Queensland is on the way to being bankrupt" and becoming "the Spain of Australian states" might seem laughable to any rational observer, but unfortunately such claims are being used to justify huge cuts to public service jobs and to funding for many non-government organisations that also deliver services to the public.
Not only are the claims being used to justify large cuts, they are also being used to justify those cuts being made at great speed. It is easy to ridicule reviews and inquiries as just wasting time, but cutting large numbers of jobs without properly looking at the likely impacts is simply irresponsible. Even worse than the sudden upfront losses of public services is the impact that flows from the atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty which now permeates the public service and many NGOs that receive government funding. People who are unsure about whether they will still have a job in a few months invariably start looking around for other jobs which may be more secure. The exodus of this group of people will compound the negative impacts.
The extent of the sector-wide public service cuts is such that the Brisbane Times is maintaining an ongoing public service watch to keep track of the job losses. While these cuts unfold, $80 million dollars is being pumped into racing, including a new greyhound racing track, a new turf club on the Gold Coast and even goat racing at Barcaldine.
One area where Campbell Newman has initiated an inquiry is in the area of child safety. This is welcome, however given the long-term underfunding of this critical area, it is hard to see how the inquiry could do anything other than recommend an increase in staffing and resourcing in this area.
How the state government reacts to such a recommendation when the inquiry reports in April next year will provide a big indication of whether Campbell Newman and his team have moved beyond sloganeering and started taking a more responsible approach which gives genuine consideration to the human impact of its decisions, rather than just the financial impact.
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