The first budget of the newly elected LNP government led by Campbell Newman has received far greater attention than is usually given to state government budgets in Queensland. A lot of the assessment has been on its economic, social and environmental impacts, which have also informed judgments regarding its political impact, both short and long term.
Much opinion seems to suggest that Campbell Newman has already lost a significant amount of approval for someone so early into a period in government, buttressed by the largest State Parliamentary majority in living memory. Much of this opinion is anecdotal, most notably an array of anecdotes from the ever-quotable Clive Palmer, lifelong member of the LNP and its largest donor, but some opinion polling seems to reinforce this.
However, that same polling suggests that while Newman’s popularity may have taken a dent, the level of support for the LNP is still at or around a post-election high. Some excitable commentary even suggests that Campbell Newman might not last the term as Leader, a notion which seems ludicrous given his success in leading the LNP into government in their own right for the first since the 1980s.
While the Liberals and Nationals have merged as an entity, Newman is the first nominal Liberal to ever be elected as Premier in Queensland and it is the first time ever that a conservative Premier has lived in the capital city (although the occasional State of Origin obsessed Queenslander still points out that Newman is Canberra-born and raised in Tasmania).
But for many Queenslanders, opinion polls and Newman’s future pales into insignificance compared to the very real and immediate impact of large scale job losses, both in the public sector and in a growing number of not-for-profit groups who are having government funding withdrawn.
The validity of the justification for such a large scale slashing of jobs — the frequent citing of a high level of government debt — is much debated. The political technique of incoming governments decrying that their predecessor has left a surprise budgetary "black hole" which requires drastic surgery to avid imminent disaster is now so common as to be part of the script for any new leader, alongside assertions that they will govern for the entire electorate and use their new power humbly.
These lines are now basically parroted by rote, so much so that it is hard for anyone to act surprised when they are very rapidly breached. To bring in Peter Costello, one of the pioneers of the "shock" budget black hole justification for budget cuts, to oversee an "independent" audit of the state’s finances just reinforced the pantomime nature of the situation. Not surprising, Costello found a serious budget situation purportedly requiring major funding cuts. Equally unsurprisingly, Costello’s claims don’t bear up well to scrutiny, as Professor John Quiggin, among others, have recently demonstrated.
As Quiggin says, this is "a routine political manoeuvre undertaken by incoming governments seeking to abandon electoral commitments." While there was always the potential for some public sector job cuts, retrenchments on such a large scale in the Newman government’s budget is a flagrant breach of explicit pre-election, and even early post-election, promises. If the budgetary situation was really so dire as to require some broken promises, there are plenty of handouts of no particular economic merit which could have been out on pause.
For instance, Campbell’s broken pledge that there would no cuts to frontline services, tossed away in order to pay for, among other things, well over $100 million for horse and greyhound racing. The promise that "frontline jobs are safe" has now become "frontline services won’t be affected by job cuts" — not only a broken promise in anyone’s language (other than George Orwell’s Newspeak), but also clearly untrue.
It’s possible some bureaucratic fat could be trimmed without major impacts on frontline services, but there is no way cuts on this scale — particularly cuts that have been made so hastily without any assessment of the impacts (except perhaps for the impact on the government’s perceived enemies in the not-for-profit sector) — can be made without significant impacts on service delivery.
Surprisingly, well over a third of the redundancies are from the health department. The health portfolio is very sensitive politically and was a disaster area for the Bligh government — not only for the drawn-out payroll debacle, but also quality of service, most notoriously in the "Dr Death" saga in Bundaberg. Making such massive cuts in this area will make it much harder for the Newman government to blame their predecessors when waiting times continue and medical mishaps start to occur.
The Newman Government’s budget has all the hallmarks of short term savings being undertaken for long term cost. It appears that the fiscal bottom-line is where the government’s economic strategy starts and finishes — very short-sighted economic management, even before you start taking into account the loss of service capacity, institutional knowledge and on the ground experience.
In a very stark sign that base politics is winning out over common sense, the LNP has made it very clear that any organisation receiving a majority of their funding from the government is not to undertake any form of advocacy. Putting the crude attempts at censorship to one side, the real impact of such pettiness is that the government (and the wider body politic) misses out on very valuable and rich information from the coalface about what things are working well and what things aren’t, what needs are present and what solutions might work.
It usually takes a while before new governments become so arrogant that they don’t want to hear any other views, but it seems the Campbell Newman’s crew not only have trouble with telling the truth, but can’t handle hearing the truth either.
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