Nine Months Of Sunny Budget Austerity


New Matilda was in suburban Brisbane this March, reporting on the last days of the Bligh government. It was a glum time for the Labor faithful, with the barbarians at the gates and the walls of power crumbling around them.

Labor held power in the Sunshine State for all but two years from 1989 to 2011. But the winds of change blow hard north of the Tweed, and voters turned against Anna Bligh and Labor in devastating numbers. Former Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman was swept to power with a crushing majority. The LNP experiment was vindicated. After two decades in the post-Bjelke-Petersen wilderness, a conservative state had finally returned a conservative state government.

Nine months on, the euphoria has faded. A brutal exercise in budget austerity has savaged the Queensland public service, leaving many government workers in search of a new job. The state's economy, buffeted by the rapid fiscal retrenchment, has slowed and may even have gone into reverse.

Despite the scale of the LNP victory, voters are quite skeptical of the new government's performance. Recent polling shows the party's support well down from its election levels. A late November ReachTel poll showed the LNP with a primary vote of 42 per cent, compared to Labor on 34 per cent, and the Greens and Katter Party on 9 per cent each. On those figures, Labor is competitive, if still well behind.

Campbell Newman's personal approval ratings are also negative, and the party is regarded as untrustworthy, with 57 per cent of respondents in a recent poll saying they thought the government had broken its promise that it would not cut front-line services. While the government can rightly claim that it has made tough early decisions, these are not comforting figures for a government less than a year old.

After so long in opposition, the LNP was clearly unprepared for office. The rush to clear out Labor sympathisers in the days after the election led to some obviously political appointments to senior posts in the Queensland public service — most notoriously, of former Liberal MP Michael Caltabiano to the post of Director-General of the Transport Department.

Caltabiano was never an appropriate choice to head a major government department, and he soon vindicated his critics by getting himself embroiled in an ethics scandal. The controversy concerned the appointment of Ben Gommers, the son of another LNP cabinet minister, Ros Bates, to a Transport Department position. Caltabiano, Bates and Gommers are former lobbyists connected to LNP-friendly lobbying firm Entree Vous.

Despite this, Caltabiano denied any professional connection with Gommers in comments to a Parliamentary committee — remarks that have led to a Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation. Caltabiano has had to stand down from his job.

As usual in Queensland politics, there have been plenty of other scandals to keep the journalists busy. Housing Minister Bruce Flegg was forced to resign from cabinet over his own undeclared meeting with a son (who is also a lobbyist). It emerged Flegg was also moonlighting in his former job as a doctor, fitting in some consultations at a Burpengary medical centre around his ministerial responsibilities.

As a result of the tough budgets, the ethics scandals and the general difficulty of keeping dozens of bored and inexperienced backbenchers in line, the cracks in the hastily-constructed Liberal-National coalition are beginning to show. Campbell Newman's government has been leaking defectors in recent months, with several back-benchers leaving the party to sit on the cross benches. One of them, veteran Member for Condamine Ray Hopper, left to join the Katter Party. Another, Yeerongpilly MP Carl Judge, has even filmed anti-LNP political advertisements, paid for by maverick billionaire Clive Palmer.

Speaking of Palmer, he has himself left the LNP and continues to issue tantalising hints that he might fund his own party — or perhaps team up with Bob Katter. Many believe a Palmer-funded populist right-wing party would stand a good chance in many rural Queensland seats, particularly in the areas that showed strong support for Pauline Hanson in the late 1990s. Such a move would also put pressure on the incipient fractures between the National and Liberal wings of the LNP. On the other hand, like many of Palmer's hare-brained schemes, the talk of a new party could merely be bluster. No-one really knows.

The general disorder within the ranks of the LNP appears to have been exacerbated by the abrasive personal style of the Premier, Campbell Newman. Newman came to office as something of a white knight for the local party, which had struggled to find an electable leader that could appeal to middle-class Brisbane voters. Newman had previously won two elections as the mayor of Brisbane, a large local government with significant executive responsibilities, and history records that he waltzed to victory on the back of an anti-Labor landslide.

But Newman has found higher responsibilities more difficult than most would have thought. His take-no-prisoners leadership style has repeatedly angered many in his party room, and there have been plenty of brain snaps to add weight to the long-standing Labor criticism that he has something of a glass jaw. Newman has spent a lot of time publicly attacking opponents inside his own party, something that smart premiers would do better to avoid.

As the ever-perceptive Brisbane commentator Mark Bahnisch pointed out in a recent article, "the Premier's adjustment to the more complex and adversarial forum of state politics has driven a perception he is hyper-political; a persona very different from his almost apolitical action-oriented image as Brisbane mayor."

Politics in Queensland is always entertaining. Just when you think things might be returning to something approaching sanity, a new and strange issue rears its head. At COAG last week, for instance, Campbell Newman picked a fight over the deeply irrelevant issue of passing a national law over the royal succession. Female primogeniture is not normally an issue you'd expect state politicians to be worrying over, but then again, quixotic issues seem to thrive in the deep north — such as LNP backbencher Jason Woodforth's muscular campaign against water fluoridation. Woodforth, a former bodybuilder, has gathered a backbench petition on the chemical additive, which he calls a "brain-altering poison".

In his recent article, Bahnisch argued that the problems dividing the LNP in Queensland are not just local, but structural. "Inexperienced ministers, the belief of some old Nats that the government is city-dominated (despite the fact Newman looks less and less urbane to Brisbanites), the resurgence of agrarian socialism in the bush  —  all this and more tends to divide the right," he pointed out.

The upshot is that Queensland politics will remain interesting for some time to come. The next election could well the LNP fighting a two-front war against Labor in the Brisbane suburbs, and the Katter Party out in the bush. Throw in some significant factional tensions between old-style Nationals within the LNP, and the various groupings of the Queensland Liberals (such as the Santo Santoro faction), and there is every potential for sustained LNP infighting.

Of course, given the size of his Parliamentary majority, Newman should have little difficulty seeing off the ALP and retaining government. Holding his own party together might be a tougher challenge. With more than two years left in this term of office, the rollercoaster ride of LNP government has only just begun.

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