The 44th Parliament of Australia has been busy of late: passing draconian national security legislation, debating the pros and cons of Islamic dress, and negotiating on many of the more controversial aspects of the Abbott government’s budget.
One of the more intriguing recent developments occurred in the Senate, where the Palmer United Party joined with Labor and the Greens to initiate a Parliamentary inquiry into the Queensland government.
The inquiry was kicked off by the PUP’s leader in the Senate, former Queensland rugby league star Glenn Lazarus, who succeeded in winning over ALP and Greens support.
The inquiry will be wide-ranging, to say the least. The laundry list of its duties runs to 15 clauses. As Hansard reveals, these include: looking into all the money the Commonwealth has paid to Queensland since 2012, the administration of Queensland’s courts and justice system, mining and development approvals, Queensland’s environmental record under federal biodiversity legislation, coal seam gas approvals, whether the state’s crackdown on motorcycle gangs contravenes international human rights law, and “any other matter the committee considers relevant”.
The Palmer United Party’s media release explains it in simpler prose, as an “inquiry into Campbell Newman”.
Why would the Palmer United Party want to inquire into the activities of the elected Premier of Queensland?
Well, there’s no love lost between the two forthright Queenslanders, and, as usual with Palmer, his political and business interests are intimately entwined.
It was the decision by the Liberal-National government led by Newman to reject a mining proposal by Palmer that spawned the Palmer United Party in the first place. Originally a big financial backer of the party, Palmer fell out with Newman and Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney over his proposal for a coalmine in the Galilee Basin, and a coal port at Abbot Point (to be named Port Palmer).
According to Seeney, Palmer presented the Queensland government with a draft act of parliament that would give his company, Waratah Coal, “exclusive rights” to develop the Abbott Point coal port. Palmer denies this, and is suing Seeney for defamation to boot.
Palmer formed the party in part as a revenge tactic against Newman and the LNP. Now that it has secured three seats on the Senate cross benches, the PUP is using its balance of power to mount payback on Newman and Seeney.
With an election likely for March next year, the potential for political damage for the LNP government is considerable. The Senate inquiry can subpoena witnesses and compel the state government to provide documents.
There is some confusion about whether the Queensland government could fight the inquiry in the courts. Respected constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey thinks that a move to compel Queensland public servants to appear could well be struck down by a legal challenge
“It's something that's never been resolved,” Twomey told the ABC this week. “There's a big risk if you do it and you go to court, the risk is that you find out that your committees have far fewer powers than you had ever thought that they did.”
That seems unlikely to stop the Palmer United Party. This is the third time it has tried to set up an inquiry into the Newman government.
The first two times failed after Labor voted against it. The difference appears to be that previous inquiries included reference to the former Labor government of Anna Bligh; with the inquiry confined to the LNP and Campbell Newman, Labor signed on.
The Coalition has been angered by the move, claiming it is unconstitutional and unnecessary. "Why on earth would the Labor Party do a deal with Clive Palmer?” Queensland’s Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney asked this week.
Perhaps Seeney hasn’t been reading the newspapers: the Abbott government has been assiduous in setting up inquiries into the Rudd and Gillard administrations. Now Labor is enjoying some pay back of its own.
Whether this is good public policy is another matter. A broad-ranging inquiry into the actions of the Newman government would be best carried out by the parliament of Queensland. Given the pressing international and federal matters facing the Australian parliament, it could be argued that the federal Senate has bigger fish to fry.
But Queensland lacks an upper house or legislative chamber, having abolished its own house of review in the 1920s. And there is certainly much in Campbell Newman’s administration worth looking into.
Since being elected in 2012, the Newman government has embarked on a quixotic crusade against outlaw motorcycle gangs. While the bikies have been repressed, there’s been plenty of collateral damage to Queensland’s public sphere. Civil liberties such as freedom of association have been radically constrained; infamously, a librarian with no criminal record was charged under the new “VLAD” laws, simply for going to the pub with her motorcyclist boyfriend.
High-profile Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has also angered the legal community over a mishandled appointment of the state’s Chief Justice that many argue have eroded the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.
Last month, public rights to make objections to mining developments were controversially removed, in a late night amendment to the state’s mining laws. The amendment will remove the right for ordinary Queenslanders to object to mining leases and coal seam gas exploration.
Whether the Palmer United Party will be interested in delving too far into environmental regulations remains to be seen. The Greens certainly will be: Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters has told journalists that she is very keen to look into the environmental abuses of the Newman government.
As a result, hearings of the inquiry can be expected to run right through the Queensland election campaign.
That’s only going to make matters harder for Campbell Newman. Buffered by a huge majority, the LNP is expected to retain government next year, but Newman himself faces a tough fight to hold his own seat of Ashgrove. Labor’s popular former member for Ashgrove, Kate Jones, has recently announced she will re-contest the seat next year. A recent poll shows Newman well behind.
As ever in Queensland politics, it’s shaping up to be a colourful and unpredictable campaign, with the potential for further revelations about Palmer, Newman and Seeney to emerge. If they do, the Coalition only has itself to blame: it created the atmosphere of pay back in the first place.
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