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Dec 10, 2012

From Can Do to can't hold it together: Newman's struggle

There's something in the water in Queensland politics. Here's the tale of how Campbell Newman, swept to power with a thumping majority, is now under pressure from inside and outside his party.

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It was almost a duty for politically engaged Queenslanders to explain and account for the Sunshine State’s peculiarities to Mexicans in Joh’s days. This imperative didn’t stop under Peter Beattie. I well remember sitting in the civilised surrounds of the bar of the Adelaide Festival Centre in 2001 telling a bunch of members of Adelaide University’s politics department Labor would win by a landslide in the wake of the Shepherdson inquiry into electoral fraud.

For a while, under Anna Bligh, it seemed we had joined Australian modernity, and apologies were no longer necessary. But while in Melbourne the week before last, I realised we’d gone back to the future.

I tried to unravel for southern friends the sorry tale of Liberal National Party machinations; colourful characters like Clive Palmer and his dinosaurs, Bob Katter’s belief that his party will soon form the official opposition, the public service head who tells Parliament he was never a lobbyist despite a business card that might have implied that, the loyalty oaths that Jeff Seeney was demanding backbenchers sign, and the preemptive motion from the party room requesting the party machine to re-endorse all sitting members.

It’s as if some submerged reactionary current resurfaced in the Brisbane floods, and peaked with the tide that swept away Bligh’s government and the Labor Party on March 24. Because the strange tale of how “Can Do” Campbell Newman and his inflated backbench went from epic triumph to “a vote in free fall” and the frenzied signs of imminent implosion in such a short time requires some explanation.

You have to look behind the headlines. Not that allegations by now former LNP MPs that Newman was set up to fail, that backbenchers are required to give a week’s notice to speak in the party room, and that some ministers and apparatchiks congratulated themselves on their tough-mindedness in dispensing with the services of so many thousands of public servants, are a good look for a fledgling government.

But go deeper and the structural undertow of Queensland politics reveals itself. Three factors are currently driving it.

The first is the state’s habit of producing lopsided majorities, often ascribed to a desire for strong leadership and the vagaries of the electoral system, but more properly viewed as an artefact of the lack of a strong class base for Labor (and Liberal) representation. In Queensland, because there are both few redoubts of the upper middle professional class on one hand and a manufacturing working class on the other, much more of the state’s sprawling electoral geography has always been up for grabs. The “strong leadership” hypothesis, though, can induce hubris.

We can see this in both the disdain for accountability to Parliament and the view of party management as being about keeping backbenchers in line. These factors, always present, have been accentuated by Newman’s personality and his experience as mayor — where he had more executive power than a premier, and where his election was independent of that of councillors. Combine this with Newman’s own continuing resentment of what he sees as the personality politics of Labor’s state campaign and “Can Do” disappears from view. As Courier-Mail journo Steve Wardill wrote on the weekend: “‘Can Do’ has more often been replaced with can’t do, won’t do and, sometimes, just plain old bugger you.”

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. Having tired of partisanship, voters have found a new government which seemingly spends much of its time lobbing bombs at perceived enemies and talking endlessly of its predecessor’s iniquities.

Secondly, managing the disparate interests inherent in conservative politics in such a large state is never easy — the priorities and ideologies of Brisbane professionals, the miners, farmers, low income regional voters, evangelical Christians, the property development and tourism industries, and more. The anti-Labor urge goes only too far, far enough to sweep away much of the ALP’s strength, but leaving a question mark over what positive program a right-wing government has.

“Without doing very much at all, the Labor Party is looking at around 30 seats today, so soon after its doom was pronounced.”

The destruction of much of the social programs the state provides — through the vehicle of spending and job cuts — leaves open the question of what state government is for. Is it to provide services, as the election slogan “better services” implies? Is it to create jobs, as the election slogan “more jobs” implies? Not according to member for Broadwater Verity Barton, who recently told Parliament job creation was not the government’s role. All sorts of weirdness fills the void — like this weekend’s crusade by Nudgee MP Jason Woodforth against fluoridation. More broadly, the government struggles to articulate a narrative beyond one dominated by Labor’s alleged failings.

Meanwhile, out there in the electorate where first-term MPs on tiny margins are forced to defend every misstep of their cabinet, the impact of unemployment is being felt, and the corollary to job cuts — failing services — can’t be far off.

So we come back to the difficulty of unifying conservative sentiment. Beattie knew he could always trump his opponents through a call to “just vote one”, because disunity between the Liberals and Nationals was compounded by all sorts of populist splinters — One Nation and conservative independents. The LNP had to hold itself together for two elections to overcome this dynamic, and reap the whirlwind of a tired long-term government whose privatisation push had cruelled its chances of holding its base.

Back in government at last, the potential for fractures increases. 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, and ironically the heavy hand of party discipline merely creates more defections.

Without doing very much at all, the Labor Party is looking at around 30 seats today, so soon after its doom was pronounced. Electoral incentives now abound for dissident MPs in marginal seats to jump — like Yeerongpilly member Carl Judge — before they are pushed.

As psephological blogger George Hasanakos rightly argues, we have a new electoral calculus where both Katter’s Australia Party and a potential Palmer Party (the United Australia Party) can attack different cohorts of LNP seats, as Labor’s chances of regaining its heartland and other urban electorates increases. It is certainly a long time until the next election, but it would be simplistic and wrong to write off the LNP’s first year as the growing pains of a new government. As its tide recedes, the structural factors leading to its disarray surface.

Whatever happens now has to happen on the basis of how the unintended effects of the landslide LNP win have already changed Queensland politics, not on a simple pendulum model. It very much looks like there’ll be some need to explain which way the Sunshine State’s troubled electoral waters are flowing.

Mark Bahnisch —

Mark Bahnisch

Brisbane-based political analyst and Centre for Policy Development fellow

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