Political veteran Barry Bananas surveys the theatre of war after a bruising Brisbane City Council campaign that promises plenty more stoushes before things settle down.
A political pedigree does not necessarily a make you politician, obviously. Bad enough for “can do” Campbell Newman that it looks like he can’t do in less than a few days, but worse, much worse, it looks like he doesn’t have a clue.

Newman’s driven energy worked for him in the Brisbane City Council campaign. He looked hungry for the job and keen to get into it. Now he is being to look manic, at best. Or, a couple of soldiers short of a platoon as someone aware of his military background observed.

Newman has a disturbing habit of pushing out his chin, Chesty Bond style, but in politics that’s an invitation for someone to swing a punch, and the hits are coming thick and fast.

So far they are only coming from the Labor dominated council, but Newman had better soon realise that in this political dog fight he is not just out-numbered, he is surrounded.

To get his promised major projects like tunnels and roads build, Newman will need State Government assistance, and it’s hard to imagine the Beattie Government going out of its way to be helpful.

Even worse, if this skirmishing turns into all out war, not only does Labor have numerical superiority in council, it has got the heavy artillery – Beattie could sack Newman even if he had to change existing legislation to do it. Then again, this is highly unlikely, especially after the punishment Sydneysiders meted out to the Carr Government for sacking councils.

You have to ask whether Newman should be turning municipal politics in Australia’s largest local government into a poker game where both sides are holding strong hands. Newman appears to want a full-scale battle. From here it should be all about bluff and body language, making the most of your cards, but above all, not overplaying the hand you’ve been dealt and neither side got off to a good start on that score.

On Sunday night in a rush of blood Labor councillors made threats not to co-operate with Newman less than 24 hours after the polls closed. (Listen up comrades, the people have spoken and even though they said something different from either side of their mouth, rash talk of thwarting their will is unlikely to go down well.)

The threat was enough to goad Newman into overplaying his hand with the announcement on ABC radio next morning that “I am the boss” and that Labor had better stand to attention and salute.

Sorry Campbell, you may be the first among equals, but you ain’t the boss. In politics whoever has the numbers is boss and in the council chamber, that is not you.

Yelling at the recruits might work when you are Major Newman, when you don’t have the numbers, politics is a game of carrots and sticks, deals and negotiations, smooshing and cajoling, and generally doing whatever it takes to get your way. Barking orders only proves you don’t understand the game.

For Labor the aim is maximum embuggerance (a good old military term recently introduced to the public domain by another ex-Army Liberal Mal Brough), but that needs to be practiced behind closed doors, especially since it involves a lack of consent.

Labor seems to be learning that and is getting better at keeping up the appearance of trying to make this shotgun marriage work, while practicing embuggerance in private.

Inevitably whenever he is faced with failure for another of his dreams and schemes, Newman will scream “I’ve been embuggered” loud and often, but he needs to watch that one as well. Voters usually take the view that they have elected someone to do a job. If Newman can’t get the job done, the electors are likely to find someone who can.

And his refusal to take part in negotiations with Labor councillors over the make up of civic cabinet is bad politics and bad public relations. It makes Newman look arrogant, not prepared to get his hands dirty and unco-operative. Not good for someone who styled themselves as “can do”.

Meanwhile, there is similar fun and games being played out in Labor’s ranks as the bruvvers and the luvvies look around for some convenient scapegoat for the loss.

Naturally enough the media was an early contender. “The Courier-Mail, well it was so biased. And Steve Austin (ABC Morning Program), he is just a bully.”

In truth both outlets did a much better job of good old fashioned scrutiny and questioning than they did in the recent State campaign. And, thanks be to Tim, there was so much to question and scrutinise.

And just why were there so many documents floating around the public domain, especially to do with flood reports and dangerous dams. For a while there were rumours of a Labor rat out to do Quinn down.

Some were quick to point out that Jim Reeves, a contender for Quinn’s job when former mayor Jim Soorley retired, headed up the council’s Water Department. However in most minds Newman’s brother-in-law Seb Monsour outted himself as a more likely contender by storming into Reeves office as the victory celebration was underway, allegedly to “protect the public interest” by making sure documents weren’t shredded.

Certainly there was no shortage of erstwhile Labor colleagues hoping Quinn would fail, notably those who had supported barrister Marc Nolan for the position in the first place.

And Soorley railed in the press against the “low lying bottom feeders and assassins” who had done in Reeves, his choice as successor, and true enough there had been a nasty whispering campaign waged against him.

But this result proves yet again that oppositions don’t win, incumbent’s lose. Quinn was a dull plodder, his media crew should have their pay withheld for performance failure, and State Labor Secretary Cameron Milner ran a slow-moving, cumbersome campaign that did not adjust to changing circumstances and lacked a clear message as to why Quinn should be re-elected.

When the Liberals negative attack ads about Quinn’s lack of openness and accountability, Milner threatened legal action to have them withdrawn. It was a threat he couldn’t follow through on and that left the public thinking “they must be all right then”.

The real trouble with the ads though was that they had substance to back them up, especially when a Crime and Misconduct Commission report announced that the council did not have a Hansard record of proceedings and that many committees kept neither minutes nor an agenda.

By and large Milner trotted out the same style of ads (complete with similar jiggles) used in Beattie’s campaign. Different product, different market, same ads. Not smart Cameron. Combined with Quinn’s ponderous personal style, it made Labor look complacent, as if they just had to turn up to win.

So as the dust begins to settle, ponder this a moment. Of the three leading candidates for Brisbane Lord Mayor on Saturday, who would you rather be: Newman, Quinn or the Green’s Drew Hutton?

OK, so no-one wants to be Quinn, and Newman won, so it has to be him right? Maybe. But he is up to his neck in it right now, and potentially faces years of policy gridlock in city hall.

That leaves Hutton, even though lazy local hacks are fast turning a line about him being a record election losers (8 unsuccessful tilts from 8 starts) into a cliché.

Hutton picked up a record 10-plus percent of the vote with no campaign team, no money, no television ads, no billboards and workers at just 30 percent of polling booths.

For next to no cost, he has kept green issues on the agenda, he had both the major parties fighting to show how Green they were to pick up his preferences and he has raised his profile enormously for the coming Federal election when he will head the Green’s Senate team.

Ah, success, it’s like beauty don’t ya know, all in eye of the beholder.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW