Peter Beattie was a cunning political survivor who cut his teeth in the Bjelke-Peterson era of semi-democracy and rose through the ranks of the centrist ALP Unity faction as a tough campaigner and political operative. His legacy will be a newly confident Queensland that threw off its “deep north” image in favour of a dynamic and increasingly sophisticated sunbelt economy – but one which is beginning to struggle with growth pains.
Beattie’s media performance tended to grate on southern observers but Queenslanders loved it, and unlike many politicians he was a master at taking responsibility for crises and problem policy areas, saying “Ill fix it,” and spinning the issue his Government’s way.
On policy, his record is mixed. Like the Carr government in NSW, his chief day-today responsibility was media management, and many policy areas languished on the back-burner for want to the Premier’s attention. Inheriting a centralised government structure from the Goss years, he continued to invest more power in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The Smart State was his most substantive policy initiative, and has delivered a significant broadening of Queensland’s historically narrow economic base into industries like game design, niche manufacturing and bioscience. But voters didn’t particularly like it, spurning their new “Queensland – The Smart State” license plates in favour of the classic green “Sunshine State” plates.
Economically, Queensland has prospered like never before under Beattie. When he announced his policy in 1998 to bring unemployment under 5%, he was given little chance. But mining, construction and property have powered a super-charged state economy that is still substantially cheaper to operate in than southern states. The State’s finances are sound, with little debt and an immense south-east Queensland infrastructure roll-out already working its way through the economy. However, as with Western Australia, the very growth that has pushed Queensland’s unemployment rate below 4% is causing significant problems, as the state’s antiquated infrastructure struggles to keep up with massive population growth in the south-east corner.
On the environment, perhaps his greatest achievement was to ban land-clearing in the state, a decision which is almost single-handedly responsible for Australia (just about) meeting its (generous) Kyoto target. Health on the other hand was a disaster. Queensland Health remains a feudal, almost socialist bureaucracy that relies on a workforce of foreign doctors and specialists to deliver care. In this context, a scandal like the one involving Dr Jayant Patel (“Dr Death”) was an adverse event waiting to happen.
Beattie also ignored Queensland’s water crisis until it was almost too late, essentially praying for rain. The resultant policy on the run was typical of his government, as the state’s new-found wealth was thrown at the problem in a series of big infrastructure projects which may or may not work.
In social policy, Beattie was more liberal than he appeared. He was an expert at playing the card of Queensland parochialism, building a giant new stadium at Lang Park while liberalising Queensland’s gay sex, liquor licensing and prostitution laws quietly in the background.
Ultimately, Beattie’s premiership will be looked back upon as a series of crises interspersed with massive election victories. His ability to bounce back from problems that might have crippled other governments demonstrated his undoubted political skills – but also the generation-long weakness of the right-of-centre Queensland parties. With the Queensland liberals crippled by infighting and saddled wit a series of incompetent leaders, the ALP attracted whole suburbs of so-called “Beattie Liberals” who voted for John Howard federally but couldn’t bring themselves to support state Liberals like Dr Bruce Flegg.
Grooming a woman of the left, Anna Bligh, to be Queensland’s first female Premier was Beattie’s finaly high-risk strategy. So far, the immaculately presented Bligh has largely been shielded by Beattie from the glare of media attention. Now he leaves her with his controversial council amalgamations in mid-stream.
Bligh is not the sort of strong leader that traditionally has appealed so much in rural and regional Queensland, the most decentralised state. But as south-east Queensland swells with southern immigrants, Queensland is becoming less exceptional every day. Ironically, the greatest achievement of Peter Beattie may be the shedding of Queensland’s image as the Deep North.