Forget all that guff about some student politician becoming the senior governing Liberal in the land if Brisbane’s Mayor Campbell Newman loses his race for re-election on March 15. It’s nonsense anyway, and it’s moot to boot – “Can-Do Campbell” is sailing towards victory. Private party polling conducted late last year shows Newman with a near 60% primary, and insiders from each campaign camp don’t believe much has changed.

But that doesn’t mean the Brisbane City Council campaign lacks interest. With an integrated Council taking in most of the metropolitan area, a budget twice that of Tasmania’s, Councillors paid just less than State pollies, and a host of cutting edge urban issues at the fore, both the Labor and Liberal parties are playing for high stakes.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s “Minister for Everything”, Russ Hinze, pushed through legislative changes in 1982 which saw the direct election of the Mayor. Hinze failed to clear the way for the Nats to take over the city, but did see a succession of outsiders – most notably the Liberals’ Sallyanne Atkinson, Labor’s Jim Soorley and Newman himself – storm in from outside the ranks of Councillors to win the top job. Newman’s problem is that, while he beat Soorley’s lacklustre successor Tim Quinn by a narrow margin, the ALP still controls the Council, holding 17 of the 26 wards.

This uneasy exercise in cohabitation has seen the Libs take a minority of seats in Civic Cabinet, the Lord Mayor jealously guarding his budgetary powers, and Labor Deputy Mayor David Hinchliffe take on the American sounding title of “Majority Leader”.

Hinchliffe, however, hasn’t thrown his hat in the ring for the Mayoralty. This might suggest on one hand that Labor doesn’t like its chances much, or that an outsider candidate, former Queensland Bulls cricketer Greg Rowell, might be better placed to cut through the squabbling and blame gameing being played for a draw by the two sides. The polling suggests the former option is more likely and Rowell isn’t going to pull off a Soorley style upset. He certainly hasn’t cut through the partisan noise by offering an over-arching vision for the City, something Brisneylanders are quite partial to.

Although somewhat dour in presentation, Newman trades on his military and engineering past to present a “Can-Do” image. He’s got the perfect excuse, or justification, depending on your partisan allegiance, for not actually having done all that much with the accusation ready to hand that his grand plans have been frustrated by the Labor Councillors. So far, the campaign has been an unedifying contest where both sides try to claim credit for who has built, or who will build the most buses and the like. Newman has raised the temperature by intimating he might quit if voters don’t give him a Liberal majority, and his own candidates are playing down their party affiliation in favour of branding themselves as “Can-Do candidates”.

The most likely result is a status quo one, but internal party polling Crikey has seen suggests the contest in the wards is very tight, and will go down to the wire. Labor is in trouble from the Libs in three wards – Morningside (in Kevin Rudd’s federal electorate), Jamboree and Moorooka. Since there’s not a lot of daylight between the two major parties – with the ALP having eventually offered support for Newman’s major initiative, a tunnel under the Brisbane river – the Greens are set to be a wild card in the race.

Many inner city voters are sceptical of the road construction agenda, and of the closeness of both parties to developers. So the Greens are in with a real chance in the Liberal held ward of Toowong, and at least competitive in the West End Labor bailiwick of The Gabba. With many of the issues in play among the key ones now dominating the national agenda – water, infrastructure, climate change and transport – this will be a fascinating contest to watch.

Peter Fray

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