For one of the most visible men in Australian politics right now, Campbell Newman is nowhere to be seen. At least not in Queensland parliament.
Journalists might sit in the state parliament’s press gallery just to get a glimpse of the man, but it’s a redundant exercise. Newman is not allowed downstairs, but he’s there in spirit — appropriate enough given that here in Queensland, things have been taking on a Biblical dimension lately. We started the year with floods and high winds (we’re just waiting for the locusts and to be rained down with blood now), and lo and behold: booming Old Testament vernacular has started to seep into state parliament too.
It started two weeks ago when Jeff Seeney — the Liberal-National Party’s folksy, re-elected pit-bull of an Opposition Leader — starting bellowing across the chamber in evangelical tones about the impending arrival of a mythic figure. “Campbell is coming!” he told Labor triumphantly. “Campbell is coming, and it frightens the life out of them!” Premier Anna Bligh dismissed that assessment, dryly describing Seeney as simply “the vessel through which the will of Campbell Newman will pass”.
Like I said: very biblical.
To recap: two weeks ago, Newman resigned as mayor of Brisbane — one of the largest local authorities in the southern hemisphere — to dedicate himself to the task of becoming the premier of Queensland. Only problem is — and you’d think this would be a big one — he’s not an elected member of state parliament. Not a problem at all, says the LNP. Newman will just lead the party — from outside parliament.
Even though the next election has yet to be announced, Newman is already campaigning around the state and working towards winning the seat of Ashgrove from sitting Labor MP Kate Jones (not guaranteed, but entirely possible). And if the LNP claims victory at the next election, Newman will become the first Australian premier to have not even served in state parliament. Ta-da.
So how is this new paradigm of state politics supposed to work? Is it working? On Tuesday, parliament sat under these new, deeply weird arrangements for the first time this week. Surveying the green-carpeted realm, you would have seen the LNP’s resigned leader John-Paul Langbroek and his former deputy Lawrence Springborg now in the backbenches. Jeff “Vessel” Seeney is now the LNP’s parliamentary leader and recognised by the parliament as Leader of the Opposition, even though Newman says Seeney is acting as his “general manager of operations”.
And though reporters and the public alike have been frothing over the prospect, Newman didn’t start off watching question time from the public gallery alongside visiting journalism and primary school students, as originally speculated. Instead, he watched proceedings from television monitors in the LNP offices, six floors up in the parliamentary annex, sort of like those bosses who watch their employees from security cameras, and calls unsuspecting workers when he sees them doing their job wrong.
In the first few hours, Newman would have watched Labor MP after MP happily dedicating themselves to the task of slamming him at every opportunity. Bligh proclaimed Newman had deserted Brisbane in a time of post-flood need, listing other Queensland mayors that had stuck by their towns post-natural disaster. Other Labor MPs mocked Newman’s need to step on “his tippy-toes” to view the parliament from the gallery (Andrew Fraser), sneeringly referred to the LNP’s “temporary shadow ministry” (Cameron Dick), described him as a coward who had “deserted his post” (Stephen Robertson), called him the “pretend leader of the opposition” (Craig Wallace) and played on his nickname of “Can Do Campbell”, replacing it with the slightly unimaginative “Can’t Do Campbell” (Phil Reeves).
You get the picture.
But what’s awkward is that Labor MPs are now essentially battling someone who isn’t there. He’s become the phantom menace of Queensland parliament, the unseen Sith Lord pulling the strings upstairs in the background who might be invisible on the ground, but whose presence is deeply felt below. When state parliament posed for its annual group photo yesterday, Campbell was absent, but probably on every single MPs mind.
Meanwhile, press gallery journalists are having fun. ABC state political reporter Chris O’Brien described it on radio as “the most fascinating political development in Queensland history”, and later wrote on ABC Online that “reporters have been jumping for joy, not in a partisan way, but in sheer delight at covering this fascinating story”. The Courier Mail’s Steven Wardill gleefully reported that Newman might have to get a part-time job if the election isn’t called soon, and how Newman later conceded he was a novice when it came to how state parliament actually worked. (“I do need to understand the differences between council and parliamentary procedure,” he said.)
But reporters have also had to do their homework to ensure they define Newman’s new role properly. He is not Opposition Leader. He can’t be, because he’s not a member of the Queensland parliament. He’s not the leader of the Queensland LNP either. Parliamentary speaker John Mickel said he can’t formally acknowledge Newman with that title. The ABC’s O’Brien had fun attempting to name Newman’s role (“external leader-in-waiting alternative premier election-team-chief”), though others have settled for “party’s leader outside of parliament” or “de facto LNP leader”.
Aware of the media waiting to pounce throughout Tuesday’s sitting — the first of the new order — Newman held a press conference at lunch, but wisely stayed away from the gallery until 9pm, where he sat and watched without much ceremony. The next morning, talking to Virginia Trioli on ABC News Breakfast, Newman described the situation as “a bit tricky and frustrating that you can’t be down there in the crucible, the engine”.
Yesterday, Newman held another midday media conference outside the front of Parliament House to discuss his tour to North Queensland, which starts today. Queensland’s regions are crucial to Newman. Everyone in Brisbane already knows his face; now the rest of Queensland needs to get familiar with him too. Still, journalists and the public are questioning whether this switch is about genuine, sound policy change, or about cynical personality politics.
They’re fair questions for any politician, but they especially apply to Newman because — and this can’t be emphasised enough — the LNP policy cupboard is literally bare. Audaciously, upon his arrival, Newman told the LNP party room “that all policies that have been previously announced are essentially null and void“. That was over a week ago. Even now, Newman is running a party without a policy to show.
At yesterday’s midday press conference, Channel Seven journalist Patrick Condren drilled Newman about when he planned to release actual policies while north:
Newman: “We’ll be releasing policies. I assure you that. I know you’re excited. I’m excited about the policies we’re going to release.”
Condren: “What policies?”
Newman: “Oh, lots of policies.”
Condren: “What are they?”
Newman: “The things that affect Queenslanders.”
Condren: “What are the policies?”
Newman: “Dealing with the cost of living. Dealing with rural and regional areas of Queensland.”
Outsiders to Queensland politics might be wondering why any of this seemed like a good idea. Three words: The Bligh Bounce. The premier’s management of the Queensland floods and cyclone Yasi — and an Australian Women’s Weekly cover that put her face on every newsagency A-stand in the country — provided Labor with the biggest upswing in the history of Newspoll. (We don’t even need to mention the Time magazine reader poll that currently has Anna Bligh beating Oprah and Justin Bieber.)
A damning Sunday Mail SMS poll in late March showed the LNP’s just-deposed leader Langbroek could only lead the party to 52-48, two-party preferred. Close, but not the 54% it needed to win. If Newman was leader, the figure spiked to 66%. Newman was also preferred leader at 48%; Langbroek scored a pitiful 15%. Switching to Newman was a no-brainer.
Newman has a solid chance of winning, but the process has not only been shocking, but messy. The Crime and Misconduct Commission has launched a probe into an allegation of political bribery, with Labor state secretary Anthony Chisholm alleging LNP MP (and, briefly, former leader) Bruce Flegg was offered the position of Queensland’s agent general in London in a future LNP government if he moved aside for the Brisbane mayor. We know that Flegg hasn’t stepped aside and Campbell will be trying to claim Ashgrove instead. Everyone — including Flegg and Newman — has either denied the allegations or claimed to have no knowledge of such conversations.
At the same time, Newman has now become a guiding light within the LNP. At lunch yesterday, Newman was in the parliamentary canteen, chatting with Seeney and someone else: Scenic Rim Mayor John Brent. On Tuesday, Brent also announced he was also quitting as mayor to stand for a state seat, apparently inspired by Newman. There are rumours Brent will be offered the deputy premiership if there’s an LNP-Newman victory.
Newman mightn’t actually be the second coming of Christ or a Sith Lord (as far as we know), but he might just be the start of a very strange political trend.
For Newman, there is also the grim possibility that he doesn’t win the seat of Ashgrove. If that happens, he’ll be unemployed — even more than now. But Brisbane also knows he is a formidable, muscular and sleek political performer. He may come from local government, but after John Howard’s defeat at the 2007 election, Newman remained the highest-ranking Liberal leader in Australian politics.
Either way, you have to wonder, will Can-Do make a federal tilt if he fails at George Street? Don’t laugh — he’s surrounded by people who live and breathe federal politics. Newman’s parents were federal ministers (Jocelyn Newman and the late Kevin Newman), and there’s also Newman’s media adviser Kylie Jacobson, who he brought over from his mayoral office and is now helping him become premier. Jacobson’s previous employer? John Howard.