In Queensland we pride ourselves on being different.
The Australian States
Compared with Queensland’s southern sisters, this huge state that makes up the entire north-east of the Australian continent has a reputation for extremes.
It’s partly deserved. Queensland’s weather is wilder, our red-necks have redder necks, our greenery is more lush and verdant, beer-guts seem to bulge out further – and the stench of political corruption, when encountered, has a richer, more tropical odour.
Yet Queensland has actually shown remarkable political stability over long periods of time, with only a few big mood swings in the political landscape since Federation. For decades around the middle of the 20th Century Labor ruled the roost. Then power shifted to the right, especially the National Party. By the 1980s it seemed the era of populist National Party leader Bjelke-Petersen would never end. But end it did – and in 1989 Queenslanders were ready to vote the Australian Labor Party back into power with a big majority. With only a brief hiccup in the mid-1990s, Labor has held government ever since.
The right-wing of Queensland politics has always been a multi-party phenomenon and disunity among the ALP’s conservative opponents has been a factor that’s helped Labor retain government. On the left, only two significant parties vied for votes since the 1990s: the ALP and The Greens. The latter have yet to make a breakthrough and win a seat in Parliament, while Labor has often benefited from Greens preferences under the State’s “optional preferential system”. At the last election, which was fairly close, Green preferences were crucial to the re-election of Anna Bligh’s Labor Government.
Now – less than three days before the State election on March 24th, – it seems Queensland is about to undergo one of its rare seismic mood swings. Unless all the polls are way off, there’s about to be a change of Government. The Liberal National Party – a relatively new amalgam, so far limited to Queensland, formed by the merger of what were previously separate Liberal and National parties, is set to win in a landslide. On some polls, Labor’s team in Parliament may be reduced to fewer than football team size. Queenslanders, it seems, have had enough of the ALP.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh; her leadership during the 2011 Flood Crisis was widely recognized as outstanding
Interestingly, while Labor’s vote base has hit rock bottom, polls indicate the Greens share of the vote is also down. What’s happening is more dramatic than a loss of faith in one party and its leader. If the polls are correct, there’s a broader loss of electoral support for what may loosely be called the “progressive” side of politics.
Does this reflect real attitudinal changes among the mass of voters?
I rather doubt that. I think the values of Queenslanders – taken as one huge, diverse whole – have changed much less than the dramatic poll shift would suggest. That’s social research I’d like to see done. Perhaps when the electoral dust has settled, someone may try to assess any deeper changes in underlying values.
Right now, the only story in town is polls, polls, polls – all of them shocking for Labor state-wide – along with a general sentiment that “Labor has Failed” which merges seamlessly with the “Time for a Change” meme.
The result is akin to an infectious itch for voting Labor out. Nothing seems to alleviate the itch. On Saturday, Queenslanders go to the polls where they can have a good scratch.
I’m utterly out of sympathy with The Big Scratch.
On Saturday, I shall vote Green 1 (swallowing my contempt for the national Green Party’s pro-imperialist foreign policies). Then I shall vote Labor 2.
For the first time in many elections – I won’t assist at electron stations by handing out Greens “How to Vote” cards, because I cannot bring myself on this occasion to hand out HTVs that don’t recommend a second preference vote to Labor.
Now I’m someone who’s been needling for “change” for years, dissatisfied with state government policies that seem to me grossly unsustainable in the long-term. Yet I’m not keen at all about this massive wave for “Change”. Why not?
For one thing, I appreciate the social, health and educational services provided by the State. I’d like them expanded, not reduced. Labor has done a reasonable job in these basic areas of government service. I think we live in a fairly civilised State in which help is given to the poor, the needy and the unwell. I like it that way. Other levels of government are involved too – especially the Commonwealth – but Queensland has, I think, been run with attention to social justice.
A unique double act visiting Cairns: LNP Leader-in-waiting Campbell Newman (right) with "Interim" Parliamentary Leader Jeff Seeney
Yet even in those policy areas the electorate is in negative mood. There are the usual complaints – too few hospital beds, hospital waiting lists that annoy. What’s missing, it seems to me, is a positive accounting for the real achievements. These are many and usually go unrecorded and un-trumpeted.
I have a personal tale to tell. A few years ago, I contracted an unusual tropical disease and got very sick indeed. I relied on the public health system. It wasn’t perfect; diagnosis was a little slow and I ended up in hospital under intensive care. From that moment I have nothing but the highest praise for the treatment I received, the wonderful multi-ethnic staff who cared for me – and for the governance that made it all possible so I could walk out of hospital soon after, healthy again and without incurring a massive debt for the first class treatment I’d received.
My survival made no news headlines. It was a headline in my life – but if the newspapers, TV channels and radio shock jocks were talking about health-care at all at the time, they were grizzling about alleged malpractice in a handful of hospitals, waiting lists or other negative stories.
To some extent this is simply the media doing its job. One person’s good news isn’t “newsworthy”; rorts and shortcomings do need exposure. But there’s probably a deeper impact on public consciousness. The populace is encouraged to think negatively about the services it does get from government – services that are often of high quality despite budget constraints. This negativity makes it easier for such benefits to be taken away. That, I fear, may be coming soon…
As an environmentalist, the current Queensland government (along with its predecessors) has disappointed me in a number of policy areas. I could list them. It would be quite a long list.
Yet recent Labor governments have shown real concern for environmental protection. Legislation to protect the State’s remaining Wild Rivers has been a superb initiative – vilified by the mining lobby and its allies and probably about to be undone by an LNP government – but nonetheless a great effort to help save some of what’s left that makes Queensland unique. The National Parks estate has been expanded. Broad-scale native forest logging – an issue that still divides Australians in other states – has been phased out.
Environmentalists’ biggest beef with the Labor Government has been in energy production, notably Coal Seam Gas and most crucial of all to those concerned about climate change, the massive coal export projects that the government has been approving up and down the east coast.
Queensland coal exports: the modern opium trade - making the whole planet sick?
These projects are turning Queensland into something akin to the Saudi Arabia of Coal – at a time when scientists concerned about global warming say we must wind down our use of fossil fuels. It makes the pretence of a climate-wise “smart state” farcical.
Yet this “mining boom” has been what’s pumped much of the recent prosperity into the State. Labor supports it and so do all the parties of the right. The Greens stands alone in their opposition to Big Coal. Most people are persuaded that the mining boom is, on the whole, a good thing. Aster all, it helps pay for the services they like and the infrastructure they want built. No other feasible and better alternative has been sold to the public, so public support isn’t surprising.
I’m on the Greens side in that debate. But I understand why most people are not. Those of us who want a different, greener future for the State have yet to develop an alternative economic program which could deliver prosperity without these vast resource projects. The Greens’ answer to increasing government revenue is largely to increase the imposts on the mining industry. I think that’s a good idea too – the mining industry should pay a lot more of its windfall profits to the community. But this is not a policy for avoiding the big projects Greens find so offensive.
At this election, Green Party anger is being expressed most tangibly in a decision not to recommend a second preference to Labor in all but one of the seats. Individual voters are encouraged to make up their own minds on preferences. It’s a rap over the knuckles for the ALP; in earlier elections there was typically more effort to help Labor get across the line. But most Greens think Labor is about to get thrashed anyway.
My fear is that significant gains environmentalists have won in Queensland in recent decades are about to be wiped out – while there will be no change or things will get worse in those policy areas where environmentalists were already at odds with the Government.
In short, I fear Queensland is about to jump from the environmental frying pan into the fire.
The State-wide wave of negativity, directed against the government, has been combined with an almost complete failure to scrutinise the LNP team. We know very little about most of the LNP candidates. Mostly they’ve been keeping their heads down and trying to stay out of trouble.
Yes, there has been scrutiny of leader Campbell Newman’s business dealings. Last week he came under a lot of pressure from the media and seemed to be fumbling. But when the Crimes and Misconduct Commission announced it wouldn’t investigate Campbell Newman further at the end of last week, the LNP declared victory. Since then it’s been successful in spinning an impression that Labor ran a dirty campaign throughout, peddling utterly baseless smears. That’s cited as one of the reasons given for Labor’s lack of success in the polls.
To me, whether or not Campbell Newman is corrupt is in some ways a lesser issue than what we already know to be true.
We know the LNP is still withholding its costings three days out from the election (they’ve finally been promised for Thursday – less than 48 hours before polling day!).
We know the LNP has been debate-shy. That seems to be a pattern throughout Queensland and it’s not surprising, either. On the rare occasions the two leaders have squared off, Anna Bligh dominated. She’s a much more substantial politician and a more competent debater. It shows. I suspect the same if often true at local level; it is in my own area.
Brandishing its corny “CanDo” slogan, the LNP has indicated a recklessness about due process that’s deeply alarming. Asked about environmental impact assessment in relation to his proposal to dredge Trinity Inlet in Cairns, Campbell Newman breezily responded “where there is a will, there is a way!” That’s very true, Mr Newman. But what about the Great Barrier Reef? Mr Newman made similar remarks about another proposal to dredge Broadwater on the Gold Coast, so it’s not an aberration.
A lot of LNP candidates fail to impress after a modicum of scrutiny. Mark Boothman is a classic example. Campbell Newman’s defense of Boothman – while he continues to court religious conservatives – is rank opportunism.
There’s no break on a Party with a Parliamentary majority in Queensland – except for the courts and the Federal Government in well-defined policy areas where it has leverage. There’s no Queensland Upper Chamber. If a Government with a solid majority wants to make big changes, there’s not much to stop it.
If these wretched polls are right, evidence-based policy is about to take a back seat to Crash-Through populism.
I, for one, would much prefer this doesn’t happen.
Not in my back yard…
No article about this election from Far North Queensland would be complete without at least a mention of the LNP’s delightful candidate for Cairns, the ex-NewsCorp personality-hack Gavin King.
Some of Gavin’s more choice remarks have already made national news, but the pithy video displayed below, complied by the local ALP, is worth a look.
It turns out Gavin has a bad word to say about almost everyone. In that sense, he’s perfectly in tune with the current mood of the electorate. No matter Gavin King pours scorn on them too – and even on his own new Party. He’s a petulant man – the man of the moment!
Very high tides have a way of bringing up a range of unusual life-forms and dumping them at high water mark. If Labor loses Cairns for the first time in a century, we’ll know it really is a King Tide.