It wasn’t too long into the ABC coverage of the Queensland election on Saturday night that it became clear the Premier, Campbell Newman, had lost his seat of Ashgrove. It wasn’t too much later that it became clear that he had been on to something with his mantra that Ashgrove would go with government – though this was a coming to pass of his nightmare, ejected from his seat and Labor inching ever closer to forming government, a stunning reversal of the ALP disaster of 2012. For whatever reason, perhaps because no phone call came from the defeated Newman, Kate Jones, his predecessor and successor, didn’t appear on tv until quite late in the evening. In an emotional speech, a Labor legend in the making explained how her decision to contest again had been very personal – that it had been more about her real concerns about the quality of life her young children would enjoy and the urgings of everyday Ashgrove folk than any political ambition. Jones’ sincerity was palpable, and any cynics clearly don’t know, as do many in Brisbane Labor circles, how hard her decision to recontest had been. Jones pronounced a paean of praise to community, thanking her 500 something volunteers, articulating her vision of representing local values and needs, and promising to be worthy of the trust placed in her. This was emblematic of not just a grassroots campaign largely missed by the media, but of the need for the Labor party, flattened by its near demise in March 2012, to rebuild its links with communities and groups who were going to fight for their vision of a just state, no matter what the 7 MPs in the Parliamentary Labor Party did. That’s not to take anything away from the remarkable success of Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk, no doubt soon to be Queensland’s second woman Premier. It is to point to another story about how a government went to war with large numbers of its own citizens, and how they collectively said, “enough is enough”.
How did Campbell Newman get it so wrong? He wasn’t elected with much enthusiasm, perhaps, but, conversely, as I’ve argued in The Guardian, the former Brisbane Lord Mayor had reserves of experience and achievement to dwell on. Federal Liberal MP Jane Prentice, long a Council colleague of the defeated Premier, provided some insight on Saturday night. Newman, she suggested, was someone with a strong desire to serve, and a manager and engineer’s drive to put things right. The Premier had rarely faced serious opposition in Council, and had in fact co-existed relatively happily with a Labor majority in his first term, and worked closely with long term Labor Councillor David Hinchliffe as Deputy Mayor. In the realm of roads, rubbish bins and rates (not to mention tunnels), politics can be eclipsed by governance. Not so much when you’re running a state. Wayne Swan had what was obviously a very enjoyable time on the ABC election coverage batting the LNP’s tattered ideological balls for six all over the ground – and he was quite correct to say that Queenslanders despised privatisation, rejected austerity politics and a state seemingly uncaring about unemployment and their struggles, and were unfazed by horror stories about Labor “debt and deficit”. But more than this, and more than the combative personality and governing style I’ve targeted myself, any government that seems actively to alienate its citizens is on a hiding to electoral oblivion.
Overkill was a big part of the Newman years. The notorious VLAD laws (“Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment”), rushed through parliament after a shooting was followed in short order by a violent public brawl on the Gold Coast, threatened to strip electricians of their licences, imprisoned a female library worker for having a couple of beers at the pub with a couple of mates, and segued into the attack on the judiciary. Magistrates had a pesky habit of granting accused people bail, despite the imprecations and dire warnings uttered by the boy wonder of the Newman government, Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie. To his eternal credit, Independent MP for Nicklin, Peter Wellington, hammered the government on the excesses of this legislation up hill and down dale as the Labor Party equivocated. Suddenly, the newly appointed Chief Magistrate, Tim Carmody, took into his own hands all bail hearings by alleged bikies. Carmody was elevated in quick succession to the Chief Justiceship vacated by the respected Paul De Jersey, anointed Governor. Then a war broke out with the judiciary. Solicitor-General Walter Sobronoff QC resigned, and blasted the government and the Attorney-General in the press. Bleijie was accused of leaking a conversation he had with the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Margaret McMurdo, herself the occupier of a position once held by Tony Fitzgerald. All hell then broke loose, with Peter Davis, President of the Bar Association resigning in protest, and a very public boycott of Carmody’s ceremonial installation by his fellow Justices.
If this wasn’t bad enough for the government, the war on the doctors was being fought simultaneously. Queensland Health and its administration or rather maladministration had been a running sore for the Bligh government, contributing mightily to its downfall with revelations that a “fake Tahitian prince” had embezzled millions while billions were thrown at IBM to try to recover a payroll system that failed to pay people correctly or on time. However, the public trusted the hospital system to a degree that might surprise, given the scandals surrounding surgeon Jayant Patel, “Doctor Death”. Peter Beattie had concluded an agreement with the salaried doctors in 2005, raising wages and attracting talented doctors from other states and overseas, as well as retaining many Queensland trained medicos in the hospitals. Newman’s managerialism here combined with LNP ideology to make a toxic blend – an insistence that all doctors sign individual contracts and placing pennies before patients under the rule of Ian Maynard, Newman’s hand-picked Director-General, an associate from his Council days. As often as the Premier and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg could rant about “interstate union thugs” and demonise individual doctors under parliamentary privilege, the “Keep Our Doctors” campaign had a counter, the phenomenal energy that hospital doctors put themselves into contacting their fellow citizens. Unable to demonise bikies successfully, the Newman government was on the way to a hiding in seeking to paint judges and surgeons as agents of chaos or subversion. It was literally incredible, and the government paid heavy electoral prices in by-elections in Redcliffe and Stafford, the latter won by maxillofacial surgeon Dr Anthony Lynham for Labor.
The Stafford by-election was caused by the resignation of sacked Assistant Health Minister, Dr Chris Davis, himself a well-respected former President of the AMA. Davis had come close to openly siding against his own government at one of the doctors’ Pineapple Meetings, speaking courageously just after the tragic and untimely death of his daughter. But that was not the issue he chose to resign on – it was the government’s emasculation of the Crime and Misconduct Commission. The Newman government, displeased by the investigation into its handpicked CMC Acting Chair, Dr Ken Levy, had spectacularly sacked the entire Parliamentary Committee charged with the body’s supervision, chaired by long term independent Liz Cunningham. Opposition to further changes had been one issue behind Davis’ sacking by Newman, and the changes to electoral donation laws, effectively enabling the LNP to escape accountability for many, was the last straw for the MP. Having subsequently announced his intention to join the Labor party, Davis resurfaced during the 2015 campaign in a series of powerful print and television advertisements attacking his former party on integrity issues, in one of which he described the LNP leadership as “sociopaths”.
All this needs to be read in context with the continuing attack and devaluation of public servants and the very concept of serving the public. The irascible Premier, prone to hyperbole in his parliamentary performances, had early claimed that he was taking out his “pooper scooper” to “clean up Anna Bligh’s mess” – code, it seemed, for sacking public servants en masse. School nurses went by the wayside, patients were told to bring their own towels and pyjamas to hospitals, essential medical clinics scrapped, waiting lists wished away by the creation of a “waiting list to get onto the waiting list”. The great god of surplus gobbled up much that was good, offered up as a living sacrifice of people’s livelihoods and sense of security. And respected figures, including Tony Fitzgerald himself, trashed by the thuggish Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, were constantly berated, attacked and denigrated. The switch to “Operation Boring”, and the mindless recitation of the adjective “strong” could not wipe clear the slate, and the memories persisted up to election day. Queenslanders prided themselves on having banished the hungry ghosts of the state’s dark past, and as Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford observes, the desire to get off the Joh merry-go-round again was palpable.
We won’t know for a few days whether Labor will form government in its own right, or may need to rely on Peter Wellington and the two KAP MPs, Rob Katter and Shane Knuth, in parliamentary confidence votes. Many Queenslanders, despite the dire warnings from the Premier that a hung parliament would usher in chaos, may feel quite comfortable with a government that needs to justify its decisions rationally and publicly, something the LNP was never keen on. What is certain is that we will not see again anything like the wild ride that was the short few years of the Campbell Newman administration. Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has sounded the right notes early on, not rushing to claim victory, but hastening slowly in a gesture of respect for the verdict of the voters, and thus embodying the trust that Queenslanders have again placed in a Labor party that had so let them down by 2012. We need neither to diminish her achievement, an achievement that was truly one of a rebuilt party harnessing community action and activist energy, nor fall victim to easy explanations, true though they may be, about electors’ volatility. Yes, the electorate is volatile. That’s clear. But why? The answer from Queensland is a resounding one – voters will not stand idly by and watch their public space diminished by seemingly mad and hubristic antics and nor will they stand for a disdain and contempt for integrity and accountability. Strong too, should be the sense, that voter want not just minimal public services, but rather value the institutions and the professions and vocations that hold society together. There is such a thing as a society, and Queensland has just demonstrated that. If politics – and the political class – reverts to business and usual, then the oblivion that sucked in both Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman in less than three years beckons.