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Speech to the Queensland Nationals

30 May 2008 3,192 views No Comment

PAST PRESENT FUTURE: THE NEED FOR A UNITED CONSERVATIVE FORCE IN QUEENSLAND
SPEECH TO THE QUEENSLAND NATIONALS
PRESIDENT’S CLUB, Stamford Plaza Hotel, Brisbane.
FRIDAY 30 MAY, 2008, 6.30 – 7. 30pm

Many thanks for that kind introduction Michael. In fact, I am just finishing book number 30 , a history of alcohol in Australia, entitled A Nation Under the Influence.

Just before I hopped on the plane, my wife Lyndal reminded me of a scathing review of my work written by one of mine many enemies in Queensland. This devastating attack concluded, “Ross Fitzgerald is one of Australia’s most prolific, yet least read, authors.

The sad fact is that, in many ways, Lyndal agreed.

Yet we both hold a shy hope that our recent collection of original essays about ageing, Growing Old (Dis) Gracefully, and next year A Nation Under the Influence, also published by ABC Books, might buck the trend and be not only well-received, but actually widely read.

Just so we know where we are coming from, the title for my talk tonight is ‘PAST PRESENT FUTURE: THE NEED FOR A UNITED CONSERVATIVE FORCE IN QUEENSLAND.’

As Australia has, for the first time in many decades, a Queensland Labor politician as Prime Minister, plus another Queenslander as federal treasurer, it is timely to recall that Queensland boasted the world’s first Labor government, which was a direct result of squabbling and disunity among Queensland’s conservatives.

From December 1-7 1899, the world’s first Labor premier, Anderson Dawson fleetingly ruled the colony of Queensland.

Born ‘Andrew’ Dawson at Rockhampton on 16 July 1863, Dawson more than rivals Kevin Rudd for humble beginnings.

Orphaned at an early age, Dawson left primary school to work as a miner in Charters Towers when he was only 12. Ten years later, in 1885 Dawson went to the Kimberley gold rush in Western Australia, but had little success and returned to Queensland where he became active in the union movement and was elected first president of the Miners’ Union. In 1891 (during the great Pastoral Strike) he was chairman of the Charters Towers strike committee, and vice-president of the Queensland provincial council of the Australian Labour Federation. He then took up journalism and for a time was editor of the ‘Charters Towers Eagle’.

In 1893 Dawson was returned as a Labor candidate for the dual seat of Charters Towers in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, and retained his seat at the 1896 election and also in 1899 – by which time he was leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in Queensland.

In the 1890s, turmoil and division in the colony’s conservative ranks – similar to the situation, which in November 2007 helped Kevin Rudd into the nation’s top job ,prompted Queensland’s Lieutenant Governor to call on Dawson as leader of the opposition to form a minority government on 1 December 1899.

Seven days later, when the House again sat, the swiftly reunited conservatives regrouped and they took the government of the colony of Queensland back from Labor.

Within a week of forming a minority government, Dawson and his ministry, which included future ALP Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, was defeated on the floor of the Lower House.

Dawson’s minority government only had control of Parliament for four hours, which may be something of a record. It wasn’t much but for Labor it was a start. How does the Paul Kelly song go? – ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’. Anderson Dawson’s brief flirtation with power had given the ALP a chance to have a quick look at previous Queensland colonial government files and dig up some dirt on the conservatives.

Although the Dawson Labor government lasted only a week, it was nonetheless a vital step forward in the long march of working men and women to improve their lot and is therefore an important moment both in the history of the labour movement and of Labor politics in Australia and the world.

Anderson Dawson himself went on to other milestones.

At the beginning of 1900, Dawson resigned his leadership of the Queensland Parliamentary Labor party on account of ill health.

Nevertheless at the first election for the Australian Senate in 1901 – the year of Australia federating to become one nation – he was returned at the head of the Queensland poll. As number 1 on the Labor ticket, Dawson was the first Senator ever elected for Queensland.

In April 1904, with the parliament of Australia based in Melbourne, he became a member of Australia’s first federal Labor Government led by J.C.

(Chris) Watson , this nation’s first Labor Prime Minister. Watson’s was also a minority Government, which lasted a little over three months.

Prime minister Watson appointed Dawson Minister for Defence, and despite the fact that he had a drinking problem, which was becoming increasingly noticeable, Dawson was quite an effective minister.

But he became increasingly unpredictable and by the mid 1900s Dawson had lost Labor Party support. Standing as an Independent, he lost his Senate seat at the federal election of December 1906. By this time, due to his escalating alcoholism, he was separated from his wife and children who remained in Melbourne when he returned to Brisbane.

There are some other poignant facts about the life and death of Anderson Dawson. Dawson never knew what happened to his father but at the age of 19, even though he had been christened Andrew, he adopted his father’s first name, Anderson, for life, as homage to him.

He never knew, but I was able to uncover, that the year Dawson was first elected to Queensland parliament in 1893, his father died insane in what was then called the Woogaroo Mental Asylum, which is near the outer-Brisbane suburbs of Goodna and Wacol. So his is a tragic story.

Even more so because like his father, Dawson was an alcoholic and, as is the nature of the illness of alcoholism, as he continued to drink, he got sicker and behaved in a more eccentric and outlandish fashion. When he was dropped from the Queensland ALP senate ticket in 1906, Dawson stood as an independent. Even though he lost the election, he caused three of his Queensland Labor mates, including one who had been a member of his December 1-7 1899 Cabinet, to lose also. So in Labor circles he was, and sometimes still is, regarded as a ‘rat’.

One of the interesting facts about Dawson’s minority government is the role played in late 1899 by Queensland’s lieutenant governor, Sir Samuel Griffith. As the governor, Lord Lamington, after whom the lamington cake was named, was away in London, Griffith, a former Liberal premier and Chief Justice of Queensland, was the acting governor of Queensland at the time.

If one looks, as I have, at the confidential dispatches of the Lieutenant governor to the British secretary of state for the colonies, Joseph Chamberlain – who invented the game of snooker and was the father of Neville the Appeaser Chamberlain – it becomes apparent that Griffith appointed the minority Labor government in December 1899 as a deliberate ploy to force the warring conservatives to get their act together.

The conservatives had been in power in Queensland for such a long time in the 1880s and 1890s that they were known as “the Continuous Government”.

As often happens with such governments, they eventually started to fracture.

One group, called the Liberal Remnants, broke off, as did another group of dissidents who also withdrew support, in large part because the then conservative Premier James Dickson had offered Queensland troops as military support for the British in the Boer War, the first colonial government to do so. And this was without Dickson even consulting the Queensland parliament.

As these dissidents and Liberal Remnants decided not to take Dickson on about a matter that would be embarrassing to the Empire, they waited a few more days and then they joined Labor to vote against the premier over what on the face of it might have seemed a minor railway bill. Even though the votes were actually 32 to 33 – Dickson snuck in with the aid of another Labor rat called Denny Kehoe, who originally hailed from Galway , premier Dickson regarded it as a vote of no confidence and he went to Griffith to surrender his premiership.

In his confidential dispatches to the British secretary of state for the colonies, Sir Samuel Griffith makes it abundantly clear that what he did was a deliberate political ploy. Griffith thought that if he appointed a minority Labor government the warring conservatives would be galvanized into getting their act together against what, in correspondence, he called the ‘socialistic Laborites’.

And that is precisely what happened. As soon as Dawson’s government was appointed, the conservatives thought, “goodness me, what have we done”, and they very quickly voted out Dawson and appointed Robert Philp as Queensland premier.

In fact, even though the December 1899 Dawson government lasted a week, they were actually only in power in parliament for four hours as I mentioned earlier. This was because Philp and his followers quickly bit the bullet and took over the reins of government.

Yet, in terms of Queensland’s political history, the fact is that the December 1899 minority Dawson government paved the way for Labor to rule in its own right. In Queensland, this led, with the

radical- reformist premiers T.J. Ryan and E.G. (‘Red Ted’) Theodore initially at the helm, to the ALP governing Queensland uninterrupted from

1915 until the Labor Split in 1957, with the exception of two years during the Great Depression.

As for Dawson, after playing a pivotal part in three Labor landmarks, his life rapidly fell apart and he died a lonely, desperate death from alcoholism and an alcohol-induced coronary in Brisbane in 1910.

For years, Dawson’s grave at Brisbane’s Toowong cemetery was unkempt and dilapidated – without any mention at all of Dawson’s remarkable achievements – until in 1999 a group of Labor and unionist supporters banded together to give the world’s first Labor premier a more fitting burial site.

When my book SEVEN DAYS TO REMEMBER: The World’s First Labor Government was published by the University of Queensland Press in 1999, the British Labor government of Tony Blair purchased 200 copies and a Labor backbencher from Manchester gave a speech in the House of Commons commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Labor government in the world.

In Queensland in December 1999, ALP premier Peter Beattie gave a passionate parliamentary address on the importance of Anderson Dawson, especially focusing on his premiership of the world’s first Labor government in 1899 ; on Dawson having been elected as Queensland’s first ever Senator in 1901; and on his ministerial role in Australia’s first federal Labor government in 1904. The Federal electoral division of Dawson is named after him.

Significantly, right from the beginning of Queensland as a separate colony in 1859 there has never been a demographic base for a strong Liberal party in the colony and later in the state.

The Liberals in Queensland, at least since Federation in 1901, have ALWAYS been the junior partner in conservative ranks.

For years, I have been arguing that the only hope that Queensland’s conservative forces have of defeating Labor in the twenty-first century is to form a single united party. I have also argued that your state National Party leader, Lawrence Springborg, who at age 21 was the youngest person to take a seat in Queensland Parliament, is far and away the most talented of the state’s conservative MPs.

First elected to the one-house Queensland Parliament in 1989, the member for Southern Downs was Queensland’s youngest cabinet minister when in 1998, aged 29, he became minister for natural resources in the government of Rob Borbidge.

Springborg is an urbane MP from the bush whom the city can readily like and relate to. Indeed, if he led a united conservative Queensland party, Lawrence Springborg could give ALP Premier Anna Bligh a real run for her money, especially if the State election is not held until next year. In part, this is because, with the conspicuous exception of Bligh herself, the Peter Beattie-less state ALP is conspicuously short on talent.

Yet even now some Queensland senators, worried about losing their positions, are putting self-interest first by opposing Springborg’s eminently sensible move.

Another obstacle, fortunately given less and less credence, is the furphy that, in the next Queensland state election due in September 2009, the state Liberals if they stand alone could win more seats than the Nationals.

Any Queensland Liberals who still think that, in the foreseeable future, they can win more state seats than the Nationals must have rocks in their heads.

For goodness sake, these dissent, stand-alone Queensland Liberals and some of their supporting apparatchiks need to be reminded that in this state the Liberals only have eight seats out of 89 in Queensland’s one-house parliament.

If Queensland does not soon have a Springborg-led united conservative party, a HUGE AND IN MY OPINION UTTERLY INSURMOUNTABLE PROBLEM facing conservatives in Queensland is the optional preferential system of voting that Beattie was able to exploit by a “Just vote 1” campaign.

Another perceived difficulty is the fact that Peter Beattie shrewdly froze the number of seats in Queensland’s one-house parliament at 89. I am aware that some commentators maintain that the current electoral redistribution means that two or three coalition seats may be lost to Labor. I must say that I remain unconvinced by this claim, which rests I would argue on an artificially inflated sense of support for Labor in Queensland, which resulted almost entirely from Opposition incompetence and division at the last Queensland state election.

In any case, somewhat balanced against this is the fact that Beattie is no longer leader of the ALP. This means that his brilliant tactic when faced with any major problem of constantly saying, “Sorry, very sorry, I will fix it” (as though the problem weren’t the making of his Labor governments) no longer applies. This quintessentially Beattie tactic is certainly not easily available to Ann Bligh who, despite her protestations to the contrary, may well call an early election some time this year.

Lawrence Springborg, who is only 40 years old, has learned a lot in the past few years in Opposition. In particular, he understands that disunity is death and that conservative forces in Queensland, and if possible in the nation as a whole, need to be swiftly welded together into one political party. As his previous championing of a single united conservative force in Queensland makes clear, he is unafraid to champion necessary but temporarily unpopular causes.

Lawrence has a number of other innovative ideas, not least of which is allowing conscience votes on a wide range of social issues and advocating the breath-testing of members of parliament. If it is good enough for the parliament to legislate for police officers, airplane pilots and train and bus drivers, why should not MPs be regularly and randomly tested for booze and other drugs?

Readers of THE AUSTRALIAN will know that I have long argued that the only hope the conservatives have of defeating the Labor government in Queensland is to form a single united party.

‘Reformist’ and ‘moderniser’ are not words usually associated with the leadership of the Queensland National Party- an organization that is often still stereotyped as representing the excesses of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen.

Yet in guiding the push to merge the state National and Liberal parties, Lawrence Springborg is proving himself to be a reformer and moderniser of non-Labor politics at a state, and with a bit of luck, at a national level as well.

Unlike the rest of Australia, as you well know, in Queensland the National Party remains the major partner in the Coalition by a ratio of two to one.

Commentators and citizens need to be reminded that the Liberals here hold a mere eight seats out of 89. Yet stubbornly, and against all the evidence, a number of Queensland Liberals keep running the line that they can gain more state seats than the Nationals.

This is absolute nonsense. As I mentioned earlier, the Queensland Liberals have never come close to ousting the Country/National Party as the major conservative party in this state. Indeed currently, Lawrence Springborg actually enjoys a greater level of support in metropolitan areas than that of any state Liberal member.

Once upon a time the Bjelke-Petersen Nationals reigned supreme in Queensland, sometimes in Coalition and sometimes not, with their grip on power seemingly entrenched. The Labor party at the time was confined to perpetual opposition; its leaders were old and tired and fighting long-standing internal battles. The infamous Queensland zonal electoral system helped keep Labor at bay, but Labor’s internal dysfunction was the root cause of its seemingly ceaseless electoral defeats.

During this period, in 1981, an ambitious union upstart called Peter Beattie became State Secretary of the ALP. As a result of federal intervention, entrenched factional warfare was gutted; the organisation reformed; and Beattie is now credited not just with his ten-year stint as Premier but also with reforming the Queensland Labor Party to ensure it was electable.

Today the shoe is on the other foot. Labor has governed Queensland for all but two of the last nineteen years, with the Nationals and Liberals seemingly trapped in perpetual opposition, often fighting outdated battles with each other instead of concentrating on a common foe. Moreover, as long as there remain two competing conservative parties, the electoral system is substantially askew in Labor’s favour.

Where once a voting system, heavily weighted in favour of Country and Far Western electorates, entrenched the Bjelke-Petersen government, now, an ‘optional preferential’ voting system allows Labor to win 66% of the seats on the back of just 47% of the vote.

Despite previous setbacks, Springborg has tenaciously pursued his aim to merge the non-Labor parties into a single conservative force. If successful, this will end the cold war between the Nationals and Liberals, at the same time as resolving seat disputes and policy differences, and preparing the groundwork to attract a better quality of candidates.

John Howard and Mark Vaile famously torpedoed Springborg’s last merger attempt. But, unlike then, the conservatives are in opposition federally and looking to the states to rebuild their tarnished and reduced electoral stocks.

Federal backing for a Queensland merger started to publicly materialize a fortnight ago when Brendan Nelson and Liberal President Alan Stockdale confirmed they had no objection to a merger in Queensland. Indeed the two went further, confirming they had been involved in, or kept abreast of, each and every development. Then this Monday it was revealed that both the federal Liberal and National Party Presidents had given their approval to the road map for unity that has resulted from months of negations between the State presidents of their respective parties – Gary Spence and Bruce McIver.

A refreshing change has followed for members of a Queensland Liberal Party, which had been widely, and justifiably, seen as factional and undemocratic.

Rank and file members now can vote themselves on whether or not to support a new merged and united conservative party.

One would think that by now the need for a single conservative party in Queensland would be a no-brainer. Yet there still remains some opposition within the ranks of the Coalition, in the main from dissident Liberals and from one or two Queensland Senators, who owe their positions to cliques and factional allegiances.

As I wrote in THE AUSTRALIAN on Wednesday, there is a chance that this weekend the Liberals may elect a new State President far from supportive of a united conservative party in this state. While the defeated former Queensland Liberal MHR and Howard Government Minister, Mal Brough, openly declared that he wanted the Queensland Presidency, to some observers it seemed that this move might have as much to do with relaunching his own political career as with fashioning a positive plan to resurrect conservative politics in Queensland.

Without detracting from Mr. Brough’s achievements, especially with regard to indigenous issues, from my perspective at least, it makes absolute sense for the new president of the Liberal National Party of Queensland to be someone known to be unambiguously committed to the merger; that is to say the current state Liberal president Garry Spence.

As I suggested on Wednesday, as Queensland Liberals gather for their annual convention they could do no better than embrace the words of their founder, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, who wrote: ‘We were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments; in no sense reactionary.

This coming weekend is critical for the Queensland Liberals. The only hope of defeating Labor in Queensland is for them to merge into a new, progressive, middle ground party. This would provide clear electoral momentum for conservative forces in Queensland. But if the state Liberals and the Nationals should continue to bicker and fight, there is virtually no chance of the ALP being defeated in Queensland for decades.

But in my opinion, it is crucial that, as well as maximizing urban and regional voters, the new conservative party should do as much as now can be achieved, and quickly, about protecting, for example, the dairying, the banana, and the sugar and wheat industries. With regard to the latter, given the exponentially escalating cost of fuel, I would strongly urge encouraging on a large scale, the use of new science and technology now available for organized ethanol production, as well as supporting the exploitation of Queensland’s huge shale oil deposits and in particular encouraging the swift activation of the Julia Creek Oil Shale Project.

I know that his name might not be warmly welcomed here tonight, but his active and persistent advocacy for primary industries is why, federally, the ex-National Party Independent Bob Katter keeps pulling in the votes in his vast north Queensland seat of Kennedy.

As it happens, one of my favourite quotes comes from Bob Katter senior who, until he joined the Country Party, was actually a member of the ALP – until the great Labor Split in Queensland which resulted in the conservatives coming to office in 1957 after decades of being in Opposition.

Katter senior used to recount the allegedly true story of him driving a battered old Ute, windows down, in the boondocks outside of Charters Towers, when an Aboriginal woman screamed out “PIG. As Bob Katter senior put his head out the window and angrily responded “BITCH, he drove smack bang into a wild boar!

True or not, the message of this story is clear , namely that, in politics, as in life, it’s easy to be misunderstood and to miss the blinding obvious.

The political obvious today is that a united conservative party in Queensland will be a force to be reckoned with.

Thank you for having me.