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’09 could be Right’s big year

13 June 2008 8 views No Comment

TEN years ago today, the Queensland Nationals lost their last premier, Rob Borbidge.

Having defeated Wayne Goss, Borbidge seemed likely to return Queensland to long-term conservative rule. Yet just over two years later, his government fell to Labor’s new Opposition leader, Peter Beattie, for years left out in the cold by Goss.

Borbidge lost, not just because of a lacklustre governmental performance, an adverse reaction to a secret Nationals deal with the Queensland Police Union, and indecision over how to deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, but more importantly it was due to a brilliant election strategy worked out by Beattie, an experienced campaigner and ex-party secretary, and Mike Kaiser, a protege of Wayne Swan.

The election wasn’t just important for Queensland. The rise of One Nation, which gained 25 per cent of the vote, was the seminal political event of the decade and Queensland Labor’s successful strategy in response to it has been integral to the success of not just Beattie, Bob Carr and Morris Iemma, but of Kevin Rudd and Swan in Canberra.

The brains behind the strategy was Kaiser, the father of FuelWatch, community cabinets and a master of regional pork barrelling, who almost single-handedly engineered Morris Iema’s last improbable election victory in NSW and who is now chief of staff to Anna Bligh.

Federally, John Howard’s successful strategy for dealing with One Nation kept him in power for a decade, in the sense that it was because federal Labor was unable to win in Queensland that it was unable to win at all. This was until the advent of Rudd who took on board Beattie and Kaiser’s brightest ideas, including community cabinets and pork barrelling, to win much of the country and regional votes.

The key to Labor’s June 13, 1998 Queensland campaign was twofold. Kaiser was the first on the Labor side of politics to urge his party not to treat One Nation supporters like racist, gun-toting mugs. Many of them were citizens deeply anxious about the changing and uncertain world in which they found themselves. Reform fatigue after the Keating years and the pace of economic and social change made them a volatile constituency, which had to be understood, not maligned.

Second, Labor ran a campaign that capitalised on the Liberal Party’s unprincipled preference deal with Hanson. By appealing to Brisbane-based Liberals to reject their party’s deeply objectionable tactic and taking an uncompromising anti-One Nation stand, Beattie and Kaiser were able to compensate for the loss of six seats to One Nation on the fringes of Brisbane and regional centres, with the gain of six Liberal Party seats in Brisbane.

The result was knife-edged. The addition of a truly independent independent, the feisty MP for Nicklin, Peter Wellington, saw Beattie govern with the slimmest of margins for his first term. Wellington only sided with Labor after Beattie gave him commitments about accountability and engaging directly with citizens by means of community cabinet meetings held throughout Queensland once a month.

Having effectively appealed to the masses and undercut Hanson’s base, Beattie came to govern with the support of much the same constituency that kept Howard in office. The last close election that Queensland has experienced was in 1998. It was also a turning point for Queensland’s conservatives, who have been thrashed in the three state elections since. The question for both the Queensland Nationals and Liberals is whether they have learned from those experiences.

First, division is political death. While it is true that both Labor and the Nationals lost seats to One Nation in 1998, One Nation did much more long-term damage to Queensland’s conservatives who were divided as to whether to do deals with One Nation or fight them.

Beattie and Kaiser overruled the handful of desperate candidates in Labor’s ranks who wanted to do a deal with the conservative splinter party, which these days is utterly irrelevant. But if conservative forces in Queensland can form a united non-Labor party and agree on new leadership that develops sound policies, then 2009 could shape up as the first close state election in 11 years, with Queenslanders being given a real choice.

The talented Lawrence Springborg and new state Liberal president Mal Brough need to forge a winning partnership for party reform similar to the deal Denis Murphy and Beattie struck in reforming Labor in Queensland from its unwinnable position in the 1970s and early ’80s.

Murphy and Beattie brought in new party leadership, recruited better candidates, broadened the base of party support, developed meaningful policies, went to the business community and raised significant money and, perhaps above all, showed a new face for the Labor Party in Queensland.

If Springborg and Brough can do the same they will change the Queensland political landscape.