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Leader’s knockabout style should win votes

19 December 2009 3,009 views No Comment

TONY Abbott should not be underestimated. His direct approach to politics will have a powerful appeal to regional Australia. Abbott may have a Sydney seat in federal parliament but his greatest appeal may be outside NSW.

Too often much of Australia’s daily media coverage is Canberra-centric and political mood changes in states such as Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania are not likely to be detected in Canberra until a Newspoll or election result has highlighted them.

The reality is the new federal Opposition Leader’s direct, knockabout, open style will be well received in these states.

He will be aided in WA by his deputy Julie Bishop and a popular Liberal Premier, Colin Barnett, and in Queensland by an unpopular Labor Premier, Anna Bligh, who is facing a revolt within her own party.

Abbott clearly understands this, which is why one of his earliest regional visits took him to Queensland.

Queenslanders like their leaders to be strong, open characters who directly engage the electorate. The many electoral successes of strong personalities such as premiers Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Peter Beattie should be a key indicator to the Liberal campaign team of Abbott’s potential vote-winning power.

Beattie and Bjelke-Petersen were the most successful campaigners their parties fielded. Both produced landslide victories never seen before by their parties and unlikely to be seen again for some time.

Both are loved or hated depending on political bent.

This is the Abbott style. He will be at home in Queensland.

The battle on the election hustings in Queensland and WA between Kevin Rudd and Abbott will be the highlight of next year’s campaign. Queensland also offers Abbott an unexpected opportunity in Rudd’s home state on the issue of economic management. Economic credentials are always a key electoral issue.

In Queensland, the economic track record of the Bligh government is in tatters and will worsen as the federal poll approaches and the government’s privatisation plans are rolled out.

This will be used by Abbott to undermine the Labor brand and it will strike a strong chord in Queensland.

Under Bligh, Queensland has lost its AAA credit rating and the state budget will not be in surplus until 2015-16.

Both these things were unheard of in the Bjelke-Petersen or Beattie years.

Queenslanders are used to seeing their state as Australia’s economic leader and, with WA, the engine room of the nation. They don’t like Bligh using asset sales to fix the budget bottom line.

Queenslanders also believe the float of Queensland Railways is bad policy and not in the state’s interests. It will soon become apparent that the sale is being handled poorly. Based on history, the float will attract at least a 20 per cent reduction in value for QR compared with a trade sale.

The key question will be: if the state government is so determined to go through with this unpopular decision to sell the assets, why wouldn’t it seek to get the greatest financial returns?

With the state in financial difficulty for the first time anyone can remember, the float is the wrong option. The Bligh government will win no favours by going ahead with it.

Some shares bought by Queenslanders will soon be sold and Queenslanders believe they are being offered an opportunity to buy shares in an entity they already own anyway.

But that is not the only problem that Abbott will be able to exploit .

Eventually the trade unions opposed to the sale will ask why the government is selling both the coal freight business and the rail track now that the Australian economy is improving.

If only the coal freight business were sold and the track kept in public hands, there would be more competition in rail and hence more economic growth in Queensland.

As the global financial crisis recedes it will become harder for the Bligh government to argue it is selling QR only because of the world’s poor economic conditions.

There is also a big problem in packaging the track and the coal freight business in the one float. In effect, this is selling a monopoly. This must impair Queensland’s long-term regional development and in particular the mining and resources industry.

It is to be hoped the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will intervene and not allow this uncompetitive structure.

The big winners from the assets sales will be the bankers, who will do very well from their fees for the transaction.

The Queensland government is handling the sale ineptly and no one should underestimate Abbott’s willingness to take the gloves off to Bligh and her team and do some long-term damage to the Prime Minister and federal Labor’s economic credentials at the same time.

Rudd strongly supported Bligh to become the ALP national president for the 2010 federal election year, a decision he may live to regret. It will be very difficult to hide the unpopular Queensland Premier in this key battle state.

To make matters worse, the unions are agitating for a special ALP conference early in the new year to overturn the assets sale decision and there is speculation that there may be a leadership challenge to Bligh from parliamentary Speaker John Mickel.

The question for Rudd is whether he abandons his close friend Bligh and her unpopular government or tries to defend her performance and in consequence takes the political hit that will surely come with it.

Rudd saw the Goss government, in which he was a key player, lose office in Queensland so he knows how strongly Queensland can swing.

Bligh’s government is closer in style and decision making to the government of Wayne Goss than to that of Beattie.

So the warning signs are not good for Rudd in Queensland.

This is a fight Abbott will enjoy.

The Weekend Australian December 19-20, 2009