Bligh’s highs still won’t stem the tide against Labor
A MERE 2 1/2 months ago the Queensland Labor government was seen to be facing the political oblivion that looks certain to beset its counterpart in NSW.
This was until the January floods and Cyclone Yasi allowed Anna Bligh to show some political leadership for the first time. Her performance was impressive but it took more than three years for Bligh to act like a premier. And it remains to be seen whether her improved personal ratings, coupled with a revamped cabinet, will carry over into electoral support and save her government in the long term.
On March 21, the Bligh government will celebrate the second anniversary of its election in its own right following the hand-over of the premiership by Peter Beattie. While Bligh’s personal approval rating has dramatically improved, her government still trails the opposition in both the primary vote and on a two-party-preferred basis. On the latest figures her government would still be defeated.
It is likely that Prime Minister Julia Gillard will face hostile state governments in all but two states from early 2012. This would be a shot in the arm for Tony Abbott’s ambitions to become Australian prime minister and provide vital firepower for the federal Liberals and the Nationals.
The fate of the Queensland Labor government is unlikely to be as devastating as NSW Labor’s, but it’s too early to tell and will depend entirely on Bligh’s ability to continue the momentum after her positive flood performance, and recent cabinet reshuffle, which is perhaps why Bligh has said an early election would be “wrong”. This is code for the government needing more time to rebuild electoral support.
Prior to the floods Bligh’s poor performance had managed to drag the ALP primary vote below 30 per cent and she was facing a thrashing at the poll. The core problem for the ALP in Queensland is that, while there has certainly been a huge spike in support for the party as a result of the floods, Bligh’s ability to run a competent government is still in question.
That will be her real challenge and will become more obvious when, as is certain to occur, the media return to more objective reporting of Queensland politics: this will especially apply if the large-scale plans for reconstruction don’t proceed as promised.
Examples of recent state government incompetence are already many and varied. As Queensland was recovering from the crisis, the health department was demanding proof such as photos from flood-affected health workers before they could claim absent days; aspects of help to flood victims were means-tested; and there are suggestions that poor management of the Wivenhoe dam considerably worsened the flood damage to Brisbane.
Plus the fact that, for more than three years, the Labor government failed to build the promised cyclone shelters along the Queensland coast. If the government’s poor track record continues, then unfortunately for Queenslanders the rebuilding could become a serious problem.
Adding to the long-term difficulties for the Bligh government is the growing perception that, by a succession of enterprise-bargaining deals with its workforce, it has squandered the strong financial legacy it inherited from Labor and conservative governments alike. These deals have undermined the state’s budgetary position and made a significant contribution to putting the Queensland budget in the red.
This is one of the reasons Queensland lost its AAA credit rating and has fallen behind other states economically. While Bligh cleverly hid this incompetence behind a wall of asset sales by highlighting the virtues of privatisation, the state’s financial weakness will take years to repair.
Former premier Peter Beattie, who was so dominant a leader, may not admit it publicly but he must be privately shaking his head in disbelief at the current state of the Labor government. His strong fiscal and economic legacy has been squandered.
Before the floods, Queenslanders were waiting with sledgehammers to dismantle the state Labor government at the first opportunity. In nine months many voters may well revert to their previous position.
The Bligh revival may turn out to be the worst of all worlds for the ALP. It may have saved Bligh herself but prevented Labor from getting a new leader and a real fresh start, not just a reshuffle.
The Labor Party believes the Queensland government will get re-elected if Bligh can bleed the floods and cyclone for as much political gain as possible.
This is why Bligh has spent time governing from North Queensland and is being profiled in TV variety shows and by colour magazines, including Women’s Weekly. However, the absence from cabinet of the wily, Rockhampton-based Robert Schwarten can only make Bligh’s task more difficult.
Unfortunately for Bligh, her poor polling at the end of 2010 strongly reflected resentment by Queenslanders that she went to an early 2009 election without telling voters of her privatisation plans. The catastrophic floods may not wash away this loss of trust and if Bligh should call another early, opportunistic, Queensland election before it is due in June 2012 this would backfire on her badly.
Deputy Premier and former failed health minister Paul Lucas is widely regarded as one of the reasons for the government’s poor electoral standing after the health department’s (Queensland Health’s) new computer system was publicly shown to be incapable of paying Queensland’s health employees properly.
Public sympathy will always be with nurses and other health workers when they are up against government. This is certainly true when these crucial workers can’t even be paid correctly.
This expensive, drawn-out, administrative debacle should have seen Bligh sack Lucas but she has been too weak to overcome her long friendship with Lucas that started at the University of Queensland.
Bligh should have made Lucas accept responsibility for the mismanagement and removed him from the ministry. Instead, in her recent reshuffle he was moved to Attorney-General, Minister for Local Government and Special Minister of State.
The Liberal-National Party opposition believes it can win the next Queensland election on the health issue alone. Notwithstanding that there is now a new Health Minister — former education minister Geoff Wilson — the anger and disillusionment among health workers towards the Bligh government will not easily be forgotten.
Opposition Leader John Paul Langbroek has understandably slipped behind Bligh as preferred premier because he did not play politics on the floods. But together with experienced and extremely capable former opposition leader Lawrence Springborg and talented opposition treasury spokesman Tim Nicholls, the state LNP contains the nucleus of a credible alternative government.
February 17 was the tenth anniversary of Beattie’s landslide election in 2001 when the ALP won 66 of the one-house state parliament’s 89 seats.
There has been no acknowledgement of this by Bligh or Queensland Labor. The last thing Labor wants to do is remind the electorate of past victories. The Bligh government’s chance of re-election is almost totally dependent on playing flood politics and, to achieve this, there can be no distractions.
The Weekend Australian, March 12 -13, 2011.