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Queensland crucial to Labor

28 March 2011 1,519 views No Comment

The Labor party was savaged in Queensland at the 2010 Federal election and, at the next federal election, Julia Gillard will struggle to win enough Queensland seats to retain government.

The volatile northern state has been a graveyard for Labor Prime Ministers over the years and 2013 is likely to be no different. Yet the ALP is doing nothing about it.

According to Newspoll, Tony Abbott’s support in Queensland is among the strongest of any state in the nation and this will be a problem for Labor if it allows the current political position to continue. After the demolition of Labor in NSW on Saturday, the ALP has to start thinking differently federally, or face a long stint in Opposition.

Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan represents the Queensland seat of Lilley but is not a vote winner for Labor in his home state or any other part of Australia. His public profile is adequate for a treasurer but not a positive for Labor.

Swan, a heavy Australian Workers’ Union factional player, often appears as a rather bland politician who from time to time puts his own interests ahead of the Government. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has significantly more support than Swan in Queensland, but Rudd is much more interested in strutting the world stage than working to ensure Labor wins the next federal election and to keep Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. In reality both Swan and Rudd are too busy to give Queensland the attention it deserves. They are also bitter enemies as Rudd, correctly, believes that Swan as the architect of the mining tax should have taken some responsibility for its incompetent implementation. Instead, he was promoted to deputy Prime Minister. That burns at Rudd every day and makes it virtually impossible for them to work together to improve the vote in Queensland. Also Rudd’s feeling of betrayal towards Gillard makes it realistically unlikely they can work together on the Queensland vote. In short, the Queensland federal campaign is in a mess and unlikely to be fixed any time soon.

Now that the LNP is getting its act together behind former Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, brand Labor has real problems which neither Rudd nor Swan can solve. Newman has caught the imagination of Queenslanders by running for the Labor-held seat of Ashgrove and obtaining the leadership of the party at large from outside the one-house Queensland Parliament.

By doing it the hard way, Newman might have assured himself of the ”Aussie battler” image, provided he has the support of the majority of the Parliamentary Liberal National Party and can neutralise ex-deputy LNP leader Lawrence Springborg’s attack on his credibility. Newman is a tough and effective political player with a long family Liberal history who (like Anna Bligh) performed brilliantly during the floods. One prime result of the audacious move of making Newman LPN leader in Queensland could be that what was thought to be the electoral advantage to Bligh of playing ”flood politics” at the forthcoming state election may have been in some way undermined. This could mean that the electors of Queensland may again concentrate on the many inefficiencies of Bligh’s state Labor Government, particularly in relation to health and to running the Queensland economy.

At this stage, Gillard may not realise the political threat that Newman could potentially pose to her Government. If he does succeed in beating Bligh, Newman will be in a powerful political position from which to help campaign against the Gillard Government. In such a scenario, Newman’s political effectiveness would leave Rudd and Swan in his shadow while Tony Abbott would have the Newman firepower backing his federal coalition team.

Despite her promise not to call an early election, it now seems highly likely that Premier Anna Bligh will very soon go to the polls in the hope that the election occurs before the Newman-led LNP gains momentum throughout the rest of Queensland. Yet if Bligh does call an election early, Queenslanders may well punish her for this and, as the campaign moves on, Bligh may well return to being the politician who before the floods had a popularity rating of only 30 per cent. If this or something like it were to occur, Bligh would be an electoral liability for federal Labor a number of whose national colleagues deeply regret making her federal president.

If the ALP is serious about winning the next federal election it must improve its electoral appeal in Queensland. The only way to do that is by trying to persuade one or two of its Queensland Labor heroes to run for a coalition-held seat at the next election or go into the Senate. These days, Labor is lacking ALP heroes. In Queensland there exist only three: former Premiers Peter Beattie and Wayne Goss and former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley. Goss turned 60 in February and would be 62 at the next Federal election. He has successfully pursued a business career after going through a serious health scare and is unlikely to be interested in returning to parliamentary politics. Soorley will also be 60 on April 8 but has not lost any of his fire. The hugely popular former premier Beattie is the youngest of the three having just turned 58.

It makes excellent sense for Beattie (and Soorley) to be co-opted into federal parliament using their talents to lift Labor’s vote. Both Beattie and Soorley won four elections as leaders. Indeed Beattie won the most ever seats in the Queensland Parliament for Labor – 66 seats out of 89. Gillard should persuade at least one of them out of retirement into either the Senate or marginal coalition seats. Labor’s Arch Bevis lost the seat of Brisbane to the LNP in 2010 after holding it for 20 years so it is a perfect seat for either Beattie or Soorley. Unfortunately for federal Labor, this move to co-opt Beattie and Soorley would meet fierce resistance from Swan and Rudd as neither would want to share the political limelight.

If Gillard can’t persuade Swan and Rudd to support these two Labor heroes in Queensland then maybe the weakened NSW party should in particular use Beattie, who was born in Sydney, to stand for a federal seat in NSW. If this occurred, it would be following the precedent of other extremely talented reformist Queensland premiers T. J. Ryan (1915-19) and E.G. (”Red Ted”) Theodore, who each successfully stood for a federal seat in Sydney.

Too often Labor politics is determined by personal hatreds rather than what is good for the ALP so there may well be severe resistance to a Beattie and Soorley move back into parliamentary politics. Their ages effectively rule them out of any leadership positions outside the ministry, so they will not be the political threats they once were. The real challenge for Labor will be to convince Beattie and Soorley to return to public life. That may be harder than getting the ALP to support them.

The ALP may well lose the next Federal election because of Queensland’s poor performance. If Gillard doesn’t start thinking about winning Queensland soon, then all her work on the carbon tax and mining tax will have been wasted.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 33 books, most recently My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey and the co-authored Alan (”The Red Fox”) Reid.
The Canberra Times, March 28, 2011

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