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PM seems oblivious to political tsunami heading Labor’s way

16 July 2011 1,435 views No Comment

THE next federal election may be two years away but Julia Gillard is facing a political cancer that will see either the end of her prime ministership or the end of the federal Labor government.

Political history shows us that when a government is in trouble it needs to take decisive action or its days are numbered.

Too often political parties in trouble develop an inertia and inability to deal with its problems, which ensures its exit from the government benches, usually for more than one term. Where there are internal divisions or leadership tensions this problem becomes more acute.

Except for the Prime Minister’s factional supporters, it is becoming clear to most Australians that the Gillard government’s electoral position will not improve unless she takes such decisive action.

Now that Gillard is publicly lobbying for the carbon tax (which may see her position deteriorate even further), she also urgently needs to deal with the political crisis in her government.

Queensland in particular has become a basket case for the ALP and the next federal election could be lost in that state alone. It is the ALP’s worst performing state. The Bligh state government is in huge political trouble and most likely will lose the next state election.

Deliberately or not, Kevin Rudd has turned Queenslanders against Gillard by playing for sympathy in his home state and, at least partly as a result, a state and federal political bloodbath is on the way.

Historically, when Queensland swings, the magnitude is of huge proportions. Think of Peter Beattie’s landslide victories in 2001, 2004 and 2006. Also think of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen landslide of 1974, which left Labor with only 11 seats in Queensland’s one-house parliament.

Bligh’s poor handling of the privatisation of Queensland Rail and the sale of other assets has divided the ALP in Queensland and left limping what was one of Australia’s best political machines.

Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman is performing well and seems to be heading for election victory, most likely in February or March next year. A Queensland defeat would mean that, since Gillard became Prime Minister, Labor would have lost its key three eastern state governments in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. Labor’s power is shrinking at an alarming rate, yet the ALP is still procrastinating.

To restore its fortunes, Labor needs to think outside the box.

This week I asked former premier Beattie whether he would be interested in a political role to help restore the Labor vote in Queensland.

He replied: “Australian politics is too painful to watch, let alone be part of it again”, which in a way begs the question.

The political reality is that Gillard (or her successor) needs parliamentarians such as Beattie, former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and former NSW premier Morris Iemma to restore the fortunes of federal Labor in those three states if the ALP is to have any chance of political survival. All three ex-premiers are well regarded and election winners: Beattie won four elections, Bracks three and Iemma one.

In the event that Beattie could be persuaded to return to parliamentary politics at a national level, he could make a real difference in Queensland to help overcome some of the damage caused by Rudd.

As Bligh may be about to discover, Queensland is not usually a Labor state. Following the momentous Fitzgerald inquiry, which revealed widespread corruption in Queensland, Labor leader Wayne Goss won in 1989 after 32 years of National-Liberal rule. Yet he lost office after only six years. Beattie retired after four elections leaving Bligh with a large seat buffer, budget in surplus, and the state with an AAA credit rating.

When Beattie retired, the party vote was at 50 per cent primary vote and 59 per cent two-party preferred. On that percentage, if there had been an election on the date of Beattie’s retirement, the government would have been returned with an increased majority.

Labor was further buoyed by a very favourable state electoral redistribution. It was in a position where a Labor-leaning drover’s dog could have won the 2009 Queensland election.

Beattie would never have allowed the health computer debacle of incorrect payment of wages to health workers to go on as long as it has and he would not have destroyed Labor’s regional vote by handling the QR sale so badly.

The independent electricity regulator, which has been recommending jacking up electricity prices, would have been reformed years ago and Bligh’s water pricing system would have been restructured two years ago to stop the price hikes.

Labor is facing grave problems in Queensland because Bligh is simply bad at politics and the Rudd and Gillard leadership issues are undermining the Labor vote.

If the Bligh government is defeated, it would be gone well before the next federal poll and there seems to be no election winner in or from Queensland willing or able to garner votes for federal Labor.

A political tsunami is heading to Labor in Queensland, yet in regard to this crucial matter Gillard gives the impression of sitting on the Titanic while sipping champagne.

Tony Abbott must be delighted at the present state of play. He also knows that if the independents changed their mind and allowed a Labor change of leadership back to Rudd, based on the past experience of his time in the Lodge his popularity would be short-lived at best. Rudd would again be his own worst enemy.

A quick look at Rudd’s last Newspoll figures at the time he lost the leadership indicate what Australians really think of him. Within three months of Rudd returning to the leadership, the polls would most likely produce similar results.

How the three other leadership contenders – Bill Shorten, Greg Combet or Stephen Smith – would fare is quite unknown.

Bligh and Beattie will be appearing separately at the Queensland Press Club in August and September.

Queensland journalists should surely ask Bligh in August why, for example, she has refused to sack Deputy Premier and former health minister Paul Lucas over the health wages debacle. And how does she explain the decline in Queensland’s credit ratings?

Beattie should be asked how he rates the Bligh government and if he still think handing over to Bligh was a good idea.

Would he have approved the electricity price hikes recommended by the independent regulator? Would he have approved the water structure put in place by the Bligh government and would he have allowed prices to increase in the way they did?

Perhaps most important, Beattie should be asked: are there any circumstances under which he could be persuaded to stand for federal politics and, if so, where? This should be one press club luncheon not to be missed.

Given the parlous state nationally of brand Labor, it is useful to be reminded that two previous Queensland premiers (and two political heroes of Beattie) successfully stood for federal seats in Sydney. These were the reformist Queensland premiers T.J. Ryan (1915-19) and E.G. Theodore (1919-25).

Ryan, who won the seat of West Sydney in 1919, was regarded as a likely federal Labor leader until he died prematurely in 1921 of side effects from the influenza pandemic.

After being elected for the seat of Dalley in a by-election in 1927, “Red Ted” Theodore became deputy leader of the ALP and federal treasurer until he was forced to stand down in 1930 over the Mungana Mines scandal.

Admittedly, Theodore’s reinstatement as treasurer by James Scullin in 1931 contributed significantly to the defection from the ALP of some ministers, including Joseph Lyons, who soon became leader of the opposition.

After a huge victory on December 19, 1931, Lyons became prime minister. Theodore lost his seat.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 34 books, including a two-volume history of Queensland, the co-authored Made in Queensland: A New History, and “Red Ted”: The Life of E.G. Theodore.

The Weekend Australian, July 16, 2011