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Hopes sink fast in ALP ships

7 November 2011 616 views No Comment

THE first female premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, and the first female prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, share one thing in common; they are both politically doomed. The only difference is that Bligh will almost certainly be defeated at a Queensland election in March, while Gillard will be replaced before the next federal election.

For Bligh, the timing of Gillard’s replacement is crucial. While Gillard remains Prime Minister she is dragging down Labor’s state vote in Queensland by 5 to 7 per cent. Yet while Labor is travelling badly under Bligh’s leadership, the Gillard negativity factor would be the difference between Queensland Labor losing badly and being thrashed.

Queenslanders are waiting with baseball bats to take the first opportunity to vote out Labor. Even with Bob Katter’s renegade party in the mix, Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman would have to do something catastrophic before he could lose the Queensland election. Even so, Bligh must be praying for Queenslander Kevin Rudd to return to the prime ministership. A Rudd revival would at least improve Labor’s electoral fortunes in Queensland.

The Labor Party at a federal and state level has become largely dysfunctional, unable to deal with the near-terminal political crisis in which it finds itself. The problem for Gillard and Bligh is that no one is listening to them any more. They are both discredited in the eyes of the electorate. If she hasn’t been rolled before then, Gillard would be wise to take some time off for reflection over Christmas and the New Year, and then stand aside.

The recent shambles over Qantas and damaging cabinet leaks confirm that Gillard has lost respect and authority as leader. Once that happens it is only a matter of time before the leader falls. The leaks also confirm the factional divisions within cabinet and caucus are so strong that they are wrecking the Government.

Federal Labor has other problems. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has grown in stature and confidence since Rudd’s removal. He is now a much more formidable opponent than when he and Rudd last went head to head as leaders. Abbott is more than happy to be underestimated, knowing that an election win will be justification enough.

The Queensland election will be a turning point for state Labor. The party’s hard-fought gains, from the low of the 1974 election when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen reduced Labor members to a cricket team, could be wiped out in one election. If so, the long rebuilding years in the 1980s and ’90s will have to start all over again.

Bligh and Gillard were capable deputies but neither were up to the top job. As well as Rudd, Gillard has the highly capable Stephen Smith and Bill Shorten who can replace her. Bligh has no one. Her former deputy and political liability from the health payment fiasco, Paul Lucas, has announced his retirement at the election and the new deputy, Treasurer Andrew Fraser, has no public appeal or standing. The real challenge for Queensland Labor is who will be opposition leader after the state election if, as expected, Fraser loses his seat. Queensland Labor’s stocks are so low that the party is facing years in the wilderness.

Newman will also have his challenges – not just keeping the old internal tensions between the former Liberal and National parties in place, but reshaping government so it can deliver his election commitments.

Labor’s ”Dad’s Army” of director-generals and super departments simply hasn’t worked. The current departmental structure is wasting taxpayers’ money. Newman will need to put a clean broom through the director-generals and watch the leaks from Labor hacks and former ministerial staffers who have been taking up public service positions at a rapid rate as Labor’s pending loss becomes increasingly obvious. These moves have made Queensland’s public service one of the most politicised in Australia.

To balance the state budget, which is in the red, Newman will need to cut waste in the public service. He could start by abolishing the wasted expenditure on the ”special trade representatives” in Trade and Investment Queensland.

Special representatives are being paid $147,000 a year for part-time trade work in parts of the world where there are already Queensland commissioners at high levels. The special trade representative for the Middle East and India is paid $147,000 as is the representative for China and Vietnam. The representative for Africa is paid $67,000, for ASEAN, $73,000, and for Papua New Guinea, $73,000. That is a total in excess of $500,000 annually.

For internal stability, Newman would be wise to give talented former Queensland opposition leader and LNP founder, Lawrence Springborg, a ministerial position. He is one of the few LNP members with ministerial experience and would be a useful ally in sharing the burden of government. Newman’s team has slightly more talent than Bligh’s sad ministry but there is not all that much in it. Newman will need to use what limited talent he has available.

For federal Labor, a poor result in Queensland will further undermine Gillard if she is still Prime Minister and, even if she has been replaced, will sap morale for the federal election.

For state and federal Labor, this is a very dangerous time as apparatchiks, ministers and mere MPs are all left watching their once proud Labor ship sink into political oblivion.

Ross Fitzgerald, Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, is the author of 35 books, including the co-authored satire Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State and his memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey. THE CANBERRA TIMES 7 November, 2011