The party’s over and Bligh is to blame
IN the new year, Julia Gillard and the poor standing of federal Labor will not be responsible for the defeat of Anna Bligh’s Labor government in Queensland.
The blunt reality is that Bligh’s government is one of the worst in Queensland history. Neither the Premier nor her government is up to the job. Its defeat will be primarily because of its incompetence. It is little wonder that eight key members of the Bligh team, including six former ministers, are retiring at the state election. They have simply given up on Bligh and Queensland Labor.
The theft of $16 million of public funds by a Queensland Health employee is the last straw in a history of incompetence that ranges from the health payroll debacle to poor financial mismanagement that led to the loss of Queensland’s cherished AAA credit rating. There are now 16 million more reasons for Queenslanders to vote against Bligh. Many senior Labor figures find the Bligh government so embarrassing that they are distancing themselves from it at an alarming rate.
When former premier Peter Beattie handed over to his deputy, Bligh, in September 2007, the popular Labor government enjoyed a two-party preferred vote of 59 per cent and a primary vote of 50 per cent. The transition followed years of Beattie promoting Bligh over other ministers into tough portfolios to enhance her experience. At the time it was regarded as an ideal transition.
Bligh enjoyed strong public support until her policies and performance showed a rapid decline to the point where today the Liberal National Party under Campbell Newman enjoys at least 59 per cent two-party preferred support and is on track to give Labor an absolute hiding whenever Bligh goes to the polls.
It was a serious error of judgment on Beattie’s part to promote Bligh when there were more talented choices available, including John Mickel and Rod Welford. It seems Beattie was more interested in putting Queensland’s first female premier into office than promoting the best candidate.
State Labor’s problems started when Bligh became more focused on image than on performance. Her promotion of inexperienced supporters into cabinet at the expense of senior colleagues (such as Mickel, who is now Speaker; former police minister Judy Spence; former attorney-general Kerry Shine; and former ministers Lindy Nelson-Carr, Robert Schwarten and Margaret Keech) was designed to make her government look good but took its toll in poor administration in transport, health, infrastructure delivery and water, and in the cost of electricity.
Bligh’s failure to sack former health minister and close friend Paul Lucas over the health department’s payroll fiasco showed personal loyalty had precedence over performance. There also was not enough focus on detail. Instead, Bligh concentrated on managing the latest political disaster. The damage from this crisis management soon became irreparable.
Also, many members of Bligh’s cabinet are lazy. Government ministers are rarely seen at business events in Brisbane or in key regional centres and LNP frontbenchers are being openly courted as future ministers. The Bligh government has lost the links with business vigorously developed by Wayne Goss and Beattie. It is a pale imitation of past Labor governments.
The fat bureaucratic structure of super departments was so cumbersome that one director-general was responsible to several ministers, making the public service process-driven rather than outcome-focused.
Besides, the quality of directors-general slipped as Bligh appointed favourites or ideological fellow travellers over quality candidates.
This resulted in a failure to properly oversee projects such as the desalination plant on the Gold Coast and the water grid; cost overruns on infrastructure; the protection of farmland from the expansion of the gas industry until it was too late; failure to build cyclone-proof infrastructure along the coast before last summer’s cyclone season; and accepting without question the recommended electricity price hikes from the regulator. The government also blindly followed Treasury’s line to abolish the fuel subsidy, which means Queenslanders now pay more for fuel.
The government ran away from tough decisions on matters such as the 10 per cent mandatory level of ethanol in fuel; taking the fight to Kevin Rudd’s federal government over the building of the Traveston dam; and the use of recycled water. Crucially, it caved in to union demands for budget-breaking enterprise bargaining deals that helped drive the state over the financial brink. This was the underlying reason for the state’s loss of its AAA credit rating.
The only tough decision the Bligh government made was on the sale of government assets such as railways to fund the budget shortfall. But even here Bligh made a hash of its implementation by not putting the issue to the people in the 2009 state election, thus costing her valuable credibility. The deal also meant Queensland sold off the most profitable parts of Queensland Rail and kept the unprofitable parts. On election night, Labor seats will fall to the LNP throughout the regions because of how the QR sale was handled. The Bligh government is guilty of 4 1/2 years of dysfunctional administration and Queenslanders know it.
Deputies are often promoted beyond their abilities into the top job. Bligh was such a deputy and state Labor will pay a price. It is normally foolhardy to predict the outcome of an election with two or three months to go, but all published research confirms Queenslanders have reached the view that Newman and the LNP couldn’t possibly do a worse job than Bligh and state Labor. Premier Newman will have a substantial majority.
When Labor examines why it lost the 2012 Queensland election it should start with Beattie’s ill-advised decision to promote Bligh as his successor.
Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the co-author, most recently, of the political satire Fools’ Paradise.
The Weekend Australian, December 31, 2011