Blink and you miss the QLD state election

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Premier Peter BeattieBlink and you would have missed the Queensland state election—and that's just how Premier Peter Beattie wanted it to be. The past two and a half years had been a disaster for the Queensland Labor leader. His third term began with a scandal over the electricity industry, and got much worse as ministers and other senior MPs were caught up in controversies over expenses and taking wine into an alcohol-free Aboriginal community.

And, just when it looked like the dust was settling, along came Indian-trained surgeon Dr Jayant Patel at the Bundaberg Hospital, the ‘Dr Death’ scandal which all but destroyed what was left of the Beattie government's credibility. Mr Beattie's team, however, has now been returned with what looks like the same number of seats as it held in the previous parliament—60 out of 89.

The Nationals are set to make no gains, or possibly one, and the Liberals are up one or two seats.

Just how the veteran ALP campaigner dodged this bullet is a fascinating story. The key was to make himself and his team a small target, and the opposition—the National-Liberal coalition—the story of the day. From day one, the coalition's campaign was a textbook on how not to conduct an election campaign.

The Liberals changed leaders the week before Mr Beattie decided to call the poll, installing Brisbane GP and first-term MP Dr Bruce Flegg as leader—a move that not even the people organising the coalition's campaign could have predicated. (In fact, campaign material had been prepared for an early election—featuring the existing leader Bob Quinn and his Nationals counterpart Lawrence Springborg.)

On the day the election was called, the two conservative party leaders failed to tackle a fundamental question—who would lead the coalition if the Liberals won more seats than the traditionally better performing Nationals? It was a question that dogged them for the next week, but even after the situation had been resolved, Labor turned the issue into attack advertising with the killer line, "If they can't govern themselves, how can they govern Queensland?"

Dr Flegg also failed to sell his policies as the media focused on side issues, such as the fact he was taking advice on deportment and grooming and getting media training from experts in Canberra. He was kicked out of a shopping centre for not getting permission to campaign and was often greeted with blank stares as he walked up to people on the campaign trail. Mr Beattie, on the other hand, kept a cool head as he flew across the state campaigning in crucial marginal seats.

Despite Labor research predicting a landslide, Mr Beattie feared a protest vote if, a) his team grew too cocky or b) people realised that they were deeply unhappy with his past performance—especially in the area of health—and that they did want to take the baseball bat to his government. The key ALP tactic was to keep its head down and deal with issues on a micro level, as if there were 89 by-elections underway. As one political analyst put it, the aim was to "leave no issue unattended".

So by talking down an easy win, dealing in microscopic detail with local issues—and allowing the opposition to once again implode during a campaign—Mr Beattie's team eased back into the ministerial leather seats.

As for the future, the coalition will be engaged in some serious navel gazing for the next few months. For the Nationals, it means pondering a leadership change—possibly dropping Mr Springborg for the team of central Queensland, MP Jeff Seeney and Sunshine Coast MP (and gospel singer) Fiona Simpson.

The Liberals are likely to stick with Dr Flegg, and bank on him growing into his new role as leader over the next term. Many members are keen to see a Liberal rather than National premier in the future. With 1500 people moving to Queensland from interstate each week, the Nationals' voter base will slowly decline—most newcomers wouldn’t have experienced a state opposition dominated by the rural-based party, and would be more likely to swing behind the Liberals if the Labor government is on the nose.

Mr Beattie has vowed to stay on over the next term and lead a "sober and sensible" government, which governs as if it has a majority of one. His mission is to roll out two main policy agendas—the health action plan (a $9.7 billion program to fix hospitals) and the state-wide water grid (a series of dams and pipelines to drought-proof the state).

Once these tasks are completed, he wants to hand over power to his deputy Anna Bligh, a left-wing MP from inner-city Brisbane who has made a decent hand of the treasurer's job, but may not be all that the party's powerful AWU-based right wing wants in a leader.

Labor being Labor, the hand-over may not be as smooth as Mr Beattie would like and could trigger a period of infighting, instability and a loss of government if handled badly. However, a successful transition—coupled with continuing disunity in the coalition—could see Labor govern for quite some time yet. Some say the next conservative premier of Queensland hasn’t been elected to parliament yet; the more cynical say he or she hasn't even been born.



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Apropos Paul Osborne's article on the Queensland Election, I'd like to comment as a "disinterested" Southerner. Peter Beattie presents as an amiable, trustworthy, down to earth person, "with a steady hand on the tiller" in the midst of stormy seas. No wonder people turned to him again.
Clive Monty | 12 September 2006


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