Thursday, 5 March 2009

The 2009 Queensland State Election: The Populism Contest

It’s hard for me to view the current Queensland election campaign with any sense of reality. I’m working at the coalface as a volunteer for some ALP candidates and all the while I’m studying how Labor Premiers of the past decade operate for the purposes of my thesis. They are two diametrically opposing forces clouding my mind when trying to make a reasonably accurate prediction as to its outcome.

The first thing to know about Queensland politics is that it is like no other. When I was living in South Australia we used to laugh at Queenslanders. After all they elected Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson premier for near on two decades, let him get away with excessive corruption, all the while looking like a bumbling fool. Well we were wrong, Joh was indeed corrupt morally and otherwise, but he was certainly no fool. He’s arguably the first populist premier of the new era. He could charm rural residents and mix it with the inner city crowd, all the while making Labor and Liberal politicians look completely out of their depth.

I arrived in Queensland a few months after Peter Beattie became premier. At the time I didn’t think he would last long at all. However he managed to turn every adversity into a triumph. First, the ALP is found guilty of branch stacking electorates in Townsville, so he called an election to ‘fix the problem’ and in doing so increased his majority. One could say ‘only in Queensland’ except he did it twice more retaining a huge majority using concerns about the Department of Children’s Services and the health care system to trigger successive election victories.

Beattie was willing to accept responsibility for his policy failures and was prepared to change unsuccessful policies through a policy ‘back flip’. Such a back flip would occur when Beattie acknowledged that he had to listen to the public, and on the strength of public opinion altered his policy. This was the key to his electoral success as Paul Williams explains…

The anatomy of the mea culpa is deceptively simple: Beattie anticipates, and then circumvents, media criticism with a pre-emptive admission of wrong-doing, an unambiguous acceptance of personal responsibility and, most effectively, a humble apology…

In effect, Queenslanders have continued the traditions of the Joh years by voting in a presidential manner: for the person, not the policy. In each successful Beattie campaign he was able to make the election about him and not about fixing these so called ‘crises’. Not only did it ensure his continued success, but it came to define his tenure as Premier. In the book Yes, Premier chronicling the rise of Australia’s 21st century Labor premiers John Wanna and Paul Williams conclude their chapter on Peter Beattie in this fashion:

Beattie is not a policy entrepreneur. He has not attached his popularity, or political instincts to the marketplace of policy ideas. Instead, policy to Beattie is more a technical set of questions and issues, the details, which usually fall to professionals once the main message has been conveyed to the electorate.

He is a seller, not a builder and now he has gone what the ALP currently face is the challenge of not only selling their policies, but also actually delivering them. There’s no doubt in my mind the ALP provide the best alternative to lead the State, even though Anna Bligh is far from Peter Beattie in the populist stakes.

The Opposition for as long as I’ve been in Queensland have been a bunch of negative campaigners who struggle to provide alternative policies even on the best day. Even worse they continue to fight internal battles to reform a party that has seemingly lost its relevance in a state that is becoming increasingly urbanised. Although the Liberal and National Parties have merged to form the Liberal National Party (LNP), it seems to be more of a marriage of convenience than anything else, satisfying neither the young urban elite that dominate the South East Queensland Liberals, or the rural communities that populate the rest of the state who support the Nationals.

Essentially the election contest has come down to branding. On one side we have the ALP remanets of the Beattie era under Bligh, a leader who should really be dominating in the current political climate, but is treading water. On the other hand we have the LNP, who is completely devoid of leadership qualities and policy acumen. There’s something wrong here no? One only has to look at my local area of the Sunshine Coast to see the problem, where the branding concept will be brought to the fore.

My local area of Buderim represents arguably the most conservative area of the country, politically speaking. It has only voted for a Labor Federal Member once in the past one hundred years, and for a Labor State Member twice in the past century. It’s the classic chicken and egg argument at work. If the Liberal/National member were in a hospital bed for the duration of the campaign, the electorate would still vote for the Liberal/National brand. It took the enormous groundswell of the first two Beattie re-election campaigns and the consensus building mantra of the third Hawke Government to dislodge the brand and elect an ALP member in Buderim. Is it a coincidence that both leaders were pure populists?

When you’re up against statistics such as this, its no wonder the ALP have struggled to field decent candidates in Buderim. Luckily this time the party has one that will provide a decent competition to a Liberal candidate who has become so complacent that he moved electorates so he can be sure to secure victory. The sad thing is that he will in all probability win and the residents of Buderim will be no better for it.

However, Buderim is merely a microcosm of the wider problem that Queensland politics currently faces. In the triumph of populism over policy, populism always wins the day. This is not only a concern for the Queensland voter, but also for the ALP and Anna Bligh as they try to escape the lengthy shadow of the master populist Peter Beattie.

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