Last night's Fabian Society Forum on how and why the ALP lost the 2012 Queensland State Election highlighted how insular the party is in times of reflection. The forum’s three participants included ALP State Secretary and Campaign Director, Anthony Chisholm, Former Bligh Government Minster Cameron Dick and the Queensland Political Editor of The Australian, Sean Parnell.
Chisholm was in a remarkable position last night. Despite being the architect of the worst loss in the Queensland ALP's history, he still has his job. Chisholm’s contribution to the proceedings was always going to be the most intriguing of the night. Unsurprisingly, he blamed the government’s decision to privatise state owned assets for the ALP’s electoral wipe out. ‘We never recovered… he said. Everyone is connected to the railways in regional Queensland, and the ALP misjudged the electoral climate…’ was his admission when I questioned him later about whether he could have anticipated any backlash to those sales. There were no strategic measures in place to counter the negative reaction to asset sales. 'The LNP and the unions got out in front on the issue’, Chisholm opined. Consequently the ALP turned negative during the election campaign and focused their attention on Campbell Newman. According to internal party polling this strategy was working (Apparently) right up until the moment Anna Bligh said (in the last ten days of the campaign) that there was ‘no evidence…’ that Newman had participated in any illegal activity, despite claiming in Parliament that he had done so. Remarkably, the polls returned to their original state of Labor oblivion immediately after this admission (!). The moral of Chisholm’s argument: ‘When in doubt blame Bligh.’
This theme continued for much of Cameron Dick’s speech, clearly using his speech to position himself as the non-existent alternative leader of the ALP. Comparing himself to Chifley in the 1930s, (when the former PM lost his seat in Federal Parliament, and was on the wrong side of the New South Wales split) Dick took the soft, gutless option of blaming Bligh and her Deputy Andrew Fraser. Despite being a high profile member of Cabinet and being a high profile advocate of the asset sales, the former Minister chastised his former boss by constantly questioning her abilities as leader, and in particular saying the ALP lacked ‘strong and effective leadership.’ In 2039, I wonder if we will see such words in writing when the Cabinet minutes are released into the State’s archives? It is interesting that Dick attempted to portray himself as a modern day Chifley, because all he succeeded in doing was to demonstrate that solidarity, a hall mark of the Chifley era, has no place in the Modern ALP.
Parnell, on the other hand demonstrated his analytical skills with a cogent unpacking of the last four years of Queensland politics. Whilst also criticising Bligh as being decisive but lacking necessary political skill, he hit on the key point of the Bligh era: The Government over promised and under delivered. Contrasting this maxim to that of her predecessor’s Peter Beattie, Parnell highlighted the hall mark of his term as Premier by saying ‘Beattie delivered on what he promised during the election campaign and only deviated from these when responding to immediate crises’.
The three speakers each encapsulated the current malaise of Labor, not just in Queensland, but also around the country: strategic incompetence, policy objectives taking a backseat to internal Machiavellian supremacy, and a tin ear when assessing the public’s expectations. All three speakers highlighted the asset sales as the turning point towards the death of Bligh Labor. And yet none of them were able to answer the most basic question of the night. Why sell the assets at all? I still doubt whether Chisholm, Bligh, or her team of incompetent advisors know the answer to that.