Pear-shaped politics in the Pineapple state

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Queenslander Tim Badrick takes a sentimental stroll through Queensland politics since the Bjelke-Petersen era. He says it hasn't improved much.

Former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen

As a Queenslander, I can assure you that politics in the Pineapple state has always been a bit pear-shaped. Over the past 60 years, be it the instalment of Bjelke-Petersen’s rural gerrymander, the sudden rise and fall of the Democratic Labor Party in the 50’s or mainstream Labor’s smothering politically motivated egalitarianism over the past 13 years since populist Peter Beattie stormed into power in 1998, Queensland has never has been exactly what you would call a bastion for political balance between left and right. It’s always either been too far left or too far right up here.

Bjelke-Petersen and the Nationals were in power from 1969 to 1989 — far too long for any government of any political persuasion. The humble and decent Mike Ahern, who was the premier of Queensland from Bjelke-Petersen`s resignation in 1988 until the election of Wayne Goss in December, 1989, was probably the unluckiest man in politics. Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he never stood a chance of extending the Nationals unbeaten run beyond 20 years with all the scandal of the Fitzgerald Inquiry felling his colleagues around him like dominos. He was thumped at the 1989 state election by a long-in-opposition Labor Party.

Wayne Goss, a studious bureaucratically minded reformist barrister like Ahern, was thoroughly decent and his populist appeal became known as the ‘Goss gloss’. Apart from his more personally directed attempts to settle old scores with the National MP’s who were fronting up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry on allegations of corruption, Goss was always objective and pragmatic enough to put aside politics of ideology between left and right in the name of trying to find a balance between his own Labor factional camps, who traditionally in Queensland always have been and always will be a lot more on the wing than in other states. This worked like a charm for a few years, the ‘Goss gloss’ got Labor re-elected in 1992 and 1995, and it seemed for a time that the centre-left Goss had kept the more extreme left wingers and Labor’s AWU right faction – of which Goss was officially a member – happy and contented enough to let him do what any populist leader wants to do.

The two biggest blights on the premiership of Goss to this day remains the abolition of the state’s hospital boards, which was nothing more than penny pinching accountancy gone mad, and the politicisation of the Criminal Justice Commission (nowadays known as the Crime and Misconduct Commission), which become nothing more than a legislatively empowered Labor Party witch-hunt against the old pillars of the police service which had long been ‘mormonised’ by right wing freemasonry and anti-leftism. The CJC ganged up on not only bad cops but also many good cops as well, and many decent cops lost their careers, their marriage and their life because of CJC injustices. Goss has to wear some of the blame for not curtailing the powers of the CJC before it came to that.

The state of the Queensland health system is, these days, in tatters, the recent payroll bungle at Queensland Health has been used by many a Queensland based journalist as a smokescreen to deflect attention away from the institutionalised problems which have beset the health system since Goss sent in the razor gang in 1991 in preparation to abolish the local hospital boards. Centralising representation might work in a political sense on occasions, but not logistically. What was the point in giving bureaucrats the final say over funding arrangements for the hospitals instead of continuing to have real doctors in long white coats deciding what was needed on a hospital by hospital basis? Ironically, the brainwave behind abolishing the hospital boards in Queensland was not Wayne Goss, but it was his then director-general, Kevin Rudd.

Goss however, for the main part, was a man of integrity who did his best under the circumstances of the time, even if everything became far too politically correct. Goss survived and largely prospered as premier until the famous Mundingburra by-election in 1996, which Labor lost and which brought down Goss as quickly as he had sprung up in 1989. The police union can lay claim to helping Rob Borbidge claim the premiership for the National/Liberal coalition, the famous semi-trailer which the police union used to promote anti-Labor sentiment in Mundingburra was actually more effective than a human being in bringing down Goss.

Borbidge’s short lived two year government, which at least hung around long enough to get as many roads built in Queensland as that which Labor achieved in Beattie’s nine year tenure, was effectively an interim government from the outset which was only buying time while Labor re-grouped after their surprise stint in opposition. What a lot of people don’t know is that Goss hated Beattie and vice versa. Goss knew where to draw a line in the sand before his Labor Government made the same mistakes as what the totalitarian Bjelke-Petersen government made.

The man who broke Joh's stranglehold over Queensland politics, Wayne Goss

Unfortunately, from 1998 onwards, the Labor Party in Queensland, under the leadership of both Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh, has fallen into the trap of becoming even more one political party dynamic than the 80’s National Party, and this has a lot to do with the socialist inclinations of the factions which gave Beattie and Bligh the numbers to rule. Goss was a centre-left populist who swung conservative right enough to appeal to all voters. He never had any personal agenda to corrupt the state constitution and give the left factions unbridled power in the party room. That’s a far cry from what went down post-1998, egalitarianism in a purely social sense is an acceptable philosophy but not when it is applied in a political setting. And that is exactly what the state of Queensland is lumbered with, a lazy and incompetent government which like Bjelke-Petersen has been in power far too long and a legion of press and TV journalists with the ABC mentality who have anointed themselves as the state opposition, in place of the sometimes lame-duck opposition MP’s who have a nasty habit of shooting themselves in the foot just when Bligh is on the back foot and looking decidedly unconvincing.

The recent flood crisis in Queensland made Anna Bligh look as confident as she has ever done since becoming the premier of Queensland, but her very sound performance in the wake of that disaster is not an objective reason to hand Labor another 3 years in power at the next state election. If you discount the short-lived Borbidge government from 1996 to 1998, which was essentially a ‘Laborised’ Government anyway, with plenty of backroom bipartisan wheeling and dealing, then if Labor wins in 2012 it will have been in power for 25 consecutive years by 2015. No power is ever enough power for the left, just like no power is enough for the overlord right-wingers like Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

As far as economic achievement goes, Labor in Queensland has nothing to boast about since the rise of Peter Beattie. despite a booming commodities market, up until recent times Labor has been responsible for losing Queensland`s AAA credit rating and weighing Queenslanders down with huge inflationary rises in the cost of utility services, such as electricity and council rates. Goss and Bjelke-Petersen, regardless of their faults, were instrumental in getting Queensland moving on an economic front simply by being prepared to make a few executive decisions on their own without needing dozens of bureaucrats to wade through their proposals.

All in all, the crux of my story is that six year governments are about the limit, whether they are Labor or conservative ones. For all the interstate readers, I should point out that Queensland parliamentary terms remain 3 years (not 4 years). At the very least, no premier should be allowed to remain leader for more than two parliamentary terms, just like the US president. This would greatly limit the amount of institutionalised cronyism which inevitably occurs when one person is in power for too long so they lose sense of the democratic principles that allowed them to be elected in the first place.  
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