With Premier Campbell Newman calling a snap early election in Queensland today, Alex McKean suggests ten aspects of the Newman Government’s performance voters should remember at the ballot box.
Campbell Newman’s term as premier of Queensland and the LNP Government which he has led has been a helter/skelter affair. The Government was elected with great good will. The Labor Government of Anna Bligh had been the last of an almost uninterrupted period of Labor in power going back to later 1989.
The long period in government, accompanied by Ms. Bligh’s breach of an important promise not to sell off assets, had led to a big swing to Mr Newman and his LNP colleagues.
Mr Newman was swept to power with a huge majority.
Scandals, controversies, conflict, defections and lost by-elections have, since, been the order of the day.
And the possibility that, three years ago, would have received nil credence has emerged: Mr Newman and his government may both be one-termers.
When electors go to vote, they like to judge a government on its performance. To make a rational decision, the electors must remember the key events of the Government’s reign.
This article is intended to assist in that process. It covers ten aspects of the Newman’s government’s performance. These constitute ten things to remember at the ballot box.
Depending on your point of view, they may also comprise ten reasons to judge Mr Newman and his colleagues harshly.
1. Attacks on the judiciary
The judiciary plays a pivotal role in moderating the excesses of the executive arm of government. This is part of the unwritten Constitutional structure we inherited from centuries of democratic development in the United Kingdom. It is important, at all times, but particularly so when you have a government which has so many seats in the only house of Parliament.
It is an act of political cowardice to criticise judges, who are severely circumscribed in their ability to publicly defend themselves against such attacks.
In just one example, the Premier has said that since retired Supreme Court Justice, Richard Chesterman, was an "apologist for paedophiles", in response to criticism of the government’s sex offender legislation.
It is traditionally the role of the Attorney-General to defend judges against such public attacks. The impression created by the silence in the face of such cowardly attacks on judges by his leader is that Jarrod Bleijie was selected as Attorney-General because he could be relied upon to ignore tradition and give tacit approval to the Premier’s denunciations of the judiciary.
2. Attacks on lawyers
Lawyers have an important role to play in alerting government, and the populace, to the ways in which changes in laws may impact negatively on the individual citizen. Where a government seeks to make a criminal of someone on the basis, not of what they do, but instead because of those with whom they associate, then lawyers will be in the front line of the battle at some point.
The Newman Government has treated the peak bodies representing lawyers, the Bar Association and Law Society, with contempt, only allowing ridiculously tight timeframes within which to provide submissions on very complex proposed legislation intended to strip away rights of Queenslanders and ignoring any submissions which contradicted the government’s agenda.
Worse than this has been the tendency to attack individual members of the profession. Newman famously declared that solicitors who represented alleged bikies were
"... hired guns ... [who would] .... do and say anything to advance their client’s dishonest case."
Perhaps Premier Newman forgot he was not standing in the parliament, where he is immune from defamation claims, when he said those words.
The claim for defamation which inevitably followed seeks damages of well over a million dollars. Mr Newman and Mr Bleijie, who publicly backed the Premier, will presumably spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer’s dollars seeking to defend the claim. There has been no public apology, a step any sensible person in their position would have taken to minimise the damages.
Such profligacy, seemingly driven by an inability to apologise for an unjustified attack on the reputation of a professional for doing their job, is even more egregious in the setting of savage cuts to the funding for community legal services numbered among the ideological enemies of the government.
3. Attacks on doctors, nurses and midwives
In an attempt to resuscitate the ideology underpinning WorkChoices, Premier Newman instructed Health Minister Lawrence Springborg to get all of the doctors in Queensland Health signed up on individual contracts.
The quisling former President of the Queensland branch of the AMA, Dr Christian Rowan, sold out his members, trying to convince them to shut up and sign the proffered contracts, prompting the doctors to revolt and seek assistance from those parts of the AMA structure not beholden to the LNP.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Dr Rowan has now emerged victorious as the LNP candidate for Moggill. This was apparently the product of a profoundly undemocratic process, where members of the State LNP executive voted as a block to bring about the end of the political career of Dr Bruce Flegg.
4. Raising caps on political donations
For some time now, Queensland has been in the ‘brown paper bag’ period. A shutter has been drawn over the identity of the individuals and corporations which have been seeking to buy influence in this State.
The LNP raised the cap for reporting of donations to $12,400, with indexation meaning it now sits at $12,800. Prior to this change, the cap had been $1,000, the lowest of any jurisdiction in Australia.
The sole justification for this retrograde step is that it brings Queensland into line with the federal scheme, which is no justification at all. What has not been explained is why that parity is important, nor how raising the cap is consistent with the pledge Mr Newman made to restore accountability to government.
5. Cash for legislation deals
What makes the lack of transparency around donations more critical is the appearance that giving money to the LNP can buy some heavy-duty favours for the donors.
A few examples have been reported. It is anticipated many more such deals will come to light in time.
In the lead-up to the 2012 poll, the Belgian sand-mining giant Sibelco gave over $90,000 to Mr Newman to fund sending letters from bogus concerned ‘Straddie mothers’. It appears Sibelco then drafted legislation, subsequently, passed by the Newman government, which, if and when exercised in 2019 (the date under the legislation when Sibelco is required to exercise its rights to the extremely favourable deal provided for in the legislation) would allow an extension of mining on North Stradbroke Island until 2035 — an outcome which would produce an additional $1.5B for Sibelco and further significant impacts on the island.
In another example, Karreman Quarries was granted legislative immunity from an impending prosecution for illegal gravel extraction by the Deputy Premier, Jeff Seeney. Karreman had made a $75,000 donation to the LNP. More recently it has been revealed Mr Seeney has allotted $1.6M of taxpayer funds to clean up the mess left behind by Karreman’s activities quarrying in the area.
6. Muzzling the Anti-Corruption Watchdog
In 1997, the Borbidge Government made an abortive attempt at bringing the predecessor of the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) undone. The Newman Government has gone one better, succeeding in compromising the watchdog and rendering it ineffective.
The CMC was a badge of shame for the LNP, a reminder of the corruption of the Joh-era exposed by Tony Fitzgerald. It was also, while it remained a strong, independent anti-corruption body, a real threat to the way Premier Newman wanted to do business here in Queensland.
The perennial Acting Chair, Dr Ken Levy, went into print supporting the LNP’s controversial anti-bikie laws and subsequently drip-fed the true level of input by the Government into that opinion piece to the Parliamentary Committee with oversight of the CMC, the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Commission (PCMC).
Dr Levy remains under investigation by the Police Commissioner over allegations he misled that committee. The police investigation has been inexplicably stalled for over six months.
Structural changes have also been introduced into the new beast, the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC), which will operate to make it harder for people to complain to the CCC, make it easier for the government of the day to influence investigations into the complaints which are made, and even give the Attorney-General the power to dictate into what areas the CCC is able to conduct research.
Of course, such measures are hardly necessary as long as an allegedly compromised LNP supporter remains at the head of the organization.
7. Sacking of the PCMC
The Dr Levy affair triggered the most blatant exercise of unrestrained power in the term of this government. When the PCMC was close to holding Dr Levy to account for his repeated failures of frankness, Premier Newman sacked the entire membership.
Parliamentary committees are important accountability mechanisms in any democracy. In Queensland, where the Parliament lacks an Upper House, they are absolutely vital.
The last minute decision to sack everyone on the committee created an incredibly dangerous precedent. It also allowed Newman to ensure the new Committee was constituted in a manner that he need no longer be concerned about it.
8. Media Manipulation
A recent poll showed the LNP was behind Labor and that more than 45 per cent of respondents thought Campbell Newman had done a poor or very poor job as Premier. It is tempting to speculate what the numbers would be if the mainstream media, in particular the Courier Mail, was properly performing the role of the fourth estate and fearlessly holding the Newman Government to account.
With a change in editors at the newspaper, once proudly at the forefront of instigating the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the content has become little more than a chorus of unwavering support for an increasingly unpopular Government.
Mr Lee Anderson, the Premier’s chief media officer, seemingly has no difficulty seeing glowing stories and editorials about the Government make their way into print on a daily basis.
The manner of Mr Anderson’s appointment is itself interesting. Mr Anderson was head of Channel 9 News until being forced to resign for his role in the ‘choppergate’ scandal. He then did a stint at the Courier Mail, before being re-employed by Channel 9 as the head of State election coverage in the lead up to the March 2012 poll — a job he did right up until election night.
Mr Anderson showed up the next morning to hand out the press releases for his new boss, the Premier. No explanation of precisely when Mr Anderson was offered this job has ever been provided.
9. Sacking Public Servants
On the eve of the 2012 election, Newman said that public servants had nothing to fear from an LNP government. The 14,000 public servants who lost their jobs and the families whose lives were disrupted as a consequence, may have wondered what a government looked like that was to be feared.
Fast forward to the aftermath of the Stafford by-election, when Premier Newman insulted the intelligence of those sacked public servants, their families and the public generally, by saying Queenslanders did not understand the reasons for the strong decisions he had made.
Tony Abbott has been reading from the same playbook and it has produced exactly the same results in terms of his popularity with the voters.
10. Silencing Dissent
One of the hallmarks of this government has been the readiness to savagely attack any person voicing dissent. Barristers have had government briefs removed after voicing public criticism. Doctors critical of responses to the risk of ebola infection have been stood down. The Attorney-General has threatened billboard companies in a bid to prevent advertisements from groups linked to unions.
The LNP have been most intolerant of dissent from within their own ranks. In just one example, Dr Chris Davis was dumped from the party after he questioned the increase on caps for political donations. He had earlier criticised the proposed changes to the CMC, after polling showed the electors of his constituency, Stafford, did not support the LNP agenda.
The Stafford by-election result, with a 18.6% swing against the LNP, illustrated the consequences of arrogantly ignoring the wishes of the electorate.
The Newman Government has been incredibly destructive of the fabric of civil society and the principles which have traditionally provided checks on power. Like all negatives, it has also presented the people of Queensland with an opportunity.
The opportunity is for this Government to stand as the high watermark of unprincipled and opaque arrogance. This Government’s track record and destructiveness should forever put to bed the idea that we can somehow trust in our leaders to exercise restraint in the absence of strong institutions designed to operate as a check on power.
The opportunity stands before the next government of Queensland to reintroduce, strengthen and defend those principles and institutions which will limit that government’s ability to exercise power in an unrestrained manner.
By taking such admirable action, it may be able to avoid the loss of trust in government that has occurred in Queensland in spades as a result of the actions of the Newman/Seeney/Bleijie Government.
Is there any other things you think Queenslanders should remember at the polling booths on 31 January? Let us know in the comments.
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