What the hell just happened?
Those who live outside the borders of the Sunshine State may choose to think this weekend’s state election means little to them. Entirely their choice, of course. But there are ramifications which will likely impact politics in every state and territory from here on.
So, what the hell just happened? Well, the Australian Labor Party lost office in a landslide after holding the reins of power for 20 of the past 22 years. In which case, one might well say: oh, it was simply natural justice – the other side gets to have a go again. And that is certainly true but there are many nuances which followers of politics may find worthy of reflection.
For a start, it was not just a landslide. It was a massacre. Even the powerfully evocative analogy of voters sitting quietly on their verandahs cuddling baseball bats, waiting to deliver judgment on the incumbent administration fails to get the full measure of this rout.
Labor had assumed the mantle of natural party of government after a decade of reform and reasonable economic management. Its initial triumph over the National Party – itself a government in various guises for 32 years – demonstrated the validity of two axioms: power corrupts and nothing lasts forever.
It was after Peter Beattie’s second election victory for Labor that the seeds of this weekend’s cataclysm were sown. Beattie was glib and his greatest gift was empathy. He struck a chord with Queenslanders and they forgave him numerous faults because he appeared genuine. Time and again he apologised for administrative stuff-ups and all was forgiven – until the electorate worked out that the mistakes were not being corrected systemically. Ministers were not held to account and a culture of arrogance soon took root. This was the genesis of the apocalypse.
In the normal course of Australian politics, Labor would have lost the 2006 election but voters proved that while they may appear apathetic, there’s not a lot of things they miss. Queenslanders, largely, were willing to farewell Labor that year but they were simply not willing to endorse a coalition of Liberal and National parties that were dysfunctional in their relationship. Labor got back.
Much the same happened in 2009. Beattie knew his time was up and vacated the hot seat for Anna Bligh, his chosen successor. Voters again were not satisfied that the Liberals and Nationals could peacefully co-exist on the government benches so, again, Labor won by default. This was to prove pivotal.
Bligh became the first woman Premier to be elected in Australia. Two others had achieved the office: Joan Kirner in Victoria and Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia; but could not win election in their own right. With a fifth victory, Labor – and Bligh especially – began to believe they could not produce a bad odour. So, when Bligh quickly announced that she would privatise $15 billion of state assets to help ward off the Global Financial Crisis, voters were stunned. No mention had been made of this during the campaign and they felt cheated. Bligh failed to sell her reasoning and that was when many Queenslanders decided they would get their own revenge.
But while much has been made of Queenslanders’ anger at asset sales, it was not that per se which cost Labor so dearly. The real reason, I contend, is that Labor failed to produce a decent dividend from the privatisation. Bligh still claims the money created jobs but has never produced any evidence that this was truly the case. Meantime, the Sunshine State remains blighted by a lack of infrastructure; a massive debt set to reach $85 billion shortly and the loss of our vaunted AAA credit rating. The signal barometer of Labor’s poor performance is that it inherited arguably the best hospital system of any Australian state and has reduced it to a shambles under which many patients can’t get treatment, nearly as many spend unconscionable time waiting for treatment, bureaucrats outnumber medical staff and a payroll system stubbornly refuses to pay any of them properly.
Just as crippling was a virulent malaise that can be classified as The Labor Disease. This is the insidious practice of spin doctoring. The ALP became a world-class exponent of this fatuous form of power at any price. The astute use of focus groups and qualitative market research enabled Labor strategists to identify emerging issues and pinpoint voters’ hot buttons with laser-like accuracy. Over the past two decades, particularly, they have ruthlessly exploited this capability to inflict enormous pain on the conservative political parties across the nation.
Oh, it is not that the conservatives have not tried to emulate Labor because they certainly have – sometimes with success. But, for Labor, spin has become an end in itself. Ultimately, Labor has forgotten what it truly stands for as it blindly chases any issues which may deliver political advantage. The true believers have been left with no credo. Labor is living a sad fantasy that it still represents the ideals which led to its formation a century ago.
This is the true lesson of the 2012 Queensland election. Brand Labor is a failure because its practitioners have forgotten the fundamental attributes of their product. It is near unsaleable anymore because voters know the quality of the original product has been watered-down so badly that it is over-priced, offers little taste and next to no nutrition.
This is the brutal reality of Labor being left with fewer seats than qualifies it for official party status in the Queensland parliament. This is the brutal reality of electorates that have been Labor strongholds for a century now hosting LNP Members of Parliament with comfortable majorities. The truly brutal reality that Labor must now confront – not just in Queensland but elsewhere across the nation – is that many of its most die-hard supporters have indulged the ultimate act of betrayal and voted for their arch-enemies to deliberately tell their party it has lost the plot.
It must be noted that the staunchest Labor voters generally did not exercise a protest by giving their ballot to an alternative like the Greens or even the Katter Rednecks. No, they went straight to the Liberal National Party – for generations the most hated bogeyman they could use to frighten children – in their droves. Truly, this is a momentous challenge for Labor.
Thus far, there is scant evidence all but a few Labor stalwarts have realised just how precarious is their position. Anna Bligh’s valedictory was an object lesson that those who will not see just won’t ever get it. Her lengthy ode to her own term in office failed to address the factors that brought her supposedly beloved party to the brink of extinction in Queensland. Attempting to defy the adage that it is the victor who gets to rewrite history, Bligh extolled her own perceived triumphs blithely ignoring the hard truths that must be faced if Labor is to rediscover its purpose.
Bligh mounted the most negative, slanderous campaign of character assassination yet attempted in Australia. At no stage did Labor offer a vision for the future of Queensland. They had zip, zilch, nada. Just nothing. And voters clearly recognised this. It appears to have still not occurred to Bligh that her real legacy is not becoming the first woman elected Premier of an Australian state but failing so badly to capitalise on that achievement that it has set the cause back substantially.
It is just as pertinent that Labor’s opponents do as much soul-searching over these issues as the ALP should. The lesson for those in the Liberal and National parties who are tempted to triumphalism is that the Australian electorate has now tasted a new volatility. The electorate has learned something from this poll. More than ever before voters are today savouring their own power. They proved to themselves that they can forge a new direction if they want to scout new territory. It would be a fool who believes the LNP has won its new constituency for the long term. If it governs well, it may convert them. But if voters who have fled their comfort zone to try this new product feel they have been taken for granted, we now know just how vicious they can be in demanding satisfaction.
The electorate has spoken in a new and compelling way. We must heed their message, not simply count their ballots.