Burning a mandate like candles in a wind

Politics is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a knock-down, drag-out process where the winner customarily takes all. When it comes to elections, there are usually no second prizes. Which is rather unfortunate because it cultivates the wrong sort of personality we prefer in our leaders.

Sure, voters want a leader who demonstrates strength of conviction, articulates a clear vision that meets community expectations and who is unafraid to take hard decisions. We admire decisiveness but we draw the line at arrogance. Get too far ahead of popular opinion and you burn your mandate.

Which is pretty much where we are in Queensland at the end of 2012. Oh, for sure, new Premier Campbell Newman is still preferred by the bulk of Queensland voters but his credibility has taken a brutal battering, for the most part occasioned entirely by himself.

Rarely has any new leader burned so much goodwill so fast.

Newman’s Liberal National Party faithful have not deserted their administration in the opinion polls but there is serious disquiet among many party members who are wondering how the hell it could have all gone so wrong so quickly. The key to this conundrum lies in the aphorism that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Newman was given a mandate that defied any expectation and was beyond contemporary experience in Australia. The swing to the LNP was huge and all but wiped out the Labor Party that had ruled Australia’s Sunshine State for the best part of twenty years.

Voters massively endorsed a blueprint for change. But, as is so often the preferred tactic by party machines these days, the details of the change were never spelled-out. The first hint of misgiving came with the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

Voters were appalled by the brutality of such a ruthless execution of a program which amounted to a miniscule slice of the tens of billions of dollars the new administration said it was pledged to recoup. Voters were forced to consider: if this is an early target what the hell might follow?

It was clearly designed to send a message. Regrettably for the man who composed the message, it only made voters aghast at such a ferocious and totalitarian attack on something most Queenslanders found quite inoffensive. It was very clearly a badly misjudged target that conveyed all the wrong messages about the new government’s intentions. For those who were not fawning fans it signalled something worse than Hitler’s blitzkrieg through Europe. They feared nothing would ever be the same again. Symbolically, it was a shambles.

Imagine a smart leader who adopted humility instead of hubris; who said: things need to be fixed so let’s find alternative solutions. Sadly, instead of George Washington, Queenslanders got Genghis Khan.

This was such a small administrative act but, as is so often the case, it foretold a much larger story. Newman then turned his attention to the Queensland Public Service. Bloated over two decades by a Labor administration, it simply had to be cut back. But the chainsaw with which Newman implemented the pruning was a disturbing vision for most Queenslanders. Worse, much worse, was the utter failure to craft a narrative to accompany the brutalising of so many families’ lives.

If you don’t carry the people with you, you tend to turn them against you. And hasn’t that happened with gusto?

Then, Newman allowed his egotistical inner coterie of parliamentary leaders to open full-scale warfare with the party machine. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Attacking your own people – especially those who engineered the electoral victory which made you boss – is surely absurdity beyond belief.

Fuelled by this arrogance, several MPs decided they, too, could stand strong against all-comers. They revolted and fled the party to become so-called independents. Their fate will be decided in cooler moments. But, it must be said, their own narratives for their disloyalty were pathetic and will most unlikely see them returned to the parliament. No loss.

So, what does the next year hold for this tottering government? The sheer size of its majority will ensure it remains reasonably untroubled by opponents, even those within. But the continuing failure to mount any kind of sensible or empathic narrative will burn goodwill like candles in a wind. Equilibrium will return a semblance of balance at the next poll.

What will determine the size of the swing back to normalcy will be voters’ now intense scrutiny of the government’s approach to running the ship of state. If they see commonsense returning to the fore, they will be reassured. But if ruthless exercising of political muscle continues to hold sway, they will almost certainly decide they have been deceived. And if the LNP thought voters were unkind to Labor, they would be unwise to even envisage the carnage that will accompany the next exercise of our democratic freedom to castigate if we think it deserved. 2013 may perhaps be a more decisive year in the state’s history than 2012.