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Evolution is the name of the game

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 11 September 2006


Government in Queensland for the last hundred years or so has been a case of what an evolutionary biologist might call “punctuated equilibrium”. A dominant party rules securely for a long period - 20 or 30 years - only to lose power because of a crisis of its own making. It was the way with Labor from 1932 until 1957, and then the Nationals from ’57 until ’89.

This election result repeats the pattern. Beattie has survived the crises he’s created in health and infrastructure. It seems nothing can destroy him. Certainly the Opposition needs to evolve into an effective competitor.

Beattie was vulnerable earlier this year. He not only survived, but thrived, for four reasons.

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First, he projects fearless, boyish, yet practiced, charm. Even though voters increasingly don’t like him, they can’t help but feel drawn in and captivated. They know the routines - I’m sorry, I take responsibility, now you’ve gotta let me fix it, it’ll be another of my number one priorities - but there is a waggishness about the whole declaration that intrigues and is Machiavellian enough to suggest he might perform this time.

Second, the Labor Party adapted and learned after its 1974 near extinction when it lost all but 11 seats in Parliament, including that of its then leader, Perc Tucker. Beattie was one of the agents of that reform, at one stage being expelled from Labor for his tough stands. That reform has given Labor more depth on its front-bench than the Coalition, and a head-office machine which is far more professional.

Beattie has anointed Bligh as his successor, but John Mickel or Paul Lucas could just as easily fill the role. Contrast that to the Opposition where, even given this result, Flegg and Springborg are virtually unassailable because there is no-one else.

Third, he had superior resources - financial and government - and he deployed them to great effect. Queensland Labor is the richest political party in the country, and it outspent the Opposition by as much as six times. As well, government media resources were applied ruthlessly including TV advertising, to bolster, amongst other things, the disingenuous claim that as this is the worst drought in 100 years nothing could have been done to plan for it.

Fourth, his opponents were so weak that they offered no alternative in voters’ minds. A vote for the opposition might have sent a message, but it would have been the wrong one, and they could have been even worse than Beattie if they had won government.

Yet, we know that Beattie’s government will fall, no matter how dominant it is now, that’s the way of nature. What can the Opposition learn from this election?

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They have to learn to be honest - with themselves and the electorate. While their early polling did show electors had a desire to change government - that just demonstrates the limitations of polling. Winning was never a possibility. They had 22 seats and needed another 23, more than doubling in size, just for a bare majority. The logistics of running effective campaigns in this many seats, while not losing any you already hold, is mind-boggling. Added to this these seats needed to be wrested in many cases from popular local members, another difficulty.

Fooling themselves that they could achieve government led to huge over-reach. At one stage the projected campaign budget was $4 million. Ultimately they probably raised less than a quarter of that, but they started the campaign as though it was all in the bank, starving themselves of funds later in the campaign.

If they had been more honest with themselves, they would have put a better proposition to the electorate. Last year our focus groups were telling us that they wanted a decent opposition, not a change of government. That proposition still tests well. If the Coalition had told voters that winning was a two-election process, and this election they were running to come a good second, then they would have done much better.

Honesty would also have led them down the reform path. Not the false reform offered by the various amalgamation proposals they tried to force on each other, or federal intervention into the Liberals, but genuine internal reform that would refresh the party’s gene pools and build a strong policy base.

It would also have dictated that they use all their resources effectively. At least on the Liberal side, the winner-takes-all attitude to party management means that only members of the dominant faction get to run campaigns, often shutting the best operators out.

So, for the moment, Team Beattie is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Queensland politics, while the rats and mice of the Coalition scurry away. They both have some evolving to do. Beattie needs to learn that performance must follow promises; the Coalition - that the electorate will not reward mere wishful thinking. Long periods of dominant party rule aren’t good, neither are weak oppositions. Queensland’s seen too much of both.

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First posted on Currumbin2Cook on September 10, 2006.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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