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Flotation device for premier's sinking party

By Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 20 January 2011


The floods sweeping Queensland may be a disaster for many in the state and the local economy, but they have possibly saved Premier Anna Bligh and Labor's more than 22-year hold on state government.

Bligh took over from Peter Beattie in late 2007. Since winning the March 2009 election with a reduced majority, albeit of over 30 seats, it has all been downhill.

The post-election surprise announcement about the budget deficit and the privatisation of state government enterprises such as Queensland Rail quickly disillusioned voters who felt they had been lied to during the campaign.

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Added to this, Bligh has had to bear the consequences of some of the policies of her predecessor. The 2007 amalgamation of local government continues to hurt. So too did the cost of Queensland's drought-proofing. The recent jailing of former Beattie health minister Gordon Nuttall for corruption, for taking a bribe - something that no Nationals minister faced even after the 1989 Fitzgerald inquiry - has not helped.

And, speaking of Fitzgerald, the former anti-corruption commissioner in June 2009 gave a scathing assessment of the Queensland government in relation to progress in implementing his reform recommendations. This and scandals concerning former Labor ministers and staffers' lobbying efforts and business positions prompted Bligh to hastily appoint a review of integrity and accountability.

Meanwhile, ongoing problems relating to the conduct of Queensland police - especially, but not only, in relation to the death in custody of an Aborigine on Palm Island - further tarnished perceptions of the government. Everywhere, Bligh was on the back foot, reacting rather than setting the agenda, defending rather than initiating, and coping rather than striving.

Just before the floods peaked, opinion polls were suggesting that the condition of Bligh's leadership and the government was terminal. Her rating as leader had fallen, with 67 per cent dissatisfied, and Labor's primary vote had dwindled to an appalling 26 per cent.

The recent floods have refloated Bligh and Labor.

Bligh's performance during the recent crisis has been measured, commanding and dignified. Her grasp of the detail and her openness in communications has been outstanding. Emotion has been kept in check; we want leaders to lead, not to play victim.

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Moreover, the floods have left the Liberal National Party opposition, which thought it had to do nothing to walk into office, high and dry.

During crises, it is governments that make the decisions, set the agenda and dominate the media. Also, in a crisis leaders can act as if all their actions are in the public interest, no politics is involved. This goes down well with voters who find the adversarial point-scoring of party politics annoying at the best of times.

Oppositions can only buy into a crisis if there are real problems, and even then they must be careful not to appear to be playing politics in their criticisms. Unless they are invited into the crisis management process by the government, oppositions are sidelined.

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First published in The Australian on January 19, 2011



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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