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The political outcomes of Shepherdson and Fitzgerald are likely to be different

By Graham Young - posted Saturday, 4 November 2000

The tone of recent Coalition press releases exhibits a confidence that they will soon be returned to government as a result of the Shepherdson Inquiry into Allegations of Electoral Fraud in Queensland. No doubt they see parallels between the current inquiry and the 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry, which brought to an end 30 years of conservative rule. There are parallels, but they do not necessarily lead to the same result.

In 1989 the ALP had been out of power for a generation. After a near-death experience in 1974 when it was reduced to 11 members in the Legislative Assembly it had reformed itself under the hands of Party President Dr Dennis Murphy, and State Secretary Peter Beattie. They had recruited young urban professionals like Wayne Goss into the Parliament, making the party appear youthful and energetic.

In contrast the National Party had an aging rural leader in Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Petersen was at the heart of the corruption and as the inquiry proceeded he was deposed by Mike Ahern, the amiable member for another rural electorate – Landsborough. Ahern was a reformer, but the bulk of the National Party membership never really accepted the legitimacy of the Fitzgerald findings. The Queensland Liberal Party was sitting on the sidelines having ruled itself out of power by splitting from the Coalition in 1983. The split was over corruption related issues, so they were untainted.


In this atmosphere the ALP had an extremely strong case to put to the electorate. The election was held on December 2 1989, but it was not until September of that year that the polls showed the ALP with any chance. How did the ALP turn the polls around? By a big-spending election campaign with heavy use of direct mail and some extremely clever marketing. Realising that the Liberal Party was its real opponent, it positioned the Liberals as the gormless, quarrelsome lickspittle of the Nationals and forced electors to choose between a polluted coalition and a pure ALP.

Why won’t the same dynamics apply this time?

There is the question of the type and magnitude of wrong-doing. The Fitzgerald Inquiry involved crooked coppers, drugs, prostitution, bribery and consequent corruption of the law-enforcement process. The National Party will always carry a stigma from the Joh years.

The sins uncovered in the Shepherdson inquiry are of a different order. They mostly relate to internal party machinations. As most citizens despise politicians, these are pretty close to victimless crimes. The are also not uncommon. How many people have moved house from one electorate to another but not changed their enrolment and voted in their previous electorate at the next election?

The ALP rorts involve a handful of people being added to the roll in a few electorates. It’s possible that they might have changed the results in Mundingburra in 1995 and Springwood in 1998. But this is dwarfed by the magnitude of legal fraud embodied in the National Party gerrymander.

The Queensland Liberal Party has added substance to the perception of politicians as rorters. Not only are some of their executive members "careless" about where they enroll, but there have been a number of well publicised rorts of its internal processes.


First there was the Young Liberal fraud. Now, according to newspaper reports, two Chinese members have signed up about 600 Chinese members in the Federal Electorates of Ryan and Moreton, while branches have been moved between Federal Electorate Councils, creating additional delegates to a Senate pre-selection council.

I have heard Liberal Party members say that none of this is illegal. It ought to be. Political parties have the important role of pre-vetting candidates for election. Their task in this process is at least as important as the task of voting. Tampering with it ought to be a crime.

Under Liberal Party rules anyone can be signed up to a branch in an electorate and vote in a preselection – they do not have to be an Australian citizen, live in the country, or be of voting age. This leads to attempts by candidates to "buy" preselections by signing up friends, relatives, neighbours and employees. It is illegal to pay for memberships, but cash is notoriously tight lipped about the hands it passes through. In theory, organised crime or a foreign government could control any Liberal Party preselection it wanted to.

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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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