National commentators are unlikely to pay much attention to the Brisbane City Council election to be held later this month, but they should. It holds the key to the future of the Howard Government every bit as much as does the Bush. If Howard loses 7 seats he loses government and of the 7 most marginal, 4 are in Queensland. So is number 8. What happens in the BCC election will have a bearing on how likely those seats are to be held for two reasons.
Firstly, the Council election will be another test of the struggling State branch of the Liberal Party. Secondly, a Labor Party win may well be portrayed as a vote against the GST.
Brisbane is unique amongst Australian capital cities. It has a city council area that spans a radius of some 20 kms from the city centre and which boasts a budget almost as large as that of Tasmania. Its councillors are paid only $500 less than a State Member, and its Lord Mayor is paid on a par with a Federal Cabinet Minister. It has tremendous weight and power in the machinery of its government. Possession of it gives the incumbent party access to around a third of the state’s voters; and resources to court them.
While Brisbane is the area in the state where the Liberal Party has traditionally been strongest, since 1983 it has been struggling to win seats there. This has crippled it because Brisbane is the financial and intellectual heart of the state. Unable to impress its heartland it has been starved of financial resources and the safe metropolitan seats needed to entice intelligent and ambitious men and women into a political career. Its one bright period in Brisbane in the last 17 years was when Sallyanne Atkinson held the Council between 1985 and 1991.
This council election represents the first real opportunity it has had to wrest the Council administration back. Lord Mayor Jim Soorley, known sarcastically around the town as Lord Jim, has been in power for 9 years. He has been a competent administrator who has advanced the programme that Atkinson herself put in place. An ex-Roman Catholic priest he is also blessed with an extraordinarily high opinion of himself, a hectoring sermonising approach to public speaking, and a tendency to verbally assault anyone in sight, including his own colleagues and allies. In the middle of the campaign he floored everyone by criticising the Labor state government of Peter Beattie for having won a bidding war against Victoria for the headquarters of Virgin Airlines! So, while no-one is complaining about his administration, he has just the sort of personality that a sullen electorate has recently been keen to poke.
But the Liberal Party is unlikely to move him. Their candidate is Gail Austen, the high profile owner of the Goodtime Surf Shop who has been a Telstra Businesswoman of the Year. Austen is reputed to have been a member of the National Party, and in one newspaper interview likened herself to Pauline Hanson. She has an awesome temper, admitting to chasing council officers down the street brandishing an unloaded firearm; and an unreliable memory. Appropriately she campaigns under the slogan "Gailforce" and drives around in a Landrover Defender complete with surf kayaks on the roof and a mastiff in the back seat.
Polling shows that the electorate believes Soorley is arrogant and that it is ready for a change. It also shows that it is not sure that Austen is the right change. A good campaign could fix that. There is no evidence that such a campaign is on foot.
Austen is good raw material. In this day of the sculpted sound bite and the Oscar winning press conference, Pauline Hanson demonstrated that electors will react to something more vital and natural. They are tired of percentage politics. An insurgent campaign would have been the way to go with Austen, but a carefully insurgent one – cheerfully negative on specific issues, needling away, and ruefully honest that it is unlikely to win, while being, above all, intensely personal.
Instead, Austen’s hair has been starched, and she has spent most of her time spruiking about herself and promoting Liberal policies which mirror pretty closely Labor ones, thus committing two deadly sins – I-am-ism and me-too-ism. The longer the campaign runs, the more she looks like Soorley himself. This election should have been "The Surfie Chick takes on Town Hall", but instead she is playing My Fair Lady to Jim’s Lord.
Worse still, the Liberal Party campaign is under-funded, poorly organised and riven with factional fighting. This is predictable and unlikely to change before the next Federal Election. The faction associated with State frontbencher Santo Santoro gained control of the party 2 ½ years ago partly on a promise to move it from rented premises into offices which it owned. This was achieved, but only by starving candidates of funds and running the last Federal election campaign at a profit. After the backseat fumble with One Nation , this was probably the next most significant factor leading to the Queensland Liberal Party recording the worst election results of any Liberal Party division in 1998.
The party is currently in such dire financial straits that it apparently intends to spend only between $100,000 and $150,000 on the Council campaign. This is about the same as would normally be spent in just one target Federal seat, and not much more than a State Member like Santoro would spend holding his safe seat of Clayfield. Labor is expected to spend around $700,000.
It is no wonder that the organisation is having trouble raising funds. Last State Election it went backwards, losing 40% of its seats. Added to this it went into the two recent by-elections of Bundamba and Woodridge with an opportunity to show that the previous election was an aberration caused by a miscalculation over One Nation. Instead of that it refused to spend any money to defend its brand name, so pegging its State Parliamentary Leader David Watson out on the ground. The results were disastrous – a single digit result in Woodridge and a result just ahead of ex-One Nation State Leader Heather Hill in the other. When this party comes visiting donors carefully sit on their wallets.