Peter Beattie, Labor premier of Queensland since 1998 announced his retirement just 12 months after being re-elected for his fourth term. Beattie is one of Australia’s most outstanding politicians, standing head and shoulders over those in his own party, the pathetic state opposition, and to some extent even his current fellow premiers.
Beattie, both in his long political career in the tough factionalised world of the Queensland Labor Party, and as a member of parliament since 1989, has shown outstanding leadership qualities and great political skills. Perseverance and tenacity in the face of seemingly unwinnable situations, along with great tactical abilities in exploiting the politics of situations, mark Beattie’s style. Combined with tremendous energy it means Beattie never gave up.
These abilities were evident in Beattie’s early days in the Queensland Labor Party. When the ALP were in opposition in Queensland for what seemed forever (1957-89), as branch member and then as Party Secretary, Beattie fought for federal Labor executive intervention to reform the decrepit faction ridden party. He stuck at it when there seemed no chance for a Labor revival and when others would have sought careers elsewhere.
When Labor under the leadership of Wayne Goss finally toppled the National Party in 1989, Beattie’s own prospects were limited. He chaired the Criminal Justice parliamentary committee, often being offside with the government because he defended the new Fitzgerald inspired institutions of public accountability. Beattie was seen as too much his own man to be made a minister.
Beattie only became minister in the dying days of the Goss Government. However, when the Goss Government fell in 1996, Labor at last turned to Beattie. There was no one else, but it seemed like a poisoned chalice.
However, within two years the incompetent Coalition government was out of office. It was not just Beattie’s campaigning abilities that won Labor office, but given the cliff-hanger results, it was his skills in gaining and keeping support from independent parliamentarians. Goss could never have exercised such persuasion and political agility as Beattie did during that difficult first term in power.
Beattie had learnt that while the Goss Government had been reformist and process and policy driven it had lost the art of good politics, alienated the public service and seemed distant from the electorate.
In office, Beattie again and again was able to engineer revival when faced different crises such as allegations of vote rigging by some Labor members, the overseas doctors’ scandal, and the recent water issue. Beattie took charge of each situation and exploited every opportunity.
The results are there for all to see. Landslide majorities for Labor in the 2001, 2004 and 2006 state elections.
But there have been costs.
Beattie’s premiership, in keeping with his personality and immense abilities was the most presidential in Australia. Beattie was involved in every issue, dominated press releases across all portfolios and sought every photo opportunity. Ministers just drew the curtains for the real star, Beattie, to perform. Why, even recently, amid the local government amalgamation crisis, Beattie put out a press release about the government’s euthanasia policy on cats and dogs! Why bother? It is because Beattie believes no one else can do it as well and like all great performers he needs and feeds on constant applause.
The result is a lopsided government, of overcentralised control and of top down decision making. This was most vividly shown when in relation to local government amalgamation crisis Beattie threatened to sack those local governments wanting to have a referendum on this issue. But as with so many Beattie initiatives the policy had to be reversed.
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