Monday, 12 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Anxious

I mentioned in my previous post that the LNP has been working hard for the past three years to create a climate of anxiety.  One person who doesn't seem to need much help to become anxious is Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Every time I have seen her in the media over the last three years her face has worn an anxious, harried expression.  She even wears it in the election advertising that has appeared on our TVs this week.  The only time it left her face was in the press conference she gave following the announcement of the election date.  Presumably she was told by her media advisers that she should smile more, so she tried one at the end of the conference.  It wasn't convincing.

Of course she has a lot to be anxious about.  She was a low-profile cabinet minister in the Bligh Government - her most senior post was as Minister for Transport and Multicultural Affairs in the final year of the government.  Then following the electoral rout of March 2012 she found herself thrust into the public spotlight as leader of the most depleted opposition in Queensland history.  Overnight she went from virtual anonymity to daily press conferences at which she was asked to comment on the hell-for-leather policy changes of the Newman government.

She had to do it pretty much alone, too.  She was leader of a caucus of seven people.  None of them were political heavyweights.  All the senior figures were gone - Bligh herself, Paul Lucas, Andrew Fraser, Karen Struthers, Rob Schwarten, Rachel Nolan, Stirling Hinchliffe, Judy Spence - all retired or voted out of office.  Along with the loss of so many members was the loss of support staff.  With only seven MPs you don't have a big office, and your capacity to research policy issues and come up with alternative ideas, or even keep up with what the government is doing, is cut to the bone.

That wasn't all.  One of the reasons the election loss was so heavy was that the Bligh Government's hasty privatisation decisions in 2009 alienated the union movement - both its leadership and its grassroots membership.  In 2014 the party was still struggling to find people to set up stalls and hand out leaflets for the federal election, so much so that Kevin Rudd made a humiliating public appeal for help.  For much of the past three years, the union movement has effectively been its own opposition, running its own campaigns against the LNP's funding cuts and industrial relations changes rather than getting in behind the parliamentary party.  Even in this election, union advertising is not so much encouraging us to vote Labor as to not vote LNP.

Given all these disadvantages it's not surprising that Palaszczuk has often looked and sounded like she is struggling.  She can't point to the great job her party did in government after the people of Queensland showed how violently they didn't think so.  Yet her party has no capacity to develop an alternative vision.  Her only option is the one she has taken, the one which is rapidly becoming the default mode of oppositions around the country - to focus on the government and point out its inadequacies.

Her good fortune is that she has had a lot to work with.  The LNP cabinet is mostly made up of rookies, including the Premier himself, and they have stumbled over their feet as often as they have trodden surely.  Their policies are inherently unpopular - sacking people, reducing services, subverting the legal process, undermining systems of public accountability, proposing to sell the family farm.  Palaszczuk and her colleagues have seen their stocks rise steadily through the year.  They have added two new MPs through by-elections, both of them seasoned politicians.  The polls suggest they are a chance to win this years' election, and pretty much certain to reduce the LNP's majority to less than a dozen seats.

But of course, as politicians are fond of saying, there's only one poll that matters.  Although it's also said that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them, the opposition needs to at least present a credible alternative.  Can the Queensland Labor Party do this?  I sense that if they are to pull off the miracle two things need to happen.

The first is that people must be able to imagine Annastacia Palaszczuk as premier.  Much as I hate presidential election campaigns, they are definitely with us at least for the present.  It will be Palaszczuk's face that is on the media every night and fronting the TV ads that will be flooding our TV screens.  Will she be able to shed her worried look for long enough to convince voters she is not terrified of winning?

The second is that people will need to believe that a Labor government will know what they are doing.  The bar is not really high here, given the three years we have just had, but there is a lot of convincing to be done.  Labor has only nine sitting members and one of those, the current deputy leader, is retiring.  Half an incoming Labor ministry will have to come from outside the current parliament.

This presents the Labor Party with a serious problem.  When it was nominating candidates for various seats over the last few months, it had a choice between running a set of candidates with political experience or a set of novices.  If it did the former, it would be asking us to re-elect the people we rejected so soundly three years ago.  If it did the latter it would be asking us to elect of government of people who had no idea, far more so than the LNP three years ago.

In the event, it has gone for a compromise.  Some of the old faces are attempting a return - Kate Jones in Ashgrove, Grace Grace in Brisbane Central, a few others - but none of the senior ministers.  There are a few people who know how the system works, but none who have to carry a huge burden of blame for the mistakes of the Bligh Government. They have also pulled out some people with relevant experience.  My local Labor candidate is a former Councillor.  Over on the Northside Yvette D'Ath, a two term Federal MP, won the Stafford by-election last year.  There should be enough people for the party to cobble together some sort of cabinet, but "cobble" will be the word.

And the related, multi-billion dollar question is - what will they do if they get the reins of power?  They have assured us that over the course of the election campaign they will release their policies "in full".  I'm waiting to see what they are.  The LNP is banking on the assumption that they won't be very good.  So far, the only policy we have heard about is a re-run of the previous government's approach to employment and training.  This is not actually a bad policy but at some stage they will need to convince us all that we will not be simply re-electing a pale imitation of the Bligh Government.

I'm waiting - in fact eager - to be convinced, but I'm not confident that I will be.

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