Saturday, 10 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Strong

So, Campbell Newman has finally decided to put us all out of our misery by calling the 2015 election for January 31 this year.  His stated reason - that he wanted to provide certainty for business - tells you a lot about our present Liberal-National Party government.  This is the most business-friendly government - and people unfriendly one - we have had in a long time.

I'm not going to pretend to give you an unbiased view of this election.  Let me tell you right up front, I won't be voting LNP.  Not that I'm much of a fan of the Labor Party either.  They have largely sold out to the same business interests as the LNP, but at least they are able to soften it with a slender padding of social responsibility.  I would like to be able to vote for a genuinely socially progressive alternative, but in the current environment I have to accept that my preferences will eventually flow back Labor's way.

Anyway, having got that out of the way up front, I want to talk to you about the LNP.  I'll talk about Labor in another post.

The LNP's soundbites and ads use the word "strong" a lot.  This is the end point of their three-year strategy aimed at creating anxiety.  The LNP has created a number of emergencies - a budget emergency, a law and order emergency.  After attempting to awe Queenslanders with the seriousness of the emergency, they do two things - they blame Labor, and they use the emergency to justify "strong" action.  The "budget emergency" is used to justify firstly the sacking of 15,000 public servants, the withdrawal of funding from a range of community groups that the LNP doesn't like, and more recently asset sales.  The "law and order crisis" is used to justify a set of laws which throw the normal principles of criminal justice and proportionality out of the window.  All this deflects our attention from a range of lower-profile changes which benefit LNP supporters with a brazenness that takes the breath away.

It is of course much easier to create a problem for which you have a ready-made solution than solve an actual problem, like climate change or homelessness, for which the solution is complex and requires you to act against the interests of your key financial backers.  Creating a climate of fear and anxiety also works for right-wing governments because it makes their preferred policy positions easier to defend and puts their more moderate opponents on the back foot.  It allows them to set the agenda and challenge their opponents to match them.  It is a powerful agenda-setting tactic, pushing the debate into areas where they are most comfortable and their opponents most conflicted.

The question is, are Queenslanders buying it?  It's been clear throughout the past three years that many are not.  Voters wiped the floor with the LNP in two by-elections and polls indicate a big state-wide swing back to Labor.  Even many of their own members are unhappy - four LNP MPs have quit the party since the last election, not counting crooks.  Will it be enough for a change of government?  Only time will tell.

The other interesting thing that goes with this is that "strong policies" tend to require a "strong leader".  In 2011 the LNP solved its chronic leadership problems by drafting Campbell Newman to lead their campaign.  It worked for them - Newman is a brilliant campaigner.  A drover's dog, as the saying goes, could have led the LNP to victory in 2012 but not everyone would have gained such a huge one.  This might make you think Newman is the requisite strong leader.  However, I'm not so sure.

There are times over the past three years when Newman has seemed strangely uninvolved in his government.  When Jarrod Bleijie was antagonising the entire legal profession, Newman was nowhere to be seen.  When deputy Jeff Seeney used his position as state development minister to do favours for mates, Newman stayed silent.  He also left Seeney to handle the fallout of the proposed pay rise for MPs.  When he eventually weighed into these issues, and many other similar ones, his response was often anaemic.

The other interesting factor is that Newman is the Member for Ashgrove.  In 2012 he had to work hard to win the seat over popular local Labor member Kate Jones.  The win only became a sure thing in the week before the election when the scale of the Labor wipeout started to become obvious.  In 2015 Jones is back and only needs a 5% swing to regain the seat.  The outgoing member for neighbouring Moggill, Bruce Flegg, spilled the beans after the LNP shafted him.  Internally, he said, no-one in the LNP believes Newman will win the seat.

Newman has, of course, put on a brave face and it is just possible that by force of personality he could defy the pundits.  However I wonder how much control he really has over any of this.  He became Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane more despite than because of the efforts of what was then the Queensland Liberal Party.  As an outsider in 2011-12 he had not had the opportunity to build a support base in the party room and had little or no say in the candidates who ran for positions on his team, many of whom turned out to be seriously inappropriate.

The LNP is a complex beast.  It was formed through an amalgamation between the rural-based National Party and the urban conservatives of the Liberal Party.  While the Nationals were a reasonably stable organisation, the Liberals were notorious for internal strife and faction-fighting.  The result is an amalgamated organisation with a rural ex-National faction added to the irreconcilable Liberal divisions.

All this tension simmers just below the surface.  Newman has been able to paper it over, first of all in the lead-up to the 2012 election and more recently when he succeeded in reining in his madder cabinet members and taking control of the messaging in the months preceding this one.  It seems the LNP is more than happy to have him leading their campaign once more, but don't particularly care if he is there afterwards to lead their government.  Indeed, many wold prefer he was not.  If Flegg is to be believed, his axing and various other pre-selection controversies in the past few months are all about shoring up support for one or another potential successor.  Seeney?  Nicholls? Springborg?  No doubt all of these would love to sit behind the desk Newman will surely be cleaning out come February 1.

In the meantime, can Newman maintain the facade of strong leadership up until January 31?  And will enough people believe him for it to work?  Well, that depends on a few other things which I'll talk about one day soon.  In the meantime, enjoy the show!

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