21/03/2012 - 10:57

Conservative cabal at COAG ’12

21/03/2012 - 10:57


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The political landscape has changed significantly since the last COAG meeting.

The political landscape has changed significantly since the last COAG meeting.

THE Queensland election on Saturday should serve as a stark reminder that when the political pendulum swings it can move quickly; and it can be very unforgiving.

In less than four years, the electors of three of the biggest states have tipped out established Labor governments in favour of the Liberal-National Party coalition. And the voters in Queensland are odds on to do the same this weekend.

In late 2008, then prime minister Kevin Rudd had organised for a Council of Australian Governments meeting to be held in Perth only months out from the expected election in Western Australia in February 2009. The hidden agenda was to increase then Labor premier Alan Carpenter’s profile as one of the nation’s key decision makers. 

But when Mr Carpenter had a rush of blood and called a snap poll, after the Liberals dumped Troy Buswell as leader and prevailed on Colin Barnett to shelve plans to retire to his Toodyay farm and again take on the top job, it all started to change.

Mr Carpenter’s strategy was designed to catch the Liberals off guard before the new leader had time to draw breath. But by the time the COAG meeting started, it wasn’t Mr Carpenter who was the host premier but rather Mr Barnett. 

Even though Mr Barnett was the only Liberal state leader in the room, Mr Rudd went out of his way to make him feel at home, much to the chagrin of some WA Labor MPs.

Fast forward to next month’s planned COAG meeting. Not only has Mr Rudd gone – though Labor’s Julia Gillard will still be presiding – the Labor governments in New South Wales and Victoria have slid into opposition, going the same way as WA Labor. And Queensland Labor is destined to follow suit.

Even though Queensland Premier Anna Bligh comes across well on television, and was widely praised for her role in last year’s disastrous floods, she is odds on to go the way of former premiers Mr Carpenter, John Brumby (Victoria) and Kristina Keneally (NSW) and end up on the opposition benches, after 14 years of Labor government. 

That’s a good run in anyone’s book, but the electors seem to have picked up on Gough Whitlam’s famous 1972 election slogan and will call ‘It’s Time!’ on Queensland Labor.  

Still, there’s plenty of interest in how the result will unfold. 

Most attention will centre on the effort by Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman to become the new premier. He is attempting to break fresh ground by leading his party to election victory while simply a candidate, not a sitting member seeking re-election.

There’s always a first time for everything, but the only thing Labor has not thrown to prevent the former Brisbane lord mayor from winning the Labor-held seat he is contesting is the kitchen sink. 

Certainly he has a strong political pedigree. Both his parents, Kevin and Jocelyn, are former federal Liberal ministers. But will that, plus his mayoral experience, be enough in the hurly-burly of a hotly contested campaign?

Another issue will be the performance of federal independent MP Bob Katter’s recently formed Australian Party, aimed fairly and squarely at regional voters. A noted authority on northern Australian politics tells me Mr Katter’s party could win up to seven seats. 

That’s probably not enough to gain the balance of power in the 89-seat parliament, but a useful debut nevertheless. 

Mr Katter has been running a shrewdly targeted campaign. While the audience at a recent ABC TV Q&A program disapproved at the Katter party’s television advertisement critical of gay marriage, many voters in regional Queensland are likely to have a different view. And that’s the demographic at which the Katter campaign has been directed. 

Then there is the Katter party’s chief donor, casino owner James Packer, who has kicked in $250,000 to help the campaign. He’s following in the tradition of his father, Kerry Packer, in supporting political mavericks. Packer senior is said to have given generously to Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ill-fated Joh for PM campaign in 1987, which effectively derailed John Howard’s first push for The Lodge.

With all the recent debate about wealthy people and vested interests trying to buy political influence, Mr Packer junior’s move might have been expected to raise a few eyebrows. In this case, however, Treasurer Wayne Swan, who seemed so alarmed at the actions of mining billionaires Andrew Forrest, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, has remained out of the debate.

It was left to Tasmanian independent, Andrew Wilkie, to record his concerns, describing the donation as “deeply unethical”, adding that it “is no better than someone handing over a brown paper bag in a developing country”.

That’s probably stretching things a bit, but as far as the government is concerned, when it comes to criticising the actions and perceived motives of the wealthy, some seem to be a protected species while others are considered fair game.

Ms Gillard might not like the comparison but with the growing number of Liberal premiers around her at the next COAG meeting, she would be well advised to take a leaf out of John Howard’s book. 

He chaired COAG while Labor was in the ascendancy in the states.

All the feedback suggests he was a genial host, starting from the pre-COAG leaders’ dinner at The Lodge, to running the meeting itself next day. 

And he handled the subsequent news conference with a minimum of one-upmanship.

That’s the glorious uncertainty of politics in a federation. It’s not necessarily the cards you are dealt but how you play them that counts. 

Remember, when the pendulum starts swinging back the other way it can be just as swift, and unforgiving.

McGowan jabs

THEY are hardly barbecue stoppers that will topple a government, but some of Labor leader Mark McGowan’s policy initiatives have forced the Liberal-National alliance to reassess some of its own strategies, including some hoary old chestnuts.

One issue was security concessions for seniors. The government’s program, which had been running for several years, was about to wind up without any sign of an extension. The concessions were linked with making accommodation more secure through financial assistance for security screens and other devices.

Mr McGowan said not only would a Labor government extend the life of the scheme, the value of some of the benefits would be doubled.

Seniors Minister Robyn McSweeney reacted quickly, announcing that the life of the government program would also be prolonged.

Then it was the vexed issue of potato marketing. Potato regulation has been an act of faith for the National Party, although it sits oddly with its ‘alliance’ partner, the Liberals, being the party of free enterprise.

Labor in government has always been happy to go along with the potato-marketing regime.

Not any more. Mr McGowan says Labor will dump it. Again, it’s the Liberals who now look as if they are dragging the reform chain.



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