There has been a great deal of commentary about the reasons for the monumental rejection of Labor in the state election in Queensland on March 24. It is important to be quite forensic in examining the root causes of such a huge swing, to identify the particular behaviours that caused it and how not to make the same mistakes again.
During the 2009 state election, there was a definite mood for change in Queensland. Until the last week of the campaign, it appeared that the newly-formed LNP could pull off a narrow win. In the final few days, the 18 per cent of voters who were still undecided all swung to Labor. The main reason, as best can be found, was that there was significant disquiet about the capability and competence of Lawrence Springborg, then LNP Leader, to lead the then deeply divided party in government. The voters sent a clear message to the LNP to get their act together if they wanted to occupy the Treasury benches … and a perceived hick was not who they wanted as Premier.
The LNP did indeed heed this message, unified the party, and selected a leader worthy of support.
With this sudden and largely unexpected re-birth, Labor set about completely destroying its credibility and alienating the core of its own constituency.
Within a few weeks of re-election, the Premier and Treasurer announced a program of significant asset sales to try to rebuild the State Budget and help the State recover from the Global Economic Crisis. During the election campaign, Labor had ruled out any such actions. The voters felt that their trust had been trampled. Unionists and long-term Labor supporters who vehemently oppose the sale of public assets were horrified and determined to fight these sales. Added to this disaffection, the Government went further and announced significant job losses in the public service.
Few objective economists would dispute the wisdom of the Queensland Government recovering the monetary value of a range of state assets to use for other more important priorities within the Budget, such as reducing debt. As such, the decision to sell a range of assets was a sensible one by the Government. The State needed to reduce debt levels significantly and asset sales were the least painful means of achieving this. If the LNP had been in power at this time, they would have done virtually the same thing, despite what they said at the time.
The reason for the 16 per cent swing against the Government, which has been basically at this level since the asset sales announcement, was the manner of the Government’s process.
I believe most strongly that the Premier could have still achieved the economic outcome required and strengthened her political position if she had adopted a totally different course.
Why are Governments so afraid of actually engaging in a dialogue with their constituents?
If Anna Bligh had embarked on a conversation with Queenslanders about the economic situation of the State and offered them the opportunity to consider the options and communicate their views, she would have been applauded for her openness and honesty, rather than being derided for her perceived treachery.
When Governments are in such diabolical positions, with the range of options for recovery all painful in some way, the best course of action is to seek the advice of the people who will be most impacted by whatever course of action you take – the citizens.
For any Government, there are only three ways to reduce debt: cut services, increase tax revenues, or sell assets. If the Premier had announced that she was going to embark on a four month tour of the State, conducting public meetings and forums with voters across Queensland to explain the situation and seek their views and input on which course of action, or combination, they wanted to fix the finances, the result would overwhelmingly have been asset sales.
No-one wants to pay more tax.
No-one wants fewer police, nurses and doctors, teachers, or less spending on roads, schools, hospitals and other vital services.
If given the option between owning the Port of Brisbane and a bunch of forests or cuts to education or health, the asset sales will win every time.
In fact, most Queenslanders would have told the Premier that it was her job to weigh up the options and make the best decision. But, they would have absolutely appreciated the honesty in the question and the opportunity to give their views.
The financial decisions would have been delayed by a few months. Since most of the sales did not occur for another 18 months or so, such a delay would have been negligible for the financial result. Some of the ones may not have proceeded and other options would have been brought to light. The process, however, would have made all the difference in the world politically.
The Labor Government would have largely kept the faith of their core constituency, and won new friends across the political spectrum for taking the people into their confidence and giving them a voice.
And they would probably still have lost last Saturday’s election, but would have kept their safest seats and been a viable Opposition with about 24 – 28 seats in the Parliament.
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