Governing Queensland – Political and Economic Challenges for the new Labor government: Part 1 The Political Challenges

Dec 3, 2020

The new Labor government in Queensland faces many challenges as it attempts to revive an economy hard hit by the Covid shutdowns, in particular developing strategies to limit the effects of likely changes in the demand for goods and services that has been the mainstay of the State’s economy. This will require taking a defensible position on actions in response to climate change without alienating its working-class base.

The government’s success will be shaped in part by the capacity of the LNP to renew its effectiveness as an opposition. Can a party which lost ground in the south-east without making an impact elsewhere develop a policy platform that will make it a viable alternative government in 2025?

The LNP has renewed its leadership and made changes to its shadow Cabinet. New LNP leader David Crisafulli was previously a minister in the one-term Newman administration. He subsequently moved south from his seat in Townsville when he lost in the Newman shock defeat in 2014. He relocated his family to the Gold Coast and won pre-selection for the safe LNP seat of Broadwater in 2017.

Crisafulli’s pre-selection for this seat is illustrative of a major challenge the LNP faces as it tries to rebuild in Queensland, that is the lack of gender diversity in its elected ranks and the dominance of the conservative faction associated with the former Nationals.

Only six of the 34 elected members are female with just one additional female MP, Amanda Camm, who won Whitsunday from the previous male LNP incumbent who was ousted from the party because of accusations of impropriety. His new “North Queensland First Party” polled very poorly in the seat, one that Labor has tried in vain to capture in recent elections.

The growing influence of conservative forces among the party bureaucrats and some key leaders has allowed Labor to stake out the political centre ground in the urban areas, even in regional Queensland, thereby marginalising progressive “Liberals”. The LNP is often seen as “Country Party lite” in the urbanised areas of the State so it struggles to identify a socially progressive agenda in the south-east.

Liberal and National rivalries have barely been papered over, often breaking through publicly. Many commentators recognised the deleterious impact this had on former leader Frecklington’s leadership prior to and during the recent campaign. Her decision to preference the Greens ahead of Labor and then generalise this advice to all seats did nothing to heal the festering divisions.

State Labor has managed to embrace much of urbanised Queensland, even those towns in mining regions that had rejected federal Labor. In doing so, it has paid the cost of galvanising the Green Party’s vote in the electorates around Brisbane, aided by the above-mentioned preference advice from the LNP. There are now two Green members in the State parliament and, worryingly for Palaszczuk’s strategists, a steadily increasing Green vote in at least three other inner Brisbane city electorates.

Nevertheless Labor had prospered on balance and the LNP lost ground. While Covid was a dominating theme during the election, the LNP did attempt to highlight economic issues, albeit incoherently. One commentator noted that the voters would have needed binoculars to see the “big bold vision” for major infrastructure developments. The local LNP had chosen to be constrained by an unrealistic promise to offer balanced budgets and avoid taxation increases in the next four years. (By contrast, federal LNP members have happily abandoned the mantra about debts and deficits in the light of the perceived Covid emergency).

Given its powerful political position against pedestrian Opposition, it is quite clear that Labor’s principal challenge in this term will be to manage an economy out of the Covid induced recession while managing its own internal discord over climate change. Again it will be aided by Liberal and National Party disunity.

The LNP is hamstrung by a federal Liberal National coalition government where internal conflict over the very existence of climate change has paralysed any rational policy making in this area. While there may be some short-term political mileage in attacks on the State government over the economy, unless the LNP can shed the weight of the Nationals’ climate denialist faction, viable alternative policies re unlikely to emerge.

Despite Labor’s courting of the mining regions, it has embraced low emissions technology and in doing so has exposed the wide divide between it and the LNP on energy policy and emissions reduction. Had the LNP been elected to government, it made very clear that it intended to dismantle the government’s renewable energy initiatives, including support for innovative hydrogen energy development hubs.

A number of the climate denialists are re-elected sitting LNP members and are backed by the likes of federal senator Matt Canavan and Dawson MP George Christensen. Christensen’s advocacy enabled the granting of almost $4m of federal funds for a “feasibility” study into a new coal fired power station at Collinsville in central Queensland. This despite overwhelming evidence that not only is it not needed but that it would be most unlikely to receive necessary approval in the future.

Such dubious attempts to shore up its mining constituency expose an internally conflicted federal government. It highlights the limitations of the LNP’s capacity to propose viable, alternative policy changes required as Queensland’s trading partners make the transition to clean energy and demand environmentally sustainable food production.

It is more likely that Crisafulli will succumb to pressure to provide an economic solution based on more of the same – an expansion of mining, gas and fossil fuel and related energy developments, a “quarry vision” that unfortunately is more likely to result in a future rust belt region relying on extractive industries in rapid decline.

Nevertheless, this vision will have the backing of the Queensland Resources Council led by former federal coalition minister Ian Mcfarlane. The Council is committed to an expansion of mining in all areas of the State and putting brakes on the royalties the State receives from mining.

The LNP will no doubt get plenty of media support from Newscorp that controls Queensland’s only major daily printed newspaper, the tabloid “Courier Mail”, and is now extending its conservative reach to rural areas where it has recently closed its print outlets, replacing them with on-line news. It also posts its “after dark” Sky News commentators online via Facebook and Youtube, thereby exposing a much larger audience to this appalling denialism of environment degradation and climate change.

Such commentary plays well in many of the State’s rural and regional areas and combatting such propaganda will be a further challenge for the new Palaszczuk government.

Labor is also faced with recalcitrance on climate and the environment among its own supporters and unions in the State’s mining regions. The very recent public nature of Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation from the federal shadow ministry serves as a reminder to Palaszczuk that the pivoting of the economy from its traditional dependence on fossil fuels and coal fired energy to a renewables future and a greener hue will be a monumental task in the context of national policy inertia in this area.

John Ford is a retired Queensland public servant who worked in a range of central and line agencies. He is interested in Queensland government processes and how organizational change and adaptation is managed in the public sector.

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