The podcast ‘Trust Me, I’m An Expert’ (10 September) is one of The Conversation’s rare forays into Queensland politics. It is a podcast from a much-valued series of gatherings held regularly at the Avid Reader bookshop in Brisbane’s West End.
The event brought together two of the shining lights among the analysts of Queensland political history – Ann Tiernan and John Cole. Both have a keen appreciation of the distinctive characteristics of Queensland’s political system while dismissing quasi-racist notions that Queenslanders are permanently and irreconcilably different from the rest of Australia – and probably more stupid.
Tiernan makes the point that Queensland has outgrown the red-neck image projected during the Bjelke-Petersen over thirty years ago and that half the current population have arrived since then. As a result, the dismissive pejorative ‘Mexican’ is rarely heard these days and Joh gets no credit for taking seriously the idea of a hydrogen car.
Drawing on a different academic tradition, Cole notes that the generic significance associated with the rural/urban cultural divide exists irrespective of state boundaries. It just happens that Queensland has a larger spread of ‘rural’ to the north and the west and a concentration of ‘urban’ in the south-east corner. He also provides a valuable history lesson about the experience of the regions in the fraught negotiations creating our current federal system. This has reinforced the continuing sense that northerners were dudded in never getting their own state.
But Tiernan and Cole both make the point that the ALP’s horror at the national election result in Queensland was exaggerated by the fact that there were so many marginal seats in play in Queensland which failed to change hands. Percentage swings were not so very different to those experienced elsewhere and they mattered equally in northern Tasmania and in Western Australia.
Tiernan and Cole also sought to identify one special characteristic among Queensland voters. Queenslanders take care about how to make their votes count. They will readily abandon presumed traditional loyalties if they are dissatisfied with current policies. This explains a willingness to punish the ALP Bligh government over public sector assets sales by giving Campbell Newman a massive majority and then immediately cancelling that when Newman applied private sector values in areas of employment and union regulation.
In the recent past, voters were willing to punish the ALP for its inconsistency about the tension between climate change and coal mining (‘different state, different story’) and its threat to middle-class incomes associated with investments in housing and superannuation. This did not mean they voted enthusiastically for the Liberal-National alternative but instead supported maverick options like Katter, Palmer and Hanson (even if preference distribution ended up hurting the ALP).
‘Dark money’ was clearly mobilised against the ALP. Palmer used his redirected millions to bluff the electorate into regarding him as a serious contender for office. In retrospect, it seems he was mainly concerned to avoid a federal government standing in the way of holders of coal leases alongside those of Adani.
And Greens and Get-Up were no help at all to the ALP, especially over Adani. Bob Brown’s crusade through rural Queensland irritated everyone across the state. And mobilising the personal loathing for Peter Dutton drained away resources from neighbouring constituencies where grassroots campaigns proved more effective in resisting the anti-ALP swing.
Since the national election, Queenslanders have continued to manifest this volatility as the focus has shifted back to state matters with the looming local election in a year’s time. The ALP’s internal ructions at state level and the national problem with the CFMEU have allowed a lack-lustre opposition to be able to bide its time and wait for its turn. A series of scandals or accusations of corrupt practice have been grabbing headlines about those close to the Premier’s office, about her house-purchasing deputy and about several local councils. NSW is trying hard, but the surreal case which led to the gaoling of the former Mayor of Ipswich takes some beating for unanticipated consequences. Polls – for whatever they are now worth – have suddenly started to respond to this accumulation of bad news for the ALP by pointing to a probability of regime change to a colourless alternative female party leader.
Tiernan and Cole offer a sensible and wide-ranging catalogue of policy areas where regional concerns loom large on the political horizon, especially access to advanced vocational education as well as university access and the potential for locating employment opportunities in non-traditional start-up industries. Cole instances the vision of the Wagner family and others in Toowoomba creating a private-sector airport expanding the range of export options.
Tiernan and Cole make harsh and accurate comments about regional perceptions of being bypassed by the political process, including the loss of local media, the narrow occupational base of the political class of both parties and the general disparity of opportunities and services between regional communities and urban locations.
Tiernan and Cole have been around for a longish time. I was pleased to note that Tiernan now has a title of Dean of Engagement at Griffith and Cole of PVC of Engagement at the University of Southern Queensland. Such university titles are frequently linked to a different set of organisational goals which do not place the Queensland community at the apex. It is gratifying to see that this is not the case at Griffith and USC.
Roger Scott has been a Professor of Public Administration, a Dean of Arts and a Director-General of Education in Queensland. He currently teaches at the University of the Third Age.