January 13, 2004 | Graham

Queensland election kick-off – the blame game

Peter Beattie has kicked-off the Queensland election and we now have a sketch of the first phase of play. At this moment there are four visible prongs to his strategy. Expect a few more tines on the pitchfork to appear later in the campaign.
The first prong is a re-run of the 2001 State election where Beattie turned a probable negative in the Shepherdson Inquiry into a positive by accepting blame and taking drastic and prompt action to punish those responsible. In this case the issue is the CMC inquiry into the Families Department where it was found that children had been abused (including sexually abused) by foster carers under a succession of governments. The inquiry was somewhat unsatisfactory as a large number of documents had been lost, reflecting poorly on the administration of the department.
The second prong is transference of blame from his Government to the Feds. Polling obviously shows that health is a major issue. Rather than accepting blame here, Beattie has signalled that he wants the election to be about sending a protest to Canberra. He particularly singled out bulk billing and aged care patients being in hospitals rather than nursing homes as issues. At the same time he claimed that Queensland had the shortest hospital waiting lists in the country.
Protest votes are also very much on Beattie’s mind in a defensive context. He went out of his way to sketch a scenario where he could lose 15 to 20 seats, citing as objective evidence the opinions of that well known independent commentator, former ALP Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley. Another apparently credible piece of evidence was internal ALP polling showing that apparently 40% of ALP voters thinks he has too many seats. He then pointedly referred to the upset wins by Oppositions against Wayne Goss in 1995, Jeff Kennett in 2000 and Sallyanne Atkinson in 1991. Innoculating voters against the idea that he is impregnable will be a major part of the campaign.
The last prong is a “Don’t risk it strategy” which is coupled with an appeal to let him finish the job that he has started. It is long on rhetoric and short on specifics. It bounces off a claim that “Queensland has enough uncertainty” and that terrorism and SARS are threats to the Queensland economy. (He learnt that one from John Howard). It then recapitulates some of the themes of the government – Smart State and Education Innovation – boasts that Queensland has the lowest unemployment rate in twenty-one and a half years but says “more work needs to be done” and “the job isn’t finished”.
There are weaknesses. The first is that I can’t think of anyone who would really believe that this election has been called because of the mess in the Department of Families. If Beattie was really serious about ensuring that “agony…to Queensland children stops” he would have lopped the head of the Head of Department and the responsible Minister by now as an act of real contrition. Afterall, he has already lopped the head of a Governor General on a very similar issue. It was his tough action on the back of the Shepherdson Inquiry that made him credible on that issue. Beattie used the families issue to justify the timing of the election announcement. People, being cynical, are much more likely to believe the alternative explanation which is that he is calling the election now to catch the Opposition napping. This may further undermine his credibility.
Another weakness is that with the Opposition in ruins and Beattie enjoying a majority of 43 seats, no-one will believe that he can lose this election, whatever he says. A Premier descending into technical analysis of polls is not a particularly edifying sight and can easily appear like an attempt at manipulation, particularly when his reason for calling an election at this time looks opportunistic.
Beattie also has to explain why people should use this opportunity to protest against the Federal Government’s Health Policies but not protest against his own performance. He is sending the subliminal message that he is complacent and that while he is accepting blame, it is really just a ploy. He started his announcement by thanking Queenslanders and saying that he doesn’t take things for granted, but do voters believe him? One of the underlying nuisances of his nickname of “The Media Tart” is that he is about manipulation.
Some of the ironies of his position were caught in the post announcement press conference when he was asked whether Mark Latham would be involved in the campaigning. “No…this election is about Queensland”. So where does the health campaign fit?
I expect that the real campaign won’t start until after the Australia Day long weekend. Voters will not be paying a lot of attention until then. When it does start expect a second phase to open up where the shortcomings of the Opposition are pointed out and Beattie plays the “Just Vote One” card. A result of the second phase may well be that minor parties figure well in some selected seats as they seek for an acceptable vehicle for their protest vote. In this context One Nation may manage to hold their ground. However, I would put my money on a large percentage of the protest vote going to genuine Independents (including the team that Bob Katter is putting together), and the Greens just as it did in the NSW election. Preference allocation or non-allocation will be an important issue for the Opposition and the Government to decide correctly.
Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg will catch the ball at a press conference 2:30 pm EST. I’ll do a quick and dirty analysis of his response as soon after that as I can.

Posted by Graham at 1:56 pm | Comments Off on Queensland election kick-off – the blame game |
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