March 30, 2004 | Graham

“Can do” Campbell’s “Mightn’t do” Council

Mandate theory is being given a work-out in Brisbane. Liberal Campbell Newman has been elected Lord Mayor, but 17 out of the 27 councillors are Labor. Neither side is taking it well. Newman says he is “the Boss” and his programme will be implemented. Labor spokesperson and former school teacher, Maureen Hayes wants to know if he understands the meaning of the word “democracy” and insists the Labor programme will prevail. At the moment both look like they want to bump the other out of the ring, and if it comes to that Hayes has the bulk of raw numbers.
There was a meeting today to sort out a working arrangement between the parties. The Liberals are proposing that positions in the civic cabinet be shared evenly between the parties with Labor also holding the position of Deputy Lord Mayor. Newman didn’t attend the meeting describing it as a “squalid political squabble”. Hayes said he should have been there because of his “large mandate”. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what exactly the role and responsibilities of the Mayor are, and who has the upper hand.
The ABC says that “[i]t is believed to be the first time in Australian history voters have elected a Liberal mayor but a majority Labor council.” That might be the case, but it is a function of the fact that the major parties only contest a few rare city council elections. Most Australians prefer the major parties to stay out of local government, and for the most part the major parties accommodate them. This is made easier because the functions of local government are almost apolitical, being mostly to provide services.
It is not unusual for a popularly elected Mayor to face a council that is hostile to them, but as a result of the lack of ideological conflict, this is generally not a major issue. It can be managed.
Writing in yesterday’s Courier Mail, an urban planning academic claimed that voters had deliberately elected Newman as Lord Mayor while keeping the wards with Labor. This assumes a collective conscious that voters just do not have. More of them voted Liberal at Mayoral and Ward level than voted Labor. It just so happens that by accident those votes didn’t fall sufficiently evenly across the wards for them to change hands in proportion to the citywide vote. It may also reflect the benefits of incumbency combined with the failure of Newman to run an effective marginal seats campaign so that he was only successful in winning one ward from Labor.
In a theoretical sense, none of this helps Newman. The City of Brisbane Act makes it clear that the Lord Mayor only exercises delegated power. As the head of the council he may have more opportunities than most councillors to make a difference, but he is still only the first among equals.
At the same time, electing the Lord Mayor from the whole of the city does imply that the legislative intent was to inject a broad-based mandate into a legislative body based on representative government.
What this means is that while Newman can’t assert an absolute prerogative to implement his programme, he does have a divided mandate with the council. They can argue plurality of seats, and he can argue plurality of votes. His argument is based on moral suasion, Labor’s on brute force.
In practical terms this might mean nothing. Voters will only retain confidence in Newman if he either performs, or is seen to be illegitimately frustrated by Labor. Even if he is frustrated, if that results in four years of inaction, voters might even sack Newman for someone who can work with Labor.
This practical analysis only works if you see the whole matter through the party political paradigm that has obtained to date. What if the real interests of Labor Party councillors don’t actually align with party interest? Think of it this way. This election tends to prove that incumbent councillors have a large margin of safety. If they do a good job they will be re-elected. There is nothing in this election to suggest that Newman and the Liberals will sweep any Labor incumbents out of office next election. Individual Labor Councillors are probably most at risk of losing if they have a fight with Newman, not if they work with him.
If they accept Newman is the Lord Mayor and then run with those parts of his agenda that are popular and only oppose those that aren’t, then the risk reward ratio is most heavily in their favour. In a sense the Liberals are in check. They need to negotiate everything with Labor, and in the absence of any friction will find it very difficult at the next election to win more seats from Labor. If Newman runs a successful administration with Labor collaboration it will be difficult for him to campaign against them as a team. He will only be able to improve his party position by running locally based candidates against particular incumbents on local issues, and then only if he is not implicated in the issues.
A further bonus is that with the Liberals providing the Lord Mayor, but little else, there will be less pressure on prominent Labor councillors to put their positions at risk and run for Lord Mayor. The Liberal Party lost talented men when Bob Ward and Bob Mills resigned their wards in successive elections to run for Lord Mayor because the party needed credible candidates.
Ironically, the Newman election may actually make it easy for Labor to ride out a couple of electoral cycles while maintaining effective control of the Brisbane City Council. While Campbell maintains his popularity, they can share in it. When he loses it, they can find a friendly candidate to replace him.
This isn’t much different from the way that ordinary councillors operate in non-party political councils. There is so little ideological difference these days between Labor and Liberal that it’s not too far-fetched to see it working in Brisbane. If it can work anywhere it would be at the level of government where ideology matters the least.
Crikey! claims that Newman’s victory was the work of the Queensland Liberal “Old Guard” of which I am apparently a member. There is only an element of truth in this. I certainly provided advice, only some of which was listened to, and so did others, but this win was primarily Campbell Newman’s, and no-one else’s. He’s his own man, (a control freak even according to his lie detector test on radio station B105) which he is proving at the moment.

Posted by Graham at 11:15 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. The Courier Mail this morning published a story (with security camera pictures) alleging that Campbell Newman sent his brother in law (who works for Brisbane Water) to check that documents weren’t being shredded late on the evening after the election. It’s alleged that he was spying on his boss (the head of Brisbane Water)
    I’ve just heard on ABC radio Campbell Newman complaining about an orchestrated to discredit him and he has questioned the “leaking” of the security camera photos. It appears that the first casualty of his election may be his promise of more openness in local government – I’m sure Tim Quinn feels just as aggrieved about the leaking of flood studies which he considered flawed to discredit him – I think Campbell Newman was all in favour of that leak.
    I suspect that Mr Newman may discover that being a control freak is not much of an asset in local government (or any government for that matter). Perhaps the most instructive example of this in Australian Politics is Paul Keating, but I suspect that John Howard may be starting to fall into the same trap. Strong control is fine as long as it holds but the moment there is the slightest crack everything starts to crumble and the traditional political skills of compromise and horse trading come into their own.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — March 31, 2004 @ 10:17 am

  2. In the past few days, Maureen Hayes has made much of the so-called support for Labor candidates in the Wards.
    There is no doubt that Labor won the Wards 17-9 but that the total vote for Liberal councillors all over Brisbane topped the vote for labor by more than 20,000 votes.
    She had a swing of 9.4% against her and only 45% of the voters gave her their primary vote.
    Other interesting negative swings against Labor candidates and percentage primary vote include:-
    David Hinchliffe – Central – negative swing 14.9% – primary vote – 48.5%;
    Helen Abrahams – Dutton Park (Quinn’s old seat) – neg swing 15.3% – primary vote – 40.8%;
    Sutton – Morningside – neg swing 24.2% – primary vote – 42.8%;
    Hopkins – Marchant – neg swing – 16.1% – primary vote – 46.7%.
    There are many more. Some support!

    Comment by B T Knapp — March 31, 2004 @ 5:31 pm

  3. A few other interesting figures:
    There were almost 37,000 votes for Green ward candidates and about 10,000 for independent ward candidates. It seems no one has a clear mandate!
    It seems they all need to just get over it and work out some reasonable way of co-operating for the next four years.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — March 31, 2004 @ 8:53 pm

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