As Queensland’s new Labor minority government sits down to determine its immediate priorities, it faces a difficult choice: hasten slowly, or seize the day?
Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government would do well to take into account some lessons and precedents from Queensland’s electoral history – most notably the 1998 and 1915 state elections.
‘Govern as if you have a majority of 10’
In June 1998, Labor under Peter Beattie was returned to office in Queensland after ousting a one-term National-Liberal coalition government. But in an election where the conservative vote was split following the “shock and awe” arrival of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, Beattie’s ALP won 44 seats, one short of a majority. With the support of newly elected independent MP for Nicklin, Peter Wellington, Beattie was able to form government.
Just like the recent 2015 election, that outcome had to wait the better part of two weeks until the final declaration of results.
Nearly 20 years on, Hanson played more of a cameo role in this election, falling just short of capturing the seat of Lockyer for One Nation. But her presence, as well as the balance of numbers in the election wash-up, adds to the impression that we’ve seen all this before.
Wellington’s position in the current political standings provides the clearest link to - and lessons from - that 1998 election result. Beattie was only able to clinch Wellington’s support for a minority Labor government by agreeing to certain principles of accountable administration and responsible fiscal management. The agreement also required Beattie to lead a more collaborative and “engaged” government, attentive to the sentiments of the electorate. This prompted him to introduce a regular schedule of community cabinet meetings (expanding on a program used intermittently by his predecessors, and maintained since), which proved popular in regional locations.
Importantly, these arrangements provided Beattie not only with the necessary stability to command a majority on the floor of parliament, but the absence of any policy wish list imposed by Wellington allowed Beattie enough latitude to implement his new government’s agenda – including the beginnings of his signature Smart State strategy – and not sit in office as a lame duck administration.
Famously, Beattie exhorted his parliamentary team to govern “as if they had a majority of 10”. That was made easier when a by-election win in the seat of Mulgrave in December 1998 gave Labor a majority.
Nonetheless, Beattie maintained his commitment to Wellington’s stipulations. He went on to win a then-record majority at the 2001 state election - successfully advocating a “just vote 1” campaign strategy that Newman and the LNP couldn’t replicate in 2015. This established a platform from which Beattie dominated state politics for the next half-dozen years.
Some circumstances are different for Premier Palaszczuk.
In Beattie’s case, he enjoyed the advantage of leading an opposition containing a wealth of ministerial experience from the Goss years in office. That made Labor’s transition to the government benches in 1998 that much easier. Palaszczuk has far less seasoned talent than Beattie to call on, with only a third of the new executive claiming any cabinet experience.
However, while a degree of caution in office would likely stand the new premier and her ministry in good stead, the lessons of Beattie’s bold approach in 1998, with the confidence of supply provided by a reliable crossbencher in Wellington, are there for Palaszczuk’s government to heed.
For a start, we should expect to see a greater emphasis on genuine community cabinet meetings, with open question-and-answer sessions, unlike the muzzled version sometimes seen under the Newman government.
A centenary to forget for the LNP
In a strange twist of history, the 2015 election mirrors events from a century ago.
The 1915 and 2015 elections are the only times in Queensland’s history when the incumbent premier was defeated in his own electorate. On both occasions, too, the conservative government unexpectedly lost office to Labor. And that’s not where the parallels from the past end.
Digby Denham was Queensland’s premier between 1911 and 1915, leading the entrenched Ministerialist bloc in parliament (one of the forerunners of the Liberal Party). Like Newman, Denham worked in a Queensland grain-selling business before entering politics via local government ranks in inner Brisbane.
As premier, Denham struggled at times to maintain a united party, with some rural-based government members forming a break-away faction, the Farmers’ Union (a forerunner of the Country Party), in moves reminiscent of the formation of Katter’s Australian Party in 2011. Notably, Denham used law and order as a pretext for his 1912 re-election after ordering a police crackdown on striking tramway and other workers in Brisbane. This led to violent clashes and a backlash against his government among voters in the capital.
Perhaps more significant was Denham’s introduction of compulsory voting for the 1915 election, in shades of the LNP’s introduction of proof-of-identity requirements for voters at this year’s poll. Denham’s reform was ostensibly an effort to curb unions from mobilising Labor voters.
But the move backfired. Denham’s government suffered a huge voter swing against it, losing over half its seats – including those of the premier and several of his ministers - and Labor’s TJ Ryan formed the next government.
So whether it is 1915 or 2015, there are valuable lessons for future premiers contemplating a strong-arm approach to leadership, or considering reforms to electoral procedures or important policy areas without sufficiently making the case for change with the public.
Fourth time lucky for the LNP leader?
If the conservatives are looking for a glimmer of hope, it may lie with their leader, Lawrence Springborg. Springborg is leading the conservative forces in Queensland for a third time, despite insisting in a 2011 interview with this author that “his time had passed” and that the LNP leadership was “someone else’s destiny”.
The question now is whether Springborg is headed to his fourth election defeat as opposition leader by 2018, which would be an unenviable record, equal to past National Party leader Rob Borbidge (1992-2001) and only one short of Frank Nicklin (1944-56). However, history shows that both of those men did become premier by persevering.
While the 2015 Queensland election was extraordinary, even its most unusual features – a premier dumped, a shock loss for a government and the revival of a fallen leader – have all happened before.
In Queensland politics, there is truly “nothing new under the sun”.
* Correction: This article was corrected on February 24 to remove a sentence that said “Denham later entered parliament after winning the Brisbane-based state seat of Oxley, which took in the northside suburbs of Ashgrove, Enoggera and The Gap…” While those suburbs had previously been part of Oxley, a redistribution in 1888 meant that was no longer the case by 1915.