Queenslanders deserve a government they can trust

Queensland has voted for a change in governing style at this state election – but under the next government, will they get it? Liz Minchin, CC BY-NC-ND

Whoever becomes the next Queensland premier has a chance to wind back the winner-takes-all approach that has worked its way back into the state’s political culture over the past decade, particularly under the take-no-prisoners premiership of Campbell Newman.

In fact, a commitment to do so may be central to the next premier’s ability to woo crossbenchers and form a minority government, unless Labor can reach a majority in its own right.

Improving accountability in Queensland will be crucial to restore the electorate’s lost faith in government and its institutions. These are some of the quick gains that Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk and any prospective leaders of the Liberal National Party should be considering right now.

No more nobbling of critics

For a start, the chair of the state’s corruption watchdog, the Crime and Corruption Commission, has to be a bipartisan appointment (as it was before the LNP changed procedures last year). And the parliamentary committee that oversees the commission has to behave with independence without the risk of being sacked, as it was last year.

Parliamentary estimates committees need to be given the time and resources to do their job properly, and not be nobbled as they have been recently.

Public disclosure of electoral donations has to return to its previous level. Labor has committed to bring back the declaration threshold from A$12,800 to A$1000; the LNP should do the same.

These are all simple steps and should be uncontroversial, because they are essential for sound government.

The winding back of such accountability measures has been an important part of the background noise that started turning the electorate off Newman and the first conservative Queensland government with an absolute majority since 1989.

How the mighty fall

Despite good results in health and education, and strong steps to take on organised crime, the LNP could be unceremoniously returned to the opposition benches. The final result is still too close to call. It would be a dramatic fall from the LNP’s grip on 78 seats of an 89-seat parliament just under three years ago.

The LNP’s core promise of privatisation (dressed up as a lease, rather than sale of government assets) is dead. Its election promises, contingent on the billions from the privatisations, are dead too.

And Newman – the leader who dominated wiser heads in the LNP partyroom and organisation to force his own way on virtually every issue – will be gone, as soon as he finishes serving as caretaker premier.

Newman’s flaws were well known to most around him before he became the state LNP leader. But dealing with those flaws was always a second-term issue for fear of the consequences of standing up to a leader whose military training never extended to diplomacy.

Ironically, there were two reminders during the election campaign from two starkly different voices about the cost to the state of this take-no-prisoners approach.

From the right, Queensland-born broadcaster Alan Jones daily lambasted Newman personally and his team for decisions that demonstrated a lack of accountability.

And from the centre (or left, depending on where you stand) former corruption commissioner Tony Fitzgerald blamed the Newman government for taking Queensland back to a new low.

The LNP would now do well to listen and act on these warnings, rather than attack its critics.

And with barely any real policy promises on offer, a prospective Labor government should do the same.

Labor’s chance to get off on the right foot

Palaszczuk’s strength as Labor leader has been in presenting a moderate face, with a promise to unite and listen to the community. Restoring the lost instruments of keeping government accountable would only build on that appeal to a united Queensland.

She does, however, have a steep mountain to climb with a massive, untried backbench and not enough existing members even to match her promise to create a slimmed-down ministry of 14. A lot of novices would be on her frontbench. But guess what: that’s nothing new. The scale of swings means every new state government has more untried than tested talent at the start of its term.

Palaszczuk starts with a potential frontbench of five former ministers and at least two who have substantial experience in ministerial offices. That’s better than Newman had in 2012.

Whether their quality matches his is a different matter – but this election result shows the electorate doesn’t really care about that if the policies and the leader are unpalatable.

The Abbott factor

The natural response to what has happened in Queensland is to look at Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s leadership.

But one important point shouldn’t be overlooked. Campbell Newman has been deeply unpopular for 18 months; his personal popularity and his party’s vote rose only when he took himself out of the limelight with Operation Boring.

This was more a Newman problem than an Abbott problem. But this state election does show that you can only hide a leader people no longer trust for so long before the electorate gets to deliver its verdict.

Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.

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