Riding High One Day, Disarray the Next

IMG_0787There are few things more fragile than the first term government of a new party. It’s easy to forget that the Queensland Liberal National Party has never governed before, because their precursors, the Liberal and National parties have. Together. In Queensland.

Same thing right? No.

They are charting unfamiliar territory, with a Liberal premier instead of a National, a city slicker instead of a regional hardhead. The machinations of the party machine – once canvased in the open as distinct parties – are now internalised. They bubble away below the surface, and pop up to start spot fires.

In November, that turned into out and out warfare with the defection of Ray Hopper. The member for Conadamine joined Bob Katter’s Australia Party at a time when Campbell Newman’s government was already struggling through scandal.  And in what was an extraordinary development, the government demanded a backbencher declare “100 per cent loyalty” to the premier and the “team”, before being allowed back into the party room. He left the party and disgruntled billionaire Clive Palmer now helps fund anti-LNP advertising starring the outcast.

Palmer was the party’s billionaire benefactor, but he’s jumped ship after an acrimonious spat that saw him first suspended from the LNP and then reinstated, only to resign saying the Newman government was “much worse than anything that was around at the time of the Fitzgerald inquiry”. He also compared Newman to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Trouble, which has been brewing for a while now, was initially focused on the series of ministerial stuff ups plaguing the freshman administration. In November, when the media notification about a senior minister being taken to hospital with back injuries came through, it seemed a bit like someone was playing a cruel joke on the premier.

Not that the content itself was funny.

“Minister for Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, the Hon. Ros Bates has been admitted to hospital following a fall at her home this morning. She sustained serious injuries to her back and will remain in hospital for up to a week and then on continued medical leave for the next two to three weeks while she recovers,” the media statement said.

Bates has been a headache for Newman for months – after revelations her son was appointed to a government position with little relevant experience while Queensland public servants were being dismissed in droves.  Bates was also caught out plagiarising the words of her Labor predecessor in the parliament – leading to the sacking of her speech writer –  and most recently, allegations about donations received in the dying days of the March election have dogged her, with the LNP announcing a probe.

Bates took leave in October to recover from a shoulder infection, and only returned to work in mid-November.

Now, she was out of action again, and the question immediately arose – would Newman use the opportunity to bench the embattled Bates, and reshuffle again?

I say again, because in the past few months two other ministers have resigned, casting the shadow of doubt over the competency of this administration.

First there was police minister David Gibson, forced to resign because he drove around unlicensed, after a three-month suspension was enforced in November 2011 due to a failure to pay fines. He’d been police minister for less than two weeks.

Then there was housing minister Bruce Flegg, who departed in mid-November following inaccuracies in his lobbyist register, in particular “sloppy administration” around some encounters with his son, a lobbyist.

But the premier is sticking by his arts minister. He told ABC radio that Bates had already answered her accusers, and batted away suggestions that she wasn’t really that unwell.

“There’s a lot of people who suspect the timing of this. They’re not saying it publicly, but…” ABC 612 Brisbane host Steve Austin said to the premier.

“She fell down the stairs. She damaged two or three vertebrae, she ripped muscle off the spine, as I understand it. She’ll be in hospital for the best part of a week and then off for another two weeks at least from that – and yes she does have a medical certificate and so people should perhaps show her a bit of compassion… Ros Bates answered questions last week in the parliament. She was available. What else does she have to answer? Quite frankly, it’s ridiculous,” Newman responded, clearly bristling.

Oh dear. Ministers getting caught out for nepotism and stupidity, and being accused of corrupt practises usually has a longer gestation period. (See Obeid, Eddie; MacDonald, Ian & Ors, New South Wales.) Although, the Geoff Shaw scandal that’s occupied Victorian premier Ted Baillieu is similarly the product of a young government.

Newman has now taken the extraordinary step of announcing plans to make all minister’s diaries freely available to the public from next year. His own was made an “open book” in November.

Newman has talked a lot about Westminister accountability, which he says failed under Labor, and his desire to enforce higher standards.

If the LNP’s investigation of Bates finds wrongdoing, Newman may find it difficult to continue to stand by her.

The decision to open up diaries to public scrutiny is an obvious attempt to pre-empt any further “sloppy administration”. Right now staffers are almost certainly scouring the books for any unfortunate anomalies ahead of their 2013 release.

It’s been a less-than-ideal start, then.

The LNP government was elected in a landslide.  And the polls have not shown any significant shift in public support for his team.  But there are concerns about Newman’s standing in his own seat of Ashgrove, wrested from Labor’s Kate Jones. A poll in the electorate showed support for the Premier had dipped nine per cent, enough for Labor to potentially snatch it back.

Ashgrove is an inner-city seat, and some more conservative LNP’s policy choices have not gone down well. Changes to surrogacy rules that shut out single parents and same-sex couples, and moves to water down civil union legislation are two areas where Newman appears to have been forced to the right by his party, or maybe forced to show his true colours.

In the Queensland capital there is speculation about what might happen should Newman’s numbers in Ashgrove continue south. Flegg might be vulnerable.  His seat of Moggil borders Ashgrove and is an LNP stronghold.  Newman could look to it for safety. You can’t be premier without a constituency.

Every premier must learn on the job. Every government has its share of stuff ups. To lose one minister is unfortunate. Two could be careless. But three in less than a year?

Newman will be hoping he doesn’t have to cross that bridge, while also battling an attack from Katter and the old-school Nationals – who have made it very clear they have no qualms tearing this government apart.

When you reorder long-standing power structures, it takes some time to adjust. Campbell Newman might be wondering just how much more.


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