The year that was: Queensland politics in 2012
Amid all the euphoria at the Queensland Liberal National Party’s election victory party on March 24, there was, believe it or not, some disquiet about the extent of the majority.
The LNP ended up clinching 78 of the 89 seats in Parliament, but some LNP figures were already privately acknowledging it would be difficult to manage such a large party room. One even suggested something like 10 fewer MPs would have been more workable.
Some of those tensions came to a head in the final parliamentary sitting week of the year, when three MPs quit the LNP – long-serving rural-based MP Ray Hopper defected to become the new leader of Katter’s Australian Party and another two, Carl Judge and Alex Douglas, turned independent.
The appearance of turbulence frustrated Premier Campbell Newman, who insisted the new LNP government had spent the great bulk of the year delivering the type of change voters were promised when they comprehensively ended 14 years of Labor rule in Queensland.
The year began with the Bligh government and Newman-led opposition making their manoeuvres before the official launch of the election campaign, including debates over job creation and education funding.
The start of 2012 ushered in the third 15 per cent public transport fare hike in three years, feeding neatly into the LNP’s campaigning against cost-of-living pressures.
The first round of public service cuts
Bligh government treasurer Andrew Fraser was also forced to confront a $1.144 billion write-down in tax and royalty revenues, issuing a budget update in January that increased to 5000 the total number of public servants expected to leave under an expanded “voluntary separation program”.
Together union secretary Alex Scott complained the move “would make Andrew Fraser the butcher of the Queensland public service”. Mr Scott, who in 2011 acknowledged the public service needed to be reduced in non-frontline areas, would go on to be one of the leading critics of the eventual Newman government public sector cuts.
But the full-blown public service debate was some way off gathering steam. In the weeks leading up to the state election, the inquiry into the devastating floods of 2010-11 was attracting increasing attention.
Flood inquiry steals spotlight
The commission, headed by Court of Appeal judge Catherine Holmes, called a new round of hearings on the eve of its reporting deadline after fresh claims Wivenhoe Dam engineers mismanaged water releases into Brisbane River in the lead up to the city’s floods.
Four engineers came in for tough questioning during the hastily convened extra hearings amid allegations they provided misleading information about when specific dam release strategies were activated. The inquiry’s final report, handed to then-premier Anna Bligh just a week before voters went to the polls, suggested the Crime and Misconduct Commission should look at charging three of the engineers over their post-flood claims.
But the CMC would later announce in August it had decided against laying charges, pointing to the badly drafted dam operating manual from which the engineers were working.
A messy election campaign
In the weeks leading up to the March 24 election, Ms Bligh sought to sow doubts in voters’ minds over Mr Newman’s time as Brisbane lord mayor, claiming he had questions to answer over “dodgy deals” and alleged links to developers.
But when the CMC issued a statement just over a week before the election making clear Mr Newman was not being investigated over three specific issues, the wind was taken out of the Labor sails. (The Newman government would later float possible changes to the CMC, claiming it had been used as a political weapon during the campaign and politically sensitive complaints should remain confidential until resolved.)
The LNP argued Labor was clinging to smear because it had run out of ideas and it was “time for a change”. Voters certainly delivered that change. The election – which also came just weeks after Kevin Rudd’s distracting leadership challenge against Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Canberra – saw the Labor party demoralised with just seven seats left in the 89-seat Parliament.
The only former ministers left standing were Annastacia Palaszczuk, Tim Mulherin and Curtis Pitt, plus Ms Bligh who promptly announced she was quitting her South Brisbane electorate and bowing out of politics altogether, despite previously claiming she would serve out her term regardless of the outcome. Ms Palaszczuk, as new Labor leader, faced the daunting task of holding to account a government 10 times bigger than her own team.
Mr Newman, who won Ashgrove as part of his audacious push to lead the LNP to victory without holding a seat in Parliament, set about tackling his 100-day plan, which included freezing family car registration bills, axing the industry waste levy, and reinstating a stamp duty discount that was removed by Labor.
But there was an early ministerial controversy when Gympie MP David Gibson quit as Police and Community Safety Minister after a fortnight in the role following unlicensed driving and speeding revelations.
Newman paves way for cuts
The major growing storm, however, was over the state of Queensland’s finances. The Newman government appointed a team headed by former federal Liberal treasurer Peter Costello to review the books. The interim June report, which said debt was nearly $65 billion but could climb as high as $100 billion by 2018-19 unless action was taken, paved the way for public service cuts.
Mr Newman started pushing the argument the state had 20,000 more public servants than it could afford. Treasurer Tim Nicholls later clarified that the figure was about the public service numbers increasing too fast compared with population growth. The commission of audit report stated: “If the size of the public sector in Queensland had remained at the same percentage of the population as in 2000, in 2010-11 employee numbers would have been around 18,500 lower and expenses around $1.5 billion lower (all other things being equal).”
Labor and unions dismissed the report as politically motivated but the Newman government argued it showed tough action was needed to rein in spending. Mr Newman raised eyebrows in July when he ramped up the rhetoric to the point of claiming the state had been on its way to bankruptcy before the LNP started imposing budget discipline. He had a political brawl with Ms Gillard over funding for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, although later in the year he managed to find extra money to contribute to disability services in Queensland in future budgets.
“I’m saying that if we’d fail to act in the way that we are, that Queensland will ultimately be the Spain of Australian states,” the Premier declared at the height of the debate over the state's finances.
Budget targets public servants
It set the scene for a state budget in September that outlined cuts to 14,000 public service positions, most of which would come about through redundancies rather than not filling vacant roles.
Mr Newman had sent some mixed messages about the public service in the lead up to the election, but in December 2011 he did signal the size of the government workforce needed to be reduced over time through natural attrition. Mr Nicholls argued the new government's first budget set out a path back to surplus in coming years and slower increases in debt levels.
Unions complained about the scale of the job cuts, pointing out Mr Newman had assured public servants they had nothing to fear from an LNP government. Protest rallies were held and the conflict dominated state political media coverage for months. The day after the September 11 budget, police estimated a crowd of between 8,000 and 10,000 people marched to Queensland Parliament to voice their anger. The Newman government rushed through a new law that stripped away employment security and limited-outsourcing protections from existing public service pay deals. The measure, passed in the name of reforming the public service, stirred controversy but a union challenge against the law was thrown out by the Court of Appeal in December.
Gay rights watered down
It wasn't the only Newman government law that stirred controversy. Mr Newman had indicated in the lead up to the election that the same-sex civil partnerships law, passed near the end of the Bligh government's term, would be in the LNP's sights. But he mixed his messages by telling Fairfax Media in December 2011 he would not scrap the law if civil unions had already occurred at the time of a change of government because of the impact on couples who had entered into such partnerships. “If that had occurred that would obviously be an unacceptable and intolerable situation for them, so in that scenario we wouldn't be doing anything,” he said shortly after the law passed the then Labor-dominated Parliament.
In June 2012, Mr Newman unveiled what he sought to portray as a measured compromise. Couples of any gender would still be able to formally register their relationships, but they would no longer have the option of celebrating their commitment at a state-sanctioned ceremony. The name would also change, with couples no longer entering into civil partnerships but instead into registered relationships. Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie's bill also made it simpler to dissolve a registered relationship, amid claims the court process was too close to divorce.
The government argued it was preserving the federal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, but same-sex couples and activists protested the watering down of civil unions, saying rights were being stripped away. Rowdy interjections during the debate in Parliament led to the public gallery being cleared of protesters. Queensland's first female parliamentary speaker, Fiona Simpson, would later suspend independent television cameras from the floor of Parliament after footage of the public gallery protests were broadcast against media access rules. After the protesters had left Mr Bleijie took the opportunity to flag plans to introduce another bill to ban single people and same-sex couples from having a child through surrogacy, despite Mr Newman during the election campaign ruling out surrogacy changes.
Health payroll costs mount
The aftermath of the Queensland Health payroll disaster continued to create headlines in 2012. The system, which was switched on by the former government in 2010 and led to thousands of health staff being wrongly paid, has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix and improve.
A report commissioned by the Newman government said the total cost of the health payroll system was expected to be $1.254 billion between the 2009-10 and 2016-17 financial years. This headline-grabbing figure included operational costs such as salaries for payroll staff, but it provided impetus for Health Minister Lawrence Springborg to begin a crusade to seek legal advice presented to the former government.
Under pressure, Ms Palaszczuk, as current Labor leader, gave approval for Mr Springborg to inspect previous cabinet documents related to the health payroll system. But conditions would have prevented the Health Minister from taking notes or disclosing the contents to a third party, so Mr Springborg continued his campaign.
Finally, in November, Ms Palaszczuk gave the nod for some 850 pages of health payroll documents – including fiery letters, sensitive cabinet decisions, legal advice and technical breach claims – to be placed into the public domain, a move she labelled as unprecedented because cabinet confidentiality meant such documents usually stayed under wraps for two to three decades.
The documents showed the former Bligh government considered suing contractor IBM over the Queensland Health payroll woes, but was worried about its chances with messy legal action given “poor or inadequate project record keeping” and the IT giant’s ability to highlight problems with the state’s management of the project. IBM and the former government signed a new agreement which appeared to release each party of legal threats so long as certain conditions were met.
Far from resolving the matter, the release of the documents emboldened the Newman government, which claimed the papers posed more questions than they answered. In December, Mr Newman announced a $5 million royal commission-style inquiry headed by Former Court of Appeal judge Richard Chesterman QC to look at how the health payroll system problems arose and how they could be prevented in the future.
Government figures bristled at suggestions the inquiry was a politically motivated witch hunt, arguing the health payroll woes continued to have serious impacts. Mr Springborg insisted the controversial reduction of 1537 full-time-equivalent staff from hospital and health services across Queensland was a result of the $150 million unfunded cost of fixing the payroll system this year.
Scandals distract government
Mr Newman came to office promising greater openness and accountability – and he sought to ram home that message by ordering the release of extra information on the government's open-data website. But his talk about government standards came under pressure in the second half of the year as a result of several scandals.
Housing and Public Works Minister Bruce Flegg resigned from the cabinet in November, after his sacked senior media adviser Graeme Hallett called his own media conference to denounce his former boss and to outline instances of undisclosed contact between Dr Flegg's office and his private sector lobbyist son, Jonathon Flegg.
The Minister for Science, IT, Innovation and the Arts, Ros Bates, was also forced to update her register of contact with lobbyists after numerous entries were left off a document presented to a budget estimates hearing.
And former Liberal Party heavyweight Michael Caltabiano, appointed to a high-powered public service role after the election, stood aside as Transport and Main Roads director-general after doubts were raised over his testimony to a budget estimates committee hearing. The CMC was investigating the appointment of Ben Gommers, the son of Ms Bates, to a liaison role with Mr Caltabiano's department. Mr Caltabiano told a parliamentary committee he had known Mr Gommers personally but “had no previous professional working knowledge or experience” with him prior to the appointment.
Mr Caltabiano, Ms Bates, Mr Gommers and former Liberal Party state director Geoff Greene were all listed as employees or ‘‘persons ... who conduct lobbying activities’’ for the lobbying firm Entree Vous in a document that was tabled in Parliament in August 2009. Mr Caltabiano's lawyers argued “he was never a part-owner of Entree Vous, was never appointed a director or shareholder of the company, never drew a wage or director's fee or received any other form of remuneration or reward”. The allegation Mr Caltabiano may have misled the hearing was referred to Parliament's ethics committee for investigation.
Three MPs and Palmer quit LNP
The ethics committee would turn out to be at the centre of drama in the final sitting week of Parliament for the year. The head of the ethics committee, outspoken LNP MP Alex Douglas, publicly disputed Mr Newman's claim about the backbencher's willingness to shift to a different parliamentary committee as part of a broader overhaul of such roles. Dr Douglas and Mr Newman outlined different versions of events to Parliament and Dr Douglas ultimately quit the LNP to serve as an independent, blasting the Newman government leadership team.
Dr Douglas's resignation came only a few days after long-serving rural MP Ray Hopper defected from the LNP to Katter's Australian Party, which boosted that party's ranks in Parliament to three. Mr Hopper attacked the LNP over its coal seam gas policies and claimed he would better represent his electorate as a vocal minor party MP.
A third MP, Carl Judge, also quit the LNP during the final parliamentary sitting week. The first-term Yeerongpilly MP was sidelined from government party room meetings after apparently declining demands from Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney to pledge 100 per cent loyalty to Mr Newman. Allegations were swirling around that Mr Judge had leaked party room details to Clive Palmer, the former LNP life member turned vocal Newman government critic whose claims had grown more extreme in the later months of the 2012. Mr Palmer, meanwhile, flirted with the idea of starting his own political party, but kept the media and public guessing about whether he would actually follow through.
A special party room meeting was convened where MPs passed a motion seeking Mr Judge's expulsion from the LNP. The next day, Mr Judge told Parliament it was with a “heavy heart” that he was quitting the party. The former police officer said his first loyalty was to his electorate and argued the government was breaking its election promises to look after public servants and govern with humility.
The episode illustrated the difficulty of managing such a large party room. The government, elected with 78 MPs, was reduced to 75 – still a huge majority in Queensland Parliament.
Premier's popularity plummets
Against a backdrop of public sector cuts, scandals and the departure of MPs, Mr Newman's originally high popularity sagged in opinion polls. ReachTEL polling showed the proportion of people happy with Mr Newman's performance declined by 13 percentage points in about six months, dropping from 51.3 per cent in July to 38.2 per cent in December. His disapproval rating increased by about 23 percentage points over the same period, from 27.9 to 51.
Mr Newman's net approval rating – that is, the percentage who approve minus the percentage who disapprove, deteriorated from positive 23.4 per cent to minus 12.8 over the same period. A negative net approval rating means more people are unhappy than happy with his performance. The LNP also lost ground in the primary vote stakes, but finished the year still in an election-winning position – albeit with a smaller majority if voters went to the polls now.
Mr Newman regularly acknowledged that the budget cuts would not be popular, but insisted the government was doing what was needed to restore the state's finances. The government appears to be banking on getting the tough decisions out of the way early in the term and hope for a recovery by the time of the next election, due by 2015.
Turbulence? What turbulence?
On the final sitting day of the year, Mr Newman confessed he had been re-reading The Ayes Have It, a book detailing the upheaval and infighting in Queensland politics between the late 1950s and 1980s. Mr Newman sought to put aside the internal dramas and point instead to the LNP's cost of living measures, payroll tax threshold reforms, the police recruiting drive, tougher sentencing laws and the beginning of the Sunshine Coast University Hospital Project.
Mr Newman said his reading of past political brawls showed there was “a lot of colour and life” in the halls of power but the apparent turbulence of 2012 was nothing compared with past events. He said the events of past decades “truly were signs of turbulence because essentially on those occasions the process of government stopped”.
That process of government will continue in 2013 after what has proved to be an extraordinary year in Queensland politics.
(This is Daniel Hurst's final piece as state political reporter for brisbanetimes.com.au. He will join the Canberra team covering federal politics for Fairfax publications including this website in 2013.)