DANIEL HURST March 26, 2012
Anna Bligh fronts the media during last year's floods. Photo: Bradley Kanaris
In three years she went from the high of being Australia's first elected female premier to the low of leading Labor to its worst ever electoral defeat.
So how competent was Anna Bligh and the government she led?
Certainly the size of the swing that obliterated the state Labor government after 14 years in power suggests voters took a very dim view on its capability and record.
“I don't think we deserved to lose by that much,” one stunned Labor staffer said.
“There's no way we (were) a New South Wales-style government.”
Vanquished Queensland Labor MPs have mounted a post-election defence of the Bligh government's legacy, at the same time as they condemned the extent of the party's negative campaigning and pinpointed the 2009 asset sales announcement as the moment voters decided to oust the incumbents.
With just seven likely seats in the 89-member Parliament following Saturday's drubbing, Labor will soon face another electoral test, with a by-election looming in Ms Bligh's seat of South Brisbane after the premier of five years announced plans to stand aside.
Ousted Brisbane Central MP Grace Grace said a number of factors combined to form the “tidal wave” that swept away almost all of the 51 Labor-held seats.
“I think longevity in government is very very difficult. It's a cancer that's very, very difficult to eradicate,” she said, pointing to its combination with the controversial post-election asset sales decision, the long-running Queensland Health pay problems, and the very negative Labor campaign approach.
“When you put all of them together, and longevity, people were in the mood for change and no one was going to be able to swim against that tidal wave.”
Ms Grace, who retained former premier Peter Beattie's seat after he quit politics in 2007, said Ms Bligh had been unable to convince the public of the merits of her decision in mid-2009 to privatise public assets, including Queensland Rail's coal haulage and bulk freight arm.
“Anna clearly believed she did the right thing under the circumstances,” Ms Grace said.
"[But] we didn't bring people with us, that's more than obvious, and when you do that in politics it's suicide.”
Ms Bligh has continued to argue that by making the "tough” asset sales decision she protected the infrastructure building program amid the GFC fallout, in turn saving 200,000 jobs.
Ms Grace said there was no evidence to suggest the asset decision was made before the March 2009 election, but the voting public did not believe that when the announcement was made not long after.
“I believe we started to lose the election the moment that happened,” she said.
“I think that people made up their minds a long time ago, 2½ years ago, and I think that they probably made up their minds at the point of asset sales.
“I think ultimately people just lost confidence in the government and people did feel that they didn't know the full story in the last campaign and there was not really a coming back from that.”
Outgoing Finance, Natural Resources and Arts Minister Rachel Nolan, who was ousted from her traditional Labor heartland seat of Ipswich, said she knew she could lose her electorate when the asset sales decision was made.
Ms Nolan, who was elevated to cabinet after the 2009 election, said she had no knowledge of a decision being made before the poll to privatise the assets. In fact, Ms Nolan in Parliament bluntly declared some time after the election but shortly before the announcement: “Queensland Rail is not for sale.”
But Ms Nolan, who suffered a 20.8 per cent swing against her on Saturday, said the way the government announced the asset sales in mid-2009 and then spent the next six months working out the exact structure and details, made the privatisation program more difficult to market to voters.
“That meant there was a prolonged period where the government was quite flat-footed in its ability to explain the decision,” she said.
“It is in effect proof that the decision was made at the time we made it, in that if you had a secret plan you wouldn't have to do the planning in the public arena for six months.
“When I as transport minister met with railway workers I couldn't tell them who was going and who was staying for six months and that's a long period of uncertainty for a government.”
Ms Nolan defended the merit of the asset sales, saying cabinet did not see other acceptable alternatives and did not want to “cut the guts out of the public service”.
“I think it was by every measure a success, except by a political measure, and that's because people lost confidence around the decision,” she said.
Some members of the party are also now asking tough questions about Labor's negative attack ads which dominated the campaign and targeted LNP leader Campbell Newman over business interests and development issues.
The ads were themed “Campbell's Web” and referred to members of Mr Newman's family but the attacks were blunted in the second-last week of the campaign when the Crime and Misconduct Commission said Mr Newman had no case to answer.
Ms Grace said while there had been questions for Mr Newman to answer regarding these matters, the negative campaign did not sit easy with her.
“It's not my style,” she said.
“I was not in favour of going negative for so long.”
North Queensland MP Curtis Pitt, who looks on track to retain his seat of Mulgrave, agreed the negative campaign had hurt Labor.
“We knew very clearly that people were concerned with the negative approaches. Negative advertising and negative campaigning is nothing new. Obviously, there is a time and place and perhaps the timing may not have been spot on," he said.
Ms Grace, who suffered a 10.4 per cent swing on Saturday, said she thought she may have had a chance of holding onto her Brisbane Central seat until the final week, when voters remarked to her about how negative the Labor campaign had been.
“I thought that I was close up to about a week before but I think, pardon the pun, we just laboured the negative stuff a bit too long,” she said.
“I think at the end of the day it's not the type of positive campaign that I like to run.”
Ms Grace, who is now set to run for Central ward at the upcoming Brisbane City Council elections, said Labor had achieved “some really good things”.
The former union leader was particularly proud of laws allowing people to have a baby through altruistic surrogacy and last year's decision to grant same-sex couples access to civil unions, saying they were “real changes” that positively impacted on people's lives.
Ms Grace also pointed to infrastructure projects which she said had created jobs and shielded people from the full effects of the global financial crisis. The duplication of the Gateway Bridge, the construction of the Ted Smout Bridge to Redcliffe, Brisbane's nearly-complete Airport Link tunnel and busway projects are among the work carried out by the now-ousted Labor government.
Ms Grace also talked up the government's achievements in education, such as the introduction of the prep year as a lead-in to Year 1.
“I think prep's the best thing we've ever done. I don't know one person who doesn't like it.”
During the campaign Ms Bligh told brisbanetimes.com.au she hoped she was remembered for her education reforms and investments, pointing to the introduction of the prep year, investments in kindergartens, the work to move Year 7 into the high school system, and the government's school building program.
“Our first prep kids won't be right through their 13 years of school for many years to come, and when we start seeing those kids graduate I think we're going to see a very bright generation of Queenslanders,” she said.
Ms Nolan said the Labor government “did fundamentally modernise Queensland”.
“The old Queensland was dumb and didn't really value learning and the new Queensland really does,” she said.
Ms Nolan said, as well as its education achievements, the government had also fostered an open culture in the arts, and had put in place stronger environmental protections, including for the Great Barrier Reef.
“I think what happened in the end is that we were trying to do so much that we became sort of nothing to anybody, and the LNP presented themselves successfully as being everything to everybody,” she said.
But will Labor's positive achievements be forgotten among some of their undoubted mistakes?
“I think people always have short memories no matter what it is,” Ms Grace said.
“But I'm not here to be remembered for stuff; I'm here to deliver for the community.”
Nonetheless, there is no shortage of critics of Labor's record in office.
One of the key issues people would point to when talking about competence was the bungled rollout of a new health payroll system in March 2010. When the new system went live, thousands of doctors, nurses and health workers were paid too little, too much, or nothing at all. It was unable to be resolved immediately and the work to fix the system ended up costing more than $200 million.
Public sector union boss Alex Scott labelled the payroll bungle “an unprecedented failure of public administration in Queensland”, while the state's then auditor-general, Glenn Poole, concluded the introduction of the new pay system was marred by confusion over roles, a failure to plan ahead and a lack of proper testing.
“As a result, Queensland Health had not determined whether systems, processes and infrastructure were in place for the effective operation of the new system,” he wrote.
Despite calls for the sacking of then-health minister Paul Lucas, Ms Bligh stood by her loyal deputy. In fact, Ms Bligh's reluctance to dump ministers for poor performance was a key line of attack by Mr Newman, who has vowed to show leadership and keep cabinet members accountable for their work.
Ms Bligh told brisbanetimes.com.au two weeks ago that some people wanted to see “blood lust in politics” but she did not believe “public humiliation” worked.
The government won plaudits from dental and medical groups when it decided, shortly after Ms Bligh's rise to the top job, to introduce fluoride to the state's drinking water in a bid to reduce tooth decay among children.
But the government's water grid projects at the height of the drought were a source of great conflict.
LNP MP for Gympie David Gibson said the failed Traveston Dam project – scuttled by the federal government's environmental assessment process – would leave a mark on the state.
“The legacy of Traveston will be in how not to do a major infrastructure project,” he said.
“Labor showed complete arrogance in the way in which it rushed ahead [with land resumptions] without the necessary approvals.
“I think in all seriousness the Traveston Dam debacle will be a textbook example that will be studied for years on how not to do public infrastructure projects.”
Mr Gibson said he had also heard examples of paralysis in decision-making when people “just couldn't get an answer on a decision”.
“In all honesty I wouldn't say that it was a bad government. I would actually say that it was an incompetent government and I think the swing from Queenslanders reflects their frustration with the incompetence they experienced with this government,” he said.
“I don't think they went out of their way to not pay nurses; I don't think they went out of their way to destroy the environment; I don't think they went out of their way to ruin the community of the Mary Valley.”
Ms Grace said she did not believe the size of the swing was reflective of the performance of the government and argued the LNP could now claim it had a mandate to do whatever it liked.
“This is a devastation. This is absolutely unbelievable. In fact this is frightening, not only for our ... party; it's frightening for Queensland,” Ms Grace said.
“If they want to sell Queensland to Japan they could be able to do it,” she said.
The LNP has highlighted how state debt is projected to rise to $85 billion in a few years' time, how Queensland lost its cherished AAA credit rating in 2009, how the state has the highest unemployment rate in mainland Australia, and how water, power, vehicle registration and home stamp duty costs had experienced large increases.
Ms Nolan said the LNP would attempt to trash Labor's economic legacy, but insisted the government had done the hard yards and charted a course back to surplus in 2014/15.
“There's no doubt that Queensland got more substantially whacked in the GFC because our building program was so loaded up at that critical time,” she said, arguing the recovery was now well under way.
“I think the legacy of the government is of a state that has one of the fastest growth rates in the country ... so we are certainly growing very fast and we are on the verge of a very substantial economic boom and [outgoing treasurer] Andrew Fraser and I, him more than me, we were the people who as ministers did the really hard yards to get us to this point.
“We carried the asset sales ... and it just breaks my heart to then see an incoming government inherit that growth which is now kicking in.
“Someone else will have their smiling face attached to it.”
On Saturday night, a smiling Mr Newman heaped praise on Ms Bligh for one aspect of her time in office – her “inspirational” leadership during the 2010/11 flood and cyclone disasters.
It's a view shared by Mr Pitt in his north Queensland electorate.
“Regardless of the election outcome ... she is still the same woman who has led the state through the global financial crisis and certainly the same woman who was seen by people all around the world leading through the most severe natural disasters in Queensland's history," Mr Pitt said.
“So she's made an indelible mark on Queensland politics.”
But not everyone has been so glowing.
Electoral analyst Malcolm Mackerras, who has a Liberal Party background, said the result on Saturday was "completely inevitable and totally predictable".
He said Ms Bligh had behaved "selfishly" when she resigned her seat the day after the election and that she would be remembered, not for the floods, but as the leader who led the Labor party to their most disastrous defeat in history.
"She performed well (during the floods) and everyone outside of Queensland admired her," he said.
"But it was just a television performance and always was.
"It doesn't alter the main thing about her and that is she led her government to a truly disastrous defeat to which there is no precedent.
"In a few years people will not remember her good television performance during the floods."
Independent Queensland MP Peter Wellington said he had always been able to work well with Ms Bligh despite "passionately disagreeing" at times.
Asked about her legacy, Mr Wellington said: "That's a hard call to make."
"...I will say this about Anna Bligh in previous roles though, when she was minister for communities she was instrumental in supporting a new respite service in my electorate.
"When she was education minister she supported my call for a whole range of new services in my electorate.
"When she was treasurer she took on board concerns I had about the over development of industrial land.
"I have been able to work very effectively with her and she always listened."
- with Bridie Jabour