Brisbane, February 4, 2014 (Alochonaa): The state of Queensland in Australia held an election in the last couple of days, wherein the incumbent conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) government is likely to be defeated. Not a big deal perhaps, governments come and governments go. In this case less than three years ago the government was elected with a majority of 78 seats, compared to its rival, the socially progressive Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) paltry 7 seats. This “surprise” result for many, follows on the back of a recent loss of another first-term conservative government in the state of Victoria.
Australia lived through a period of leadership upheaval under the previous federal ALP governments. Now leadership instability is developing in the federal conservative government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, less than 18 months into its term of that government, on the back of plummeting opinion poll ratings. Does the Queensland election result have any lessons for Australian politics or the current federal government? Is the problem poor leadership? Are there poor policy platforms, or is it that governments no longer properly communicate with the electorate? It is just that the populous are fickle and suffer from a sense of entitlement wherein they place individualism ahead of the collective good?
Interested parties have already begun dissecting the results from the Queensland state election, trying to make sense of last weekend’s results. Some conservatives have accepted some blame, citing an arrogant and dismissive leadership style conducted by Premier Campbell Newman. The Queensland parliamentary speaker Fiona Simpson perhaps has given the most candid summary of the outcome, accepting the LNP got it wrong and that both leadership and policy platforms need to change. Conversely, Queensland’s Deputy Premier today largely blamed federal issues and advisors Newman brought with him from local government for the poor election performance. Seeney believes policy had little to do with the problems. He argues, “I think the Premier did a great job. I think we, as a government, did a great job. But I think the people of Queensland very clearly didn’t like the way that we did it.” Mr Seeney is perhaps experiencing an understandable period of denial. It is shifting blame to argue the Premier and government did a good job, but that it is the electorate’s fault for disliking the methods. A government has the responsibility to get both the policy and the methods of its delivery right, otherwise suffer the political consequences as a result. It also minimises the attitude the government took to many groups in society.
The Queensland LNP government seemed to revel in engaging in conflict with groups within society, medical workers, lawyers, trade unions, the Queensland Police Union, even some of its own parliamentary members, just to name a few. The effects of headlines about a premier using inflammatory language, frequently at battle with various groups in society should not be underestimated in electoral intentions. One major criticism can be levelled at the LNP Government’s choice to largely ignore public opinion from their own research, arguing at the election that billions of dollars in public assets should be “leased” for 99 years. Voters may have been worried that surrendering public assets will result in higher prices for utility costs such as electricity. Others have said the unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government leeched into the voting intentions of Queenslanders. That is very difficult to measure and undoubtedly some research in the future will look at that issue. We can begin with the assumption that people are comfortable with assertive leadership, but that does not extend to combative, aloof and dismissive leaders who present a style that implies only they have the answers to complex questions. Queensland has valued “strong”, authoritative leaders throughout its history, but that of course must have its limits. In the recent past, there has been interference with public institutions such as the renamed Crime and Misconduct Commission and the judiciary. Queensland has a background of corruption at a governmental level, abundantly exposed in the Fitzgerald Inquiry that commenced in 1987. Only last week the respected lawyer who conducted the Commission, Tony Fitzgerald, warned that “the foundations are being inadvertently laid” under the rule of Newman Government for corruption to prosper.
The Newman Government also took part in “voodoo politics” wherein they delivered policy and changes in government they said they would not do in the lead-up to their election. An example is Campbell Newman telling the electorate that public servants had nothing to fear from the election of a conservative government, then sacking thousands of them once he had assumed power. Australian governments are utilising a technique asserting that once they are elected, promises need to be broken as the last government has left the “books” in such a bad state. It seems likely the electorate is tiring of promises made by opposition parties that cannot be delivered once government is achieved. The simple message is not to promise what you cannot deliver and do not promise something, when you have a different policy agenda waiting in the drawer. Australia has even had the strange situation of a federal government arguing it did not need to keep some promises as they were “non-core promises”. Broken promises that are seen as obvious mistruths must inevitably lead to a break-down in trust. Trust is vital to the popularity of any government and its ability to enact reform. Government cannot reform unless it is in power and so trust has to be taken into account and not cynically managed as part of a political spin campaign, when things are not going to plan. So what is the message for the federal government and even the Queensland government?
Be consistent. One of the first acts of Newman Government was to cancel funding for the Premier’s Literary Awards, something not mentioned before the election. The new government argued the budget was in such a poor state that savings had to be made. They also argued the previous Bligh Government had wasted too much public money on government advertising. Then 2014 saw just about every form of public communication (radio, television, newspapers, internet) blitzed with Queensland government advertising. Who knows what that cost has been, at a time when the LNP Government argued the state was buried in public debt? The minimal savings from the cancelling of the Awards and the sacking of public servants then looked like cynical, inconsistent acts. The Queensland Government spent public money launching a research website, asking the population how debt should be reduced. When given the choice of raising taxes or selling assets the electorate opted for increasing taxes. The Government’s response was to launch an expensive campaign to convince the electorate it was wrong and assets needed to be “leased”.
At a federal government level the Abbott Government is also suffering the same problem of inconsistency. Australia’s universal health system is sacred to the majority of its population. The current federal government seems determined to introduce additional co-payments to visit the doctor, as a “price signal” to deter what they see as unnecessary medical visits. Whilst this policy has currently slipped to the backpage, the government does argue Medicare costs are spiralling out of control and are unsustainable in the long-term. So what is inconsistent about this policy? The money harvested from co-payments would not go to Medicare, to reduce the public debt, or to assist the “budget emergency” that the government argues exists. Instead the payments would go to a Medical Research Fund. The inconsistency is even greater when commonwealth spending cuts to research (eg the CSIRO) have been so extensive.
Governments at both federal and state levels warn voters they should not vote for the “other side” as they are incompetent or cannot be trusted. They try to enliven memories of mistakes made by previous governments as demonstrations of what that party might do in the future. What the Newman Government and the Abbott Government do not seem to understand is that Australians are comfortable and perhaps enjoy voting out what they perceive as “bad” government. They often do not vote in an opposition they see as the answer to all their problems. Think of the waning popularity of Tony Abbott and remember that he was never particularly popular. He gained power because the Australian electorate lost trust with the Rudd and Gillard Governments and worried the internal leadership machinations of the ALP smacked of self-interest. The rejection of the Newman Government may be yet another example of this electoral behaviour. So whilst no blueprint exists, what lessons for our governments can be learnt? The following suggestions are hardly revolutionary, but are often forgotten by governments of all political persuasions.
First, they need to develop a platform of public policy reform that is relevant, before they are in government. Bring that platform to the people and develop their trust that the reforms are possible, needed and in their interests and the interests of the country as a whole. They cannot hide as a small target, commence rule with commissions of audit and then surprise the electorate with hitherto unknown policy prescriptions. If they have to do something that was not previously mooted, there needs to be slow, moderate and careful explanation about what has changed and why different policy is necessary.
Second, power is to be exercised in the public good, it is not a play-thing for party-political issues or personal egos. Opposition should be about constructive public policy development, even sometimes bipartisan support for government reform. Government is not just about assuming control and then not knowing what to do with it. That is not a proper exercise of power, but an abuse of it. Electors today will not accept a government that does not appear to be committed to public service.
Third, trust is essential to government and reform. The electorate will stop listening to you once that trust is breached. It stopped listening to Julia Gillard when it felt she had lied to them. It stopped listening to Campbell Newman when it saw him as arrogant and dismissive, introducing policy that he said they needed, whether or not they saw that to be the case. It has stopped listening to Tony Abbott due to a lack of a proper platform, policy inconsistency and poor political insight. On election night 2013 Tony Abbott asserted there would be no surprises from his government. Surprises have abounded, Australia has even now reinstituted orders of Dames and Knights. There are other examples but cuts in funding to SBS and the ABC and changes to pensions are just some examples of policy inconsistency that the electorate may perceive as lies.
Fourth, people prefer the status quo. The preference for the status quo is often based on our concerns about uncertainty. Uncertainty about what might occur to us an individuals and the country as a whole. However, change does have to occur and reform is difficult. Australians may have entered a period wherein they are displaying complacency coupled to a sense of entitlement. If Australians are experiencing a sense of entitlement, the challenge of reform becomes even greater, requiring talented leadership and maybe even a circuit-breaker, so substantial reform can occur. After all, why should Australians do things differently if prosperity today seems to be continuing? I have argued elsewhere that real change may not occur until Australia experiences a crisis, perceived or real.
Fifth, politicians require values and a vision, but Australian electorates will punish governments they deem to be ideological or extreme. Conservative and Labor governments alike need to continue to accept there is a role for government, in order to provide policy direction and to ensure no-one is left behind in a modern market-based economy. Public goods are just that. Health, education and the environment need government control and direction, lest Australian values of fairness be surrendered.
Sixth, visionary leadership is needed at all levels of government. Williamson and Haggard (1994:577) argued that leadership should display strength, strong commitment, an agenda based on a vision, and a willingness to take risks. What is missing in this list (but maybe implied) is a leader’s ability to inspire support from followers which leads to actual implementation and continuing support for the vision. Strength, however, is not an ability to bully others in order to impose your will. It is the ability to lead and bring others with you on the journey. The best example in Australian political life is the consultative and consensus style displayed by ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke. This is contrasted with the recent individual, non-consultative, combative styles of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.
In recent days the Australian Federal Minister for Communications Mr Malcolm Turnbull delivered a speech in the United States, saying in part, “leaders must be decision makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the Government cannot solve every problem.” Turnbull is arguing for taking the electorate into the confidence of its political leaders and trusting its judgement based on reasonable argument. Leadership and all the reasons for political success or failure in a contemporary Australia advanced here rely on developing a relationship between our governments and the people. This relationship is based on trust. The recent Mapping Social Cohesion report (2014:3) found only 7% of respondents held a “lot of trust” in the federal parliament and only 3% in political parties. We have tempered our trust for politicians, but maybe they also have lost trust in the electorate and its ability to be taken into confidences about change. Whatever the reasons for volatility in the Australian electorate, governments can no longer take the electorate and the power it offers for granted. Politicians need to be in touch with local concerns and prevailing views. Politicians should not govern by focus group results, but that does not mean they should ignore the mood in the community. The Queensland election shows governments ignore those feelings at that peril.
* Sean Barry is a PhD Candidate, School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University.
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