Not A Happy Chappy: Queensland's Premier no longer, the Liberal National Party leader, Campbell Newman, is forced to acknowledge that he has not only lost his Ashgrove parliamentary seat, but his entire political career. In the space of just three years, Newman's neoliberal extremism turned an unprecedented, 73-seat-majority victory, into one of the most stunning routs in Australian electoral history.
DO YOU FEEL that chill breeze on the back of your neck, Prime Minister? It’s blowing across the ditch, from Queensland. And the message it’s carrying across the Tasman – and even farther away, from the Greeks – is very clear. Electorates all over the world are flexing their muscles.
Voting last Saturday in a cold but fearsomely focused fury, the people of Queensland wiped out the 73-seat majority they had bestowed upon the Liberal National Party (LNP) just three years ago. Not even the leader of the LNP, Queensland’s erstwhile Premier, Campbell Newman, was spared. His Brisbane seat of Ashgrove was reclaimed by the opposition Labor Party as the electoral tsunami swept over the state.
No one could say that Mr Newman wasn’t warned. His predecessor in the Premier’s Office, Labor’s Anna Bligh, had been hurled from power with equal force for unleashing a privatisation programme she’d somehow neglected to present to Queensland voters in the run-up to the 2009 election. But, instead of drawing the obvious lesson from Labor’s 2012 debacle, Mr Newman proceeded as though Queenslanders had voted for his extreme brand of neoliberalism, rather than against Ms Bligh’s political duplicity.
For Queenslanders, the result was three long years of economic, environmental and legal “reform” that was as draconian as it was unheralded. Thousands of public servants lost their jobs, the privatisation programme (Bligh’s downfall) far from being halted, gathered pace. Legal changes struck down civil liberties considered basic to democratic governance. And Queensland’s thriving tourist industry, based upon the state’s exquisite natural treasures, found itself outmanoeuvred by rampant mining interests determined to rid themselves of all environmental restraints.
Saturday’s vote constituted Queenslanders’ emphatic response to Mr Newman’s scorched-earth tactics. With their political leaders clearly having failed to draw the correct message from Labor’s 2012 wipe-out, the people of Queensland felt obliged to repeat it. Mr Newman’s successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, would be very foolish to goad them into a third demonstration of their power. Indeed, anything other than a general healing of neoliberal harms will likely be interpreted by the Queensland electorate as yet another invitation to unleash electoral Armageddon.
For our own Prime Minister, the messages blowing-in from Greece and Queensland will not be received as harbingers of doom, but rather as welcome confirmations that his kind of politics is the kind that survives. To his hard-line critics in National’s caucus, and throughout the broader right-wing community, Mr Key can now say: “You see? This is what happens when you push people too hard, too fast and too far.” It’s difficult to conceive of a better argument in favour of Mr Key’s softly-softly, don’t-frighten-the-horses, populism than the Biblically unforgiving backlashes of the Greek and Queensland electorates.
At the heart of the Prime Minister’s political success, is his unwavering conviction that a government must always possess more friends than enemies. Mr Key will never allow a situation to develop in which a majority of the electorate feels harmed or threatened by his government’s policies.
Alienating the six percent of New Zealand families who live in State Houses will not threaten the National Government. Nor will policies disadvantaging the roughly 20 percent of New Zealanders who still belong to unions. After all, neither of these groups have ever been notable National supporters.
On the other hand, failing to come up with policies that make it easier for “Middle New Zealand’s” children to buy their first home. (Or even rent their first flat!) Doing nothing to assist the increasing number of young graduates who struggle to find a job remotely commensurate with their qualifications. Refusing to address the steadily worsening condition of the country’s rivers, streams and beaches. Or, downplaying the fact that more and more New Zealand farms, businesses and houses are being sold to foreigners. These are precisely the kinds of issues that could unite a majority of the electorate against the National Government.
And, there is one more issue that might yet jeopardise the remarkably consistent popularity of Mr Key’s government: civil liberties and the rights of the citizen. It’s a slow-burning issue, but no less dangerous for being so. And if it is allowed to grow in relevance (as it did in Queensland, where Mr Newman’s reckless blurring of the necessarily strict constitutional boundaries between politicians and the Judiciary made the ordinary voter feel distinctly uneasy) then the potential for a Queensland-style electoral backlash will increase.
In Greece, and again in Australia, two “we know best” political parties pushed their respective electorates too hard, too fast and too far. Both have paid the price. New Zealand’s right-wing government stands out from its Australian, Canadian and British counterparts for the sensitivity with which it handles the electorate that can make or break it.
Mr Key’s and National’s political longevity is no accident.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 February 2015.