Queensland election results in few changes

By Andrew Martin

Both the ALP and the recently amalgamated Liberal National Party (LNP) tried to present themselves as offering “change” in the state election on March 21. But pro-capitalist politics as usual is what remains in the wash-up. With Labor retaining government despite a 4% swing against it, Labor leader Anna Bligh became the first woman in Australia to be elected a state premier.

The “centre-left” ALP won 51 seats, down from 58. The “centre-right” LNP won 34. Four independents were elected. Many formerly safe Labor seats are now considered marginal. LNP leader Lawrence Springborg (who refers to himself as “the Borg”) stepped down after the election, sparking a leadership tussle within the party.

Neither the LNP nor the ALP aroused much enthusiasm in the electorate. Neither’s platform was clearly articulated or realistically costed in a state headed for recession under the impact of the global capitalist economic crisis. Both parties relied on banal slogans such as “Change for a better Queensland” (LNP) and “Keeping Queensland strong” (ALP), along with the usual gutter tactics, muck-raking, attack advertisements and anonymous smears.

The global economic crisis was a central theme and both parties ran fear campaigns on economic management, with the LNP claiming that Queensland was $74 billion in debt. The ALP promised 100,000 new jobs in three years, although it didn’t articulate how these jobs would be created, apart from a vague four-point plan of continuing government-funded building projects and additional government support for the big mining companies. Employers who take on apprentices will receive tax incentives. Labor also promised a $1.1 billion expansion of the Mater Children’s Hospital, $123 million for commuter car parks and $60 million for a sports stadium on the Gold Coast.

The LNP was challenged in many rural areas by independents. In the seat of Beaudesert, former right-wing populist senator Pauline Hanson ran in what has been a traditional National Party rural electorate. She received 22% of the vote, being beaten by the LNP’s Aiden McLinden, despite no shortage of media attention on her campaign.

Peter Beattie, who stepped down as Labor premier in September 2007 to take up a $400,000 position (on top of his $160,000 parliamentary superannuation) as Queensland’s trade commissioner in Los Angeles, left the state with crumbling infrastructure and a legacy of corruption scandals. According to the Queensland Council of Social Service, almost 11% of the state’s 4.5 million residents were living in poverty before the global recession began. Reliance on mining and tourism has left many local communities at risk of high unemployment as export markets collapse, and household debts are at their highest level ever.

‘Law and order’

While health and economic management were a key focus for the LNP, much of its campaigning emphasised “law and order”. It claimed that 114 of 147 violent robbers escaped going to prison in 2007-08 and that not one of the 35 juveniles convicted of producing or supplying dangerous drugs was imprisoned. It promised to employ an extra 1000 police and introduce tougher laws on juvenile crime.

However, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the overall crime rate in Queensland has actually declined for six consecutive years, as have crimes committed by juveniles. Violent robberies, assaults and crimes of extortion have also declined. Despite this, police numbers and arrests of people under age 21 have increased, indicating that young people receive a disproportionate amount of attention from the criminal justice system.

There are social changes occurring that aren’t reflected in the overall crime rate. For example, sexual assaults continue to increase, and violent crimes are increasing in rural areas, particularly in remote locations. There is a mostly hidden severe economic decline in rural areas. The state’s population is becoming more concentrated into urban areas, leading to a sharp rise in the average age in rural areas. Health and welfare indicators show that rural life in Queensland is impoverished in comparison to urban areas.

The LNP tried hard to promote itself as in touch with working people’s concerns, even running adds with Springborg posing in front of a Your Rights at Work banner and putting forward candidates such as Mary Carroll, a former full-time office manager for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. It also promised to retain the existing Royal Children’s Hospital, which the ALP plans to scrap, and to employ an extra 800 teachers and teachers’ aides.

Springborg declared that he would reduce the budget deficit by $1 billion each year for three years. He promised to establish a Queensland Fund, into which money from the sale of public assets would go for major infrastructure projects. But he then said the LNP had “no plans” to sell public assets. He stated that many public servants’ jobs were “de-necessary”, announcing that the Water Commission and other government departments would be axed. Given Queensland’s increasing population and need for services, no capitalist government could slash $1 billion from the budget without significant cuts to employment or privatisation of government assets.

Springborg denied that Queensland was entering a recession — despite 3000 miners having lost their jobs in less than three months. In the final days of the campaign, the LNP “heavies” kept Springborg away from the TV cameras, assessing that he’d done enough damage to the party’s electoral credibility.

Greens

The Greens received 8.2%, their highest vote in a Queensland state election, but failed to win any seats. Their campaign focussed on urban congestion, attacking the economic growth-at-any-cost mentality of both major parties with the promise of more open public space and parkland, as well as putting a stop to the environmentally unsound Traveston dam.

The Greens put forward a proposal for a $3 billion light rail system for Brisbane, and for expanding the city’s bicycle network with more on-road cycle zones and off-road cycle paths. They also called for a ban on political donations from developers and for donations of over $1500 from each source to be made public. Increased use of renewable energy also featured in their platform, with a promise to create 7600 new “green collar” jobs by funding the building of two new solar power stations, each capable of generating 250 megawatts.

The only socialist candidates on the ballot were Mike Crook for the seat of Sandgate and Sam Watson, who ran against Anna Bligh in South Brisbane. They achieved a very small vote, Crook 361 (1.33%) and Watson 344 (1.36%). Both are members of the Socialist Alliance, but stood as independents because the SA failed to get electoral registration. Neither candidate received much media attention, and their platforms were little different from that of the Greens. Both groups called for a “green New Deal” to put billions of government funds into renewable energy, public transport, public health and education and public housing. The SA’s campaign material, like the Greens’ contained many proposals that are desirable in themselves, but was bereft of any socialist ideas about what kind of government would be needed to implement them.

Even though the SA’s main focus is election campaigning, its vote in both electorates was smaller than the informal vote. The SA pitches itself as a party that acts all year round to build all movements for progressive change, yet it is struggling to gain authority in any extra-parliamentary campaign. Its level of political activity is low; and its participation in movement meetings and organising committees is limited to members of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP). This reflects the failure of the DSP’s attempt to transform the SA into a “multi-tendency socialist party”, with all of the other socialist groups that participated in initiating the SA having left it.

The SA’s focus on parliamentary and local government elections reflects a misreading by the DSP leadership of the political situation, in which the Greens have come to be the vehicle for most of those voting to the left of the ALP. Running socialist candidates in such elections might provide a vehicle for explaining what the socialist alternative to capitalism is, including how to achieve it. But the SA doesn’t do this. As a result, its proposed solutions to the problems masses of working people face due to the crisis-ridden capitalist economic system come across as a well-intentioned but utopian wishlist.