Campbell Newman is swiftly becoming a controversial figure in Australian politics. His axing of the Premiers literary awards, his outlawing of homosexual civil unions and surrogacy reforms, his public service cuts are all clearly intended to provoke lefty outrage and galvanise conservative voters. This is sensible enough on his part, he can’t seriously hope to be re-elected by similar margins to his 2011 where a lot of would be lefties crossed over to the darkside just this once to get rid of Anna Bligh, they will go back to Labor or the Greens at the next election and Newman needs to focus on the voters he can keep.
But his bull in a china shop approach will alienate many voters and when it does Labor will have a big opportunity to score some huge political capital off of him. Twice in recent memory a Liberal leader has come to power and trod on a lot of toes, the first time it was Jeff Kennett, the other it was John Howard. Against Kennett the Victorian Labor party was at it’s best. Running clinical, disciplined campaigns whereby they painted themselves as reliable and stable and watched Kennett’s squander his own support with his excesses.
By contrast the federal Labor allowed themselves to get sucked into Howard’s narrative and mounted a poorly targeted campaign which often framed the debate in Howard’s favour. To be fair this largely occurred in 2001 and beyond. From 1996 to 2000, Kim Beazley aimed at presenting a reliable, competent opposition as an alternative to John Howard’s ideological bumbling. Aided by a targeted campaign against the GST it worked effectively in 1998 when Beazley won the popular vote and he continued to use it to develop large opinion poll leads for the next two years. But under the spectre of 9/11 and the MV Tampa where John Howard received an opinion poll boost Labor panicked, drawn into Howard’s blustering about values they presented a poorly developed policy which gave credence to Howard’s blustering.
For the next five years federal Labor were paralysed by their obsession with Howard’s rhetoric. Under three different leads they made endless attempts to outmatch Howard as a tough, jingoist leader and as such convinced persuaded swinging voters that it was very important to have a leader who was a lot like Howard. It wasn’t until Kevin Rudd arrived in 2006 that this changed. Rudd didn’t worry too much about appearing tough and blokey and anti migrant, probably not out of any conviction of belief but out of his enormously high opinion of his own intelligence. But the point was that he was unabashedly intellectual, he didn’t hammer home the importance of asylum seekers but things which he appeared competent in, climate change, industrial relations and education. In the process of doing so he robbed Howard of much of his authority as Prime Minister and sure enough voters flocked to the competent looking alternative.
Queensland Labor need to be mindful of the lessons of Beazley, Rudd and Steve Bracks. If they get into a game of ideological fisticuffs with the Premier they will lose, that it what happens to oppositions. If they avoid the fray and present an image of discipline, competent moderate politics then as Newman’s aggression begins to alienate voters they will flock to Queensland Labor in droves. Campbell Newman despite his enormous win last year is probably the most vulnerable Liberal Premier in the country and if they do it properly there is no reason why Queensland Labor can’t bring him down in one term. Barry O’farrell and Ted Baileiu by contrast are much stronger politicians.