It's been a busy day.
Premier Anna Bligh confirmed Queenslanders will go the polls on March 24, but the official election campaign will only start on February 19.
|The Forced Smile competition was declared a draw
I'm rather excited, as this election will be my first "on the road". This means I'll actually be heading out with the leaders on the campaign bus/plane/train/boat/scooter/segue/pack mule, to provide coverage in my role as Fairfax Radio state political reporter.
It's going to be exhausting and challenging and I hope I will do it justice.
One thing I want to incorporate into my campaign experience is regular writing. So to get started, I'm going to post this review of Anna Bligh's 2011. It was originally commissioned for another publication, but ultimately not used. Of course, it's all a bit out of date now the election timetable's been determined, but here it is anyway.
2011 started and finished with disasters for Premier Anna Bligh, but of wildly different kinds, with drastically different outcomes.
It’s now been a year since Queensland flooded, when 75 per cent of the state was declared a natural disaster zone, and at least 35 people lost their lives. The Premier’s steady leadership won her admiration around the world.
But it’s been just over a month since the revelation of a 16 million dollar alleged embezzlement by a Queensland Health executive, and the subsequent drastic re-organisation of the state’s most controversial department.
When the state election is finally called, which Anna Bligh will Queenslanders remember? The tough yet tender crisis manager, or the person ultimately responsible for a series of ongoing health blunders?
"We are Queenslanders.” Ms Bligh choked back tears as she addressed an emergency briefing on January 13, just hours after the Brisbane River peaked at 4.46 metres.
"We're the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We're the ones that they knock down, and we get up again."
The speech was lauded as evidence of real leadership, with a welcome absence of political spin. Ms Bligh even became a trending topic on social networking site Twitter, something not to be dismissed in the tech-savvy ‘Tens.
The waters had barely receded when danger loomed again, in the form of Cyclone Yasi. The category five storm smashed into North Queensland on February 3.
The cost of recovery and rebuilding was put at 6 billion dollars in the June budget. It was a blow to a state still suffering fallout from the global financial crisis. Ms Bligh’s decision in 2009 to sell off key state assets like QR National and the Port of Brisbane to help reduce the debt burden remained unpopular with many. There was added criticism of the government’s ability to handle money when delayed in distributing payments from the Premier’s Disaster Relief Fund were revealed.
All this may have been surmountable in the public eye while the Premier’s post-disasters popularity surged to 60 per cent in the polls, and the state opposition remained ineffective.
But in March, Campbell Newman made the astonishing announcement that he would quit his job as Lord Mayor of Brisbane, nominate for the state seat of Ashgrove, and become the LNP leader from outside the parliament.
The audacious move gave the LNP the boost and focus it needed, and from then on Mr Newman surged ahead in the polls. He often demanded Ms Bligh call the election, but the Premier stuck to her guns about 2011 being a year of rebuilding (even taking charge of that effort personally as Minister for Reconstruction).
The government was able to score some political mileage out of Mr Newman’s reluctance to put his full personal finances on the public record - even he regretted not doing that sooner – but the real edge came in October, with the revelation LNP officials had paid an ex-ALP staffer to compile a “dirt file” on Labor MPs.
Mr Newman, who claimed no knowledge of the dossier, was forced to apologise. “This sort of sleazy politics is unacceptable to me,” he said.
Ms Bligh had a PR win in November when her hometown of the Gold Coast was awarded the 2018 Commonwealth Games. It was followed by a free kick in parliament, when none of the LNP’s 31 MPs showed up in the house to vote on three pieces of legislation, including the governing framework for the Games.
Ms Bligh announced the Mines to Minds education plan, designed to direct 50 per cent of all future LNG royalties into education opportunities for Queensland children; and gay rights activists welcomed Ms Bligh’s support of Civil Partnership legislation.
A December poll saw a bounce in Ms Bligh’s approval rating; but that was conducted before the revelation Queensland Health employee Joel Barlow allegedly stole 16 million dollars from the department, using the money to fund his lavish lifestyle.
As Barlow was found and arrested, voters were astonished by revelations his New Zealand criminal record was not uncovered, as well as the system failures in how he was able to approve payment transfers.
Health has been a bugbear for the Labor government since the Jayant Patel scandal at Bundaberg Hospital in 2005. Under Anna Bligh’s watch in 2010, a new health payroll scheme collapsed on implementation, leaving hundreds of health workers overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all.
Three days after the scandal broke, a fed-up Premier announced the demolition of Queensland Health. She said the dramatic move to split the service in two was the way of changing the “toxic” culture of the department’s corporate office.
Whether it’s enough to change Queenslanders’ distrust of how Labor manages health is another story.
Eight Labor MPs – including Deputy Premier Paul Lucas – announced their intention to resign at the 2012 election. Ms Bligh welcomed them all as a chance for renewal. But critics claimed it was a case of rats deserting a sinking ship.
There is no doubt Anna Bligh will throw all of her energy into fighting the forthcoming election. She has the advantage of picking the date that will best advantage her and Labor. But history is full of leaders for whom the ability in battle was not enough.
Winston Churchill has been voted the Greatest Briton of all time. He was a popular war leader, the right man at the right time. But despite victory against the Nazis, Churchill was thrown out of office in the July 1945 general election, amid a mood for change.
Anna Bligh’s finest hour may have come and gone with the swirling muddy waters of the summer of sorrow.