Campbell Newman
Campbell & Peter Beattie_navy.jpg

Political Commentary

The Shakespearean tragedy of Newman, by a political foe

 

By David Hinchliffe

Brisbane Times, 2nd March 2017

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David Hinchliffe served as a Brisbane Labor councillor between 1988 and 2012, including four years between 2004 and 2008 when he was deputy to Liberal lord mayor Campbell Newman in an unprecedented power-sharing administration. An accomplished artist, Hinchliffe’s official parliamentary portrait of his friend and former foe was unveiled in a private event at Parliament House on Thursday night.

It's fair to say that no one has risen so quickly and spectacularly and yet fallen so heavily in Queensland politics as Campbell Newman.

I say this as both a friend and former adversary.

The qualities that lifted him from obscurity into the lord mayor's office and made him such a popular mayor are exactly the same qualities which led to his fall from grace in the premier's office.

It was his drive and determination that got him on top in City Hall and then the state. But when he drove too hard and seemed too determined to get his way, voters punished him for what they saw as his and his government's arrogance.

To understand the breadth of this exceptional career, it's worth stepping back and looking at just how extraordinary and unique his story has been.

No career in Australian politics has ever been so black and white.

It started with an unparalleled act of schizophrenia in the council polling booths in Brisbane 2004.

On the one hand, voters liked their Labor councillors enough to vote them back 17-nine in the majority.

On the other hand, they also liked the enthusiasm and energy of Newman enough to vote him in as Liberal lord mayor.

It was the first time in Brisbane's history we had a lord mayor of one party and a majority of council from another. It was the first time in Australia, to my knowledge, there was a Liberal-Labor "coalition" government. We cryptically called it a "Coalition of the Unwilling".

As the leader of the Labor majority, I had to decide whether we would fight this new Liberal lord mayor tooth and nail every inch of the way or we would try to find some way to work together.

We decided we'd make it work and despite predictions we wouldn't last a month, we went the full four-year term.

We passed all his budgets, we worked together to build the Clem7 tunnel and the Eleanor Schonell bridge and we planned the Legacy Way tunnel. We even agreed on the most controversial of council issues – development applications. After long debates we agreed either to reject, amend or pass more than 4000 applications.

It was a period of steady, substantial achievement, despite the occasional silly and public spats we had. Maybe it was because of the need for compromise and negotiation that this period of Campbell's career was so successful.

Campbell went on to win the mayoralty by 2:1 in 2008, as well as a majority of council seats for his Liberal colleagues.

He was a blazing comet. There was no Liberal leader in Australia more popular.

That wave of popularity became a tsunami and, by 2012, his party elected him leader in absentia from Parliament and then, the first time in our history, someone became premier on the very same day he became a Member of the Legislative Assembly.

He also had the greatest majority of seats in our history (78 LNP to the ALP's seven) and at the time the largest majority in any western democracy!

It seemed that the juggernaut that was "Can Do" Campbell was unstoppable.

You couldn't find anyone in Australia prepared to bet that neither he nor his massive government would be there in three years time. That was unthinkable, yet that's exactly what happened.

Hubris is a corrosive thing. It's often the dark flipside of positive virtues of conviction, drive and energy. When those qualities are combined with overwhelming electoral success it can become a heady intoxicating mix.

Boldness can turn to brashness. Courageousness can morph into cockiness almost overnight.

Campbell and his team believed the "Can Do" slogan meant they could do what they wanted and, to be fair, what they believed they had to do.

In prosecuting that, they clearly did much more than the electors thought they could or should do.

And they moved much too quickly. It almost seemed they had convinced themselves instead of having a generation in Parliament to introduce gradual conservative change they had to get it all done in one term.

Such thinking proved to be self-fulfilling.

The cutting of the admittedly large public service was far too quick, brutal and uncompromising and flew in the face of pre-election promises.

The implementation of initiatives to kerb undoubted bikie gang crime was simply over the top.

The fiasco of selecting the Chief Justice was self-evidently inept.

All these seem to me to be both the symptom and result of hubris.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

While Newman's government was not corrupt, it had been seduced by its own success. It was pretty much unfettered and unconstrained.

The staggering parliamentary majority allowed the extreme right of the party to dominate the sensible moderates within the LNP.

By virtue of the fact there were a lot of successful LNP candidates who were never given any chance of actually winning seats, some pretty strange characters made it in to the green leather benches of the Legislative Assembly. All too often, the government was left dealing with these accidents of history.

Every weird motion that had ever been raised at an LNP branch meeting seemed to bubble up to the surface and policy became influenced by this craziness.

Campbell himself seems, in retrospect, almost a victim. He was surrounded by a party room of one-term accidents, has-beens, wannabes and would-have-beens.

More than a couple of his colleagues hoped he would fail.

The right-wing elements in his cabinet and party room were further to the right than Campbell and that challenged the image he had crafted for himself in council as a more sophisticated urban Liberal.

In many ways, he had less power as premier than as lord mayor. He had real and legal executive power as lord mayor. In George Street, he was constrained by envious, bitter and in some case downright odd colleagues in his own party and by the cumbersome machinery of state administration as opposed to the leaner machine of council.

There was also the media. Nothing had really prepared him for the sort of public criticism he got.

Campbell had become used to the pleasant benign approbation he received from the media in his former municipal role.

When the spotlight fell upon him as premier and there was serious criticism about public service cuts, dramatic and sudden changes to laws, selling of assets etc, I genuinely think he was surprised at the reaction.

It doesn't surprise me.

The role of the media, whether we in public life like it or not, is to criticise. It's not necessarily to be fair. In fact, increasingly the mass media are anything but fair. Social media is even more extreme.

The end result of endless criticism is that the electorate is in an almost constant state of displeasure.

As many journalists like my grandfather, father and brother might say: "Bad news is big news, good news is no news."

It's simply a by-product of the human condition. We're all attracted to the dramatic.

Campbell's Can Do daily dose of drama and action made for some dramatic headlines.

The end came as suddenly and as dramatically as any other phase of Campbell's tumultuous and fascinating career.

I often think that Campbell Newman's political career could have been a play written by Shakespeare. There's plenty of fire and tempest and dramatic action, gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands, not a little gore and some big personalities jostling for control. And tears – a lot of tears.

I have been criticised by some of my colleagues in the Labor Party for saying I am a friend of Campbell Newman. I personally think that criticism is a little sad. We're conditioned to treat other people with different political views as the enemy.

It's partly what's wrong with this adversarial Westminster system we've inherited and it's exacerbated by social and mass media. There are good people on all sides of politics.

I know there were things his government did that hurt people. The real life lesson of governing is that making decisions is painful and that tough decisions can hurt. There is no doubt that a lot of people were hurt and a lot more than should have been necessary to carry out the agenda he was elected to deliver.

But after four long years of working with him, sitting next to him in Civic Cabinet all day every Monday and every Tuesday in council, I came to know Campbell Newman as a person. I respected him for his conviction. I admired him for his drive. I liked him as a family man. I admired his wife, who got an unfair treatment both from the media and from my own side of politics.

It's a tough, brutal and unforgiving business. But once you've had your battles and you've left the battlefield, I'd like to think that you can respect your adversaries.

If both you and they have fought an honourable fight, you should leave with both self-respect and mutual respect.

And maybe even friendship.

 
In the mediaBec O'Connor