Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Queensland goes to the polls

Queensland premier Peter Beattie announced this morning he has called a state election for Saturday, September 9. He nominated health and delivering water reforms and the water grid as the top election issues. He said he made up his mind after discussions with retiring Bundaberg Labor MP Nita Cunningham yesterday. He also said he would not remain state ALP leader if he lost the election. Labor has been in office since 1998 and currently holds a 16 seat parliamentary majority. In the last couple of years, it has faced controversies over the crisis in the public hospital system and on how to tackle the dwindling water supply in the drought stricken south-east. The Opposition will be out to highlight Labor's supposed inability to handle several crises in electricity, health, and water.

The announcement ends weeks of lingering speculation on when Beattie would call an election. By law it was due before February 2007 but he has played his hand early due to the impending retirement of Labor MP Nita Cunningham due to ill-health. Cunningham represents Bundaberg, the site of the Dr Death scandal. Surgeon Dr Jayant Patel operated in Bundaberg Base Hospital and he found himself at the centre of a political scandal in early 2005 when he was accused of gross incompetence. The Indian born doctor had been disqualified from surgery in Oregon before coming to Australia. Queensland Health employed him without conducting any due diligence and appointed him to become director of surgery at Bundaberg. His surgical work was described as "antiquated" and "sloppy", and some nurses even claimed that they hid their patients from him when they knew that he was in the hospital. Patel was linked to at least 87 deaths out of the 1,202 patients he treated between 2003 to early 2005, 30 of whom died while under his care in Bundaberg. The Opposition raised the matter in state parliament and called for his suspension. Patel left Australia using a first-class air fare paid for by Queensland Health and returned to Oregon.

Queensland’s last election in 2004 produced a landslide victory for Labor. To form an effective government, the Coalition would need to take 19 seats and gain an overall swing of approximately 8%. Despite the dissatisfaction with the current government that has seen it lose three bye-elections in 18 months, that swing seems unlikely to be achieved. Especially as the Coalition itself is in disarray in the wash-up of the failed attempt to create a new combined party and the very recent sacking of Liberal leader Bob Quinn in favour of Bruce Flegg. Flegg pledged to work closely with the Nationals, despite once having questioned Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg's electability. Flegg said in an interview last year he doubted city voters would support a "farmer from the Darling Downs" as premier.

Queensland is the only state where the Nationals lead the Coalition. This is Lawrence Springborg’s second election as leader. In 2004, aged 35 he was the youngest opposition leader in Queensland's history and although he cut Labor’s majority after the 2001 debacle (when the Nationals preferenced One Nation and the Opposition was reduced to 15 seats in an 89 seat parliament) it was not enough to avoid a heavy defeat. Despite the defeat he was unanimously re-elected Leader of the Opposition in February 2004 after calling on both coalition partners to investigate whether they should unite as one single conservative party in Queensland. The state’s optional preferential voting system means that many conservative votes are exhausted rather than flowing to Coalition parties. But Springborg’s attempts to create a merged party were spectacularly torpedoed by John Howard who argued it would seriously damage Federal Coalition unity.

The importance of Queensland in the overall Australian scheme of things should not be understated. In 2005 the population of Queensland officially reached 4 million. Queensland is the fastest growing state in Australia, with nine hundred people moving to the state a week. Predictions have been made that by 2051 Queensland will become Australia's 2nd most populous state of 7.5 million behind New South Wales. Whatever can be said about 2051, it is rather more likely that Queensland will remain a Labor state for the next three years.

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