Monday, September 10, 2007

Farewell to the tart: Peter Beattie resigns

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie announced his resignation today effective Thursday. 54 year old Beattie was the longest serving Premier in Australia having gained the top job in 1998. Announcing his decision, he said he accomplished most of his goals during his tenure and he felt privileged to serve the people of Queensland. "I want to thank the people of Queensland,” he said. “You put your faith in me and my Cabinet colleagues and I thank you for that.”

According to a Queensland government media release today, Beattie has anointed his deputy Anna Bligh as his successor. He believes his main achievement was the creation of the Smart State initiative and he hopes that commitment to the Smart State remains at the core of future Governments “regardless of their political persuasion”. He finished by saying “all I have ever tried to do is my best for Queensland”.

Educated as a lawyer, Peter Douglas Beattie served his political apprenticeship in the 1970s as Queensland Railway unions secretary. He was State Secretary of Queensland Labor Party from 1981 to 1988. He was elected to parliament in 1989 and served as chair of the Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee where he clashed repeatedly with his own Premier Wayne Goss. Beattie was appointed Health Minister in the dying days of the Goss Government. He was elected party leader when Goss resigned after his party’s defeat in 1996. Two years later Beattie was Premier.

There is no doubt that Beattie is a remarkably resilient and popular figure. By 2005, he led a government with a $3 billion surplus thanks to the knock-on effect of the resource boom. His personal popularity was always high and he was instrumental in Labor winning three successive landslide election wins after winning minority government in 1998. With the opposition almost non-existent, Beattie’s powers were almost unlimited. Queensland is Australia’s only unicameral parliament. Since the Senate was abolished in 1922, government decisions face no house of review nor parliamentary committees.

While Beattie has consistently proved popular with the electorate, his administration has become dogged in controversy in recent years. Problems in public administration supposedly resolved by the 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry appeared to come the fore again with issues related to the health scandal, Mulrunji’s death on Palm Island, the jailing of racing Minister Merri Rose for blackmailing Beattie and the resignation of Health Minister Gordon Nuttall due to his failure to declare a $300,000 ‘loan’ made by a Queensland mining magnate.

But it was the mismanagement of health policy under Nuttall’s watch that made the most headlines. Dr Jayant Patel was an overseas-trained director of surgery at Bundaberg base hospital. It was alleged he was responsible for numerous patient deaths and the media dubbed him Dr Death. In 2005 the government’s three month $5 million inquiry into the scandal collapsed amid ugly squabbling of accountability and culpability. Beattie’s bizarre response was to blame the people of Queensland saying those who were overweight or smoked unnecessarily burdened the state. Luckily for Beattie, Health Minister Nuttall fell on his sword to take the blame with him.

But Beattie’s government had a good record in participatory governance initiatives such as the Community Cabinet process, the Community Renewal Program and the Cape York Partnerships. These initiatives were born as a response to the success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in 1998. Queensland brought in a set of ‘whole of government’ priorities which emphasised more responsive policies and widespread citizen engagement. The Community Cabinets saw community forums and cabinet meetings held in rural Queensland. The Community Renewal Program attempted to deliver more services to disaffected residents and improve community wellbeing. The Cape York Partnership was Beattie’s most ambitious community governance program. It attempted to tackle the Cape’s social and economic problems of ill-health, alcohol, violence and crime spearheaded by local Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson.

Water management was another much-debated aspect of Beattie’s leadership. His term of office coincided with a massive drought and severe water restrictions as South East Queensland infrastructure struggled to cope with rampant population growth. Beattie’s controversial solution was to construct a dam at Traveston Crossing on the Sunshine Coast’s Mary River which will cost a staggering $2.6 billion. His plans have been opposed by local action groups, environmental organisations and scientists. Despite the opposition, premier in waiting Anna Bligh has pledged to continue the development as well as push on with the proposed council amalgamations.

While Bligh picks up the pieces, she will also hope to inherit some of Beattie’s media skills. Beattie was the master of managing the political backflip. While most politicians used backflip and apology as a last resort, Beattie used it as a first response to a crisis. His willingness to concede error increased his perception as a strong leader. A self-described “media tart”, his style has been described as a ‘mixture of modernisation, nationalism and populism'. In the parting words of his press conference today, Beattie said he will not miss the constant media exposure. "You get to a stage in your life when you're over it," he said. "I'm over it."

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