Authoritarian Government in Queensland? (2004)

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Caution: The following account assumes familiarity with Queensland's history and is unlikely to be of interest to persons who lack such a background.


Following the 2004 state election in Queensland, a senior political commentator suggested that with '"With three wins under his belt and the conservative parties in no real position to win in 2007 - baring a miracle, scandal or Act of God - Peter Beattie is the latest in a long list of authoritarian premiers" [1]

However this conclusion is likely to be wrong because:

A Changed Environment

There is little doubt of the success of 'ignorant authoritarians' in Queensland's political history - and that perceptions of Queensland politicians have often been poor as a result.

However the Queensland environment will no longer allow 'ignorant authoritarians' to prosper given:

Making Life Harder

As a result of these changes, the life of the 'ignorant authoritarian' has become increasingly difficult. In particular:

Some History

Bjelke Peterson's Governments got away with the 'authoritarian' game (especially in the 1980s) because:

In the early 1990s the Goss Government got away with the 'authoritarian' game (but only for a short time) because:

The Borbidge Government didn't get away with the 'authoritarian' game at all. In fact it hardly even bothered being authoritarian.

Beattie's Governments have gotten away with the 'authoritarian' game, because:

Practical circumstances no longer favour Populist Authoritarianism

However, though Queensland's Government faces no serious political Opposition, it has immense administrative and financial problems to which authoritarianism is not a real solution. Indicators of this are in:

Moreover despite a convincing electoral victory, the Government lacks policies that would withstand serious examination in many areas (see dysfunctions).

Having an administrative mess, a major financing problem and an often bad understanding of how to fix those problems is not a happy position to be in. While profuse apologies may ensure that a political leader is not seen to be arrogant, they can not make government administration any more competent.

In spite of this, such practical problems can be virtually invisible to political commentators and to the electorate because of severe institutional weakness in Queensland.

Immediately prior to the 2004 election an experienced political observer argued that there were 'No clouds on Sunshine Pete's horizon' - because protest votes were now a thing of the past in Queensland.

However while his observation was correct from an electoral viewpoint, once the election was past, dark  clouds would have to gather because of the problems identified above.

Practical 'clouds' may not translate into political 'clouds' because Queensland's political system operates in an unrealistic world. There is a general lack of input from independent institutions which are both competent and applied who could help the community understand (a) 'big picture' issues and (b) whether policy is likely to be effective and being competently implemented. This is why Queensland has had a Weak Parliament. It reflects comprehensive failure by: business; associations; unions; and universities, which prevents Queensland from developing much more astute political leadership than a flock of sheep.

Political commentators do not seem to recognize the 'competence' dimension in making a government susceptible to a protest vote. For example, the Goss Government was not susceptible to a 'protest' vote because people were unhappy with the Federal Government [1] - but because its administration was incompetent in many ways which impacted on them (see The Origin and Spread of the Queensland Effect). Moreover a very significant side of the 1995 protest vote was the electoral influence of the Public Service and (even though their situation remains very bad) the Public Service was unlikely to bother protesting in 2004.

However government is not just about illusion - so Queensland's populist Government (and the electorate) seem unlikely to enjoy its third term unless authoritarian populism is moderated by professional realism.

Thus the authoritarianism that political commentators see as normal in Queensland may no longer be in the interests of Queensland's political establishment.

Another example of authoritarian expectations: Following the 2004 election an experienced political commentator claimed that Commerce Queensland might be 'sent to Coventry' by the State Government for its vocal criticism of government practices and of a senior minister during the election campaign [1].

However the authoritarian tactic of simply 'shooting messengers' who point out problems is no longer going to work. For example, in the case mentioned above:

Presumably the State Government is itself now only too aware of the practical (public service and financial) problems mentioned above and that it cannot solve them by the authoritarian tactic of 'shooting messengers'.

Thus it is inappropriate to suggest that the Government might be merely vindictive, and that organizations such as Commerce Queensland should not have the 'guts' to question dubious policies and practices that emerge from Queensland's quirky political system.

February 2004