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Labor stumbles in by-elections

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 31 January 2000


When I wrote my first article on the Bundamba and Woodridge by-elections the full field of candidates was not known. Since then the presence of former Labor Party Member, Independent and local Councillor Russell Lutton in Woodridge, and the poor tactics of the ALP, have markedly changed the complexion of the contests. The pressure has come off the Liberal Party and transferred to the ALP, while public attention has moved from Bundamba to Woodridge.

The catalyst for this shift was the committal for trial on 49 child sex charges of the former member for Woodridge, Bill D’Arcy. Most commentators had put D’Arcy’s possible committal to one side for a number of reasons. He could not be legally named until he was committed, so it was a forbidden subject of speculation or analysis. Very few people outside the political elites knew of his predicament, strange as that might seem in a gossip laced city like Brisbane. While his committal hearing was set down to be heard in the by-election period, it had been adjourned so many times, the possibility of his name coming out had to be discounted.

That is the commentator’s alibi, but it is not available to the strategists on the Labor side who should have been alive to the possibilities and have prepared for them. Their response suggests that they did not. If they did, they certainly didn’t anticipate the direction from which the Opposition attack came.

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D’Arcy always presented a problem to the ALP. He was known as the Phantom because he did not live in his electorate, but in a luxurious canal front house at Raby Bay, easily an hour’s drive away from his electorate. That is when he was in the country. D’Arcy is a former school teacher who early on in his long political career settled into the role of bagman and wheeler-dealer. It is not well known, but Opposition Leader Rob Borbidge owes his career in State Politics to D’Arcy. It was D’Arcy who organized to direct ALP preferences against two anti-corruption Liberal MPs Bruce Bishop and Peter White in the seats of Surfers Paradise and Southport. Borbidge became the member for Surfers at that election.

More recently, the so-called Net Bet affair, where D’Arcy and friends were awarded a government licence to run an on-line gambling operation, was the most tangible public sign that his liking for deals also extended to the public arena.

D’Arcy was so busy travelling, wheeling and dealing, that Woodridge had been severely neglected. Despite this, it is still one of Labor’s safest. This is a reflection of demographics.

It was therefore predictable that the Opposition would attack Labor using D’Arcy. This was an attack that should have had little real effect. Labor’s vote with D’Arcy as candidate was probably about as low as it could go. People in this electorate will do anything to avoid voting Liberal. Without the child sex charges, Labor could have expected that D’Arcy’s retirement would have given them an opportunity to neutralize the usual anti-government swing in by-elections as their base vote would be likely to increase. Even with the sex charges this should have been possible. This is with one rider. Labor needed to disown D’Arcy. If it could not step away from him, it would share in his blame.

The child sex charges in some ways actually made it more difficult for the Opposition to directly attack Labor. They bring the attack into a more personal realm. There is also the small matter of the principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. Politicians need to be very careful before they play personal politics because the electorate does not like it. This is not because the public doesn’t believe the charges, but because it is all too willing to believe the worst of anyone in politics, including the accuser. To play this card the wrong way is to invite the response that you are all as bad as each other.

Liberal Leader David Watson found a way through. He used D’Arcy’s superannuation payout of $660,000 suggesting that it ought to have been frozen pending the court case. This is an interesting position for Watson. He is a former Professor of Commerce. It has never been suggested that a person in any other occupation should lose his or her superannuation benefits for a crime that has nothing to do with the earning of those benefits.

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The general position is that the penalty for criminal activity does not increase in parallel with the wealth of the criminal. So the charge does not pass the test of logic, but it does pass the taxi-driver test. A poll published in the CM shows that 76% of Woodridge residents agree with Watson. That Watson launched this attack indicates a level of toughness and cynicism on his part characteristic of many successful politicians, but usually foreign to an academic. But see note.

This attack should have been effective, but less than devastating. In any campaign you can’t win every argument. Part of the art is to take what damage you must while launching a counter-attack on an issue you can win. Another part is to say as little as possible about it, removing the opportunity for unforced errors. Beattie is a talkative politician, and he broke this last rule. In the exchanges that followed between him, Borbidge and Watson it emerged that he had threatened D’Arcy (who had recently been re-endorsed by the Labor Party) that if he didn’t resign, then he would vote for a private members bill sponsored by Independent Peter Wellington to freeze his superannuation. An exchange over the speed with which the super payout was made led to Beattie describing Borbidge as a liar and the most dishonest man in Queensland politics. Beattie was forcing himself into partial ownership of D’Arcy. He was also colouring in his public portrait with personal arrogance.

To compound his problems Mike Kaiser, Labor’s candidate and former State Secretary, told Independent Russell Lutton on ABC Radio, that were Lutton to be elected, he would not be able to deliver anything for the electors of Woodridge because no Cabinet Minister would even lift the phone to talk to him. Electors must have been amused. They hadn’t received much even though their man had been a key backroom operator.

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Note: Since writing this article I have asked David Watson how he intellectually justifies his position on D'Arcy's superannuation. His response is that the offences, if proved, would bar someone from becoming, or remaining, a Member of Parliament. Had D'Arcy been tried and found guilty around the time of their alleged commission then he would have been ineligible to become an MP and would never have become entitled to the superannuation. Watson argues that Parliament is therefore justified in confiscating the benefits retrospectively. 2/2/00



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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