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Politicians betraying their ideology

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Much attention has focused on the Bligh Government’s reversal of a number of election promises, its sudden announcement of a massive $15 billion privatisation of many Queensland government enterprises and the ending of the fuel subsidy, as a betrayal of the electorate.

It certainly was. At no time during the recent March state election campaign did Premier Bligh mention that privatisation was on the agenda. Nor was the state’s now apparent parlous financial situation that has driven privatisation and the fuel tax subsidy cut even hinted at being on the agenda for change.

But the Bligh Government’s sudden embracing of privatisation represents more fundamental betrayals that tell us a lot about the state of democratic governance in Queensland and the calibre of its leaders.

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First, the long delay in adopting privatisation and the reluctance to end the fuel subsidy has been a betrayal of good policy making in this state. Queensland’s productivity in vital areas such as ports and transport has been held back because governments have avoided taking these hard decisions. It is another example of “crisis” decision making, leaving the decision until it is almost too late, as privatisation may yet prove to be.

Second, it is a betrayal of democratic processes. The electorate has not been informed or consulted since the election about privatisation or the fuel tax levy. No discussion papers or parliamentary committee inquiries, just a sudden Premier’s announcement about what will be sold. As usual in Queensland there has only been a brief overnight debate in parliament about privatisation.

In a democracy decisions are not just about whether they are “good” policy, but whether the electorate has been adequately informed, properly consulted about the options and given time to develop a consensus for policy change.

Third, privatisation is a betrayal of the Queensland Labor Party’s own platform. Following the recent Queensland Labor Party Conference and despite strong words of opposition from rank and file members of the party including the union movement that privatisation was against the party policy, Premier Bligh won. Privatisation is going ahead in Queensland.

Now we know. The Labor Party platform in Queensland means nothing. Labor Party platforms were supposed to be important, to hold elected representatives to account, to ensure that Labor governments did not forget their constituency and become part of the establishment. If the Labor platform is meaningless then so might be the Labor Party brand. Indeed, the Labor Party increasingly apes its Coalition opponents both in policy and organisationally. Labor parliamentary executives now dominate their organisations like their opponents. The conservatives, it seems, have won yet again.

Last, Bligh’s privatisation reflects a more fundamental betrayal.

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It is one thing for a government to betray its election promises. We reluctantly accept this as par for the course. We also accept as necessary government policy “U” turns in crisis situations. Parties betraying their own ideology we can welcome if it means they are accepting changing times. Only the party faithful and members, a declining number in modern Australia, will be upset.

But, can we accept a leader who has possibly betrayed herself? Bligh is a person from the “left” of the Labor Party. She has campaigned all her life against privatisation and supported state ownership. Bligh has been a true believer of the Labor cause. Now her very public embrace of privatisation as a lifeline for financial and political solvency is surely the greatest betrayal of all. It is a betrayal of that most important commodity - personal values. Leadership without personal values is not leadership. It has no vision and no belief set for taking action - just policy by reaction to events and personal survival. And for the electorate and the party there can be no trust in government where there is no leadership.

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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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