Goodbye, Newman

1609697_10152650821929989_322121146_nZeev Vinokurov examines the follies of the Newman government

There are a range of lessons to be drawn from the Newman LNP government’s one-term government. I don’t pretend to have all the answers; the Newman government’s campaign was riven with problems. I will fix on a few of those problems: the government’s divisive and illiberal VLAD laws, their contempt for the separation of powers and their contempt for the public. I don’t pretend that these were the causes of Newman’s downfall, though I wish they were. But I do think they posed an unnecessary distraction for the government. The anti-association “VLAD” laws proved a distraction precisely because they targeted innocent people and persecuted them for spending time with one another, both on the road and off it. The VLAD laws were designed to lock up any group of three or more persons who associated with one another and were deemed members of a club which the government or a court deemed to be unlawful. The punishment was six months imprisonment; the maximum punishment for club members involved in criminal activity was also increased dramatically. Dramatic as these punishments might seem, it does not appear as if they had any effect on crime rates. Crime was steadily going down before VLAD and it was steadily going down after it. But VLAD turned an entire community of motorcycling enthusiasts, numbering in the tens of thousands, into anti-LNP sympathisers and activists.  What’s more, the government’s attacks on the legal profession, its scurrilous suggestions that the ALP enjoyed links to organised crime, and the transparent bribery of the election season cemented the LNP’s reputation for transparent demagoguery.

The VLAD laws had other offensive features. For example, as a final humiliation, those charged under the VLAD laws would be segregated from the general prison population and forced to wear pink jumpsuits. The government declared a number of motorcycling clubs to be illegal on the spot, but it was always open to a Court to declare that any association was unlawful if it had a criminal purpose. For instance, a football club that was engaged in a minor brawl once might become a target of the VLAD laws.

There was never really much going for the VLAD laws: they were introduced on the flimsy premise that the acts of a few club members should condemn the membership to persecution. The additional punishments imposed on club members guilty of other offences were arbitrary. The nature of the deed, not your associations, should dictate the punishment a person should receive on committing a criminal offence. But they made for a good law-and-order campaign for the public to swallow up. At least that’s what Newman thought.

Faced with criticism from the Bar Association and the legal profession at the draconian nature of the laws, Newman fired back with accusations that any lawyer acting for a VLAD law defendant was a “hired gun” in cahoots with organised crime. This extraordinary comment elicited a suit in defamation, as well as criticism from across the legal profession and even the normally impartial judiciary.

Unsurprisingly, the VLAD law proved incredibly divisive. Polling commissioned in early 2014 demonstrated that almost half of the electorate was more likely to vote against the LNP because of their enactment. Perhaps a little incredibly, the poll predicted that the LNP could lose up 30 seats as a result. Moreover, in July 2014, the electorate demonstrated their willingness to do so by voting out the LNP in the Stafford by-election. Newman seems to have partly attributed the loss to the enactment of the VLAD laws, which he immediately wound back in response. Prisoners would no longer be segregated or forced to wear pink jumpsuits, but the rest of the VLAD law would remain in force.

It was too little, too late. Queenslanders were tired of seeing their fellow citizens harassed for their choice of friends or their motorcycling hobbies. Innocent recreational riders were repeatedly harassed on the roads by police. The Vietnam Veterans’ motorcycling club was raided by police. A librarian, with a clean record, was charged with the crime of entering a pub with two of her fellow motorcycling club enthusiasts. Five Victorians on holiday were charged with the same offence. Another five Queenslanders got similar treatment. Newman refused to back down. Even as he afforded a minor concession to VLAD law opponents, he offered them more contempt. As he put it then:

“I’m sorry today, if I’ve done things that have upset people.”

That is to say that he wasn’t sorry in the least. Apparently, anyone who disagreed with him was being irrational.

It’s worth noting that in opposition the LNP campaigned against a milder version of the VLAD law backed by the governing ALP government in the 2009 election. At the time, the then-opposition leader Lawrence Springborg observed:

“The Bar Association, the Law Society and the Council for Civil Liberties have justifiable and fundamental objections to this bill, including its attack on the freedom of association and the application of a civil standard of proof in what is otherwise a criminal proceeding…[.].”

Springborg was Health Minister under Newman’s former government. He did not breathe a word of criticism against the VLAD laws on their introduction.

Of a similar piece was Newman’s decision to promote the controversial Chief Magistrate Carmody to the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland. That saga began when the then-Chief Magistrate emailed his fellow Magistrates, warning them of the danger of realising persons in motorcycling clubs on bail. The move was seen as a clear sign of support for the Newman government. When the bail applications kept going, the Chief Magistrate arbitrarily reserved all such bail applicants for himself. He was then promoted to Chief Justice on the retirement of his predecessor. The legal profession and the judiciary regarded his elevation as a clear act of political favouritism. His appointment ceremony was boycotted by the other Justices of the Supreme Court. Justice Muir even called on Carmody to refuse the appointment given that the Bar and the judiciary lacked confidence in him. Carmody refused, and even went on talkback radio to defend the government’s decision to appoint him. It was a political act that was clearly inappropriate given his judicial appointment. The appointment itself smacked of clear political favouritism and was an attack on the independence of the judiciary.

As the State election drew closer, Newman dug in. The ALP had committed itself to repealing the VLAD laws, so the Premier accused the ALP of being in league with organised crime. (The commitment was later watered down to a review.) Newman offered no proof, but asked journalists to “google it.” The best that might be said of his claim is that there is a video on YouTube in which an Electrical Trades Union official, speaking at a protest against the VLAD laws, admits to having accepted donations from motorcycling clubs. This is not quite the same as showing that those motorcycling clubs are criminal. That is, and remains, a baseless accusation. Newman miscalculated; without proof, the media portrayed the claim for what it was: a base slander.

To make matters worse, Newman engaged in transparent vote-buying. Of course, every politician promises taxpayer-funded, so-called “free” goodies to his electorate during election season and Newman was no exception. But not every politician has the temerity to threaten to withdraw the goods on offer if the seats in question aren’t held by his party. The problem is that the threat lays bare the pretence that these spending measures are for the public good. That is much harder to do when the message is “if you don’t vote for us, you don’t get a pool.” The media blasted Newman for it, and quite rightly so. Rarely does one see such openly displayed appeals to avarice. Politicians are usually more subtle than that.

The Newman government’s extraordinary excesses were not the only factors responsible for his downfall, but they were undeniably factors. You simply cannot make enemies of tens of thousands of motorcycling enthusiasts in Queensland and across the country, not to mention the legal profession and the judiciary, without losing votes and winning the ire, and even the fear, of the electorate. There is a lesson to be drawn from this. I, for one, am not sorry to see Newman go.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

On a Queensland House of Review


Rsz_1197515_108482069234461_1417439_n (1)March 24, 2012 was a historic day in Queensland's history, writes Michael Smyth

Not only due to the utter devastation for the ALP, but also due to its ushering in of "conservative" rule in this state; a sign that the Right in Queensland has shaken off the spectre of Joh.

Before the apologists of Joh get outraged by such a statement, I want to clarify what I mean.

Joh did some good things for Queensland, but his government was ultimately undone by the shortcomings of some of its members.

Whether you love or hate the memory of Joh is irrelevant. The reason that I cite this is that Joh would not have been able to do so much had there been an upper house.

In 1922, the ALP won a landslide victory and decided to abolish the Legislative Council, a move that was questionable from a constitutional point of view.

This led to the ALP holding government for decades, until the 1950s, when the Coalition parties finally won back the Legislative Assembly. This ultimately led to the Joh era, and the expansion of Queensland, but the issue here is the means by which it was expanded.

Due to the fact there is no Upper House, Joh was able to implement his reforms without any opposition from the parliament.

This sounds good in theory, except when you fast forward to the Beattie and Bligh years (1998-2012), where bad laws were made and such an appalling lack of transparency became so apparent that even Tony Fitzgerald complained about it.

Tony Fitzgerald, for those that don't remember is the guy who ran the Fitzgerald inquiry that exposed corruption in Joh's ministry.

So when the proverbial horses mouth comes out and says something along the lines of Labor makes Joh look vaguely translucent, you know you've got a problem.

Freedom of Information requests were frequently ignored by the Beattie government.

So how do you fix this problem? How do you prevent abuses of power – by either side – in the face of only having a unicameral parliament?

You can't really prevent it, once you've cleared the Legislative Assembly, it goes to Government House for Royal Assent, and under our conventions, it is signed into law.

To prevent Joh happening again, and to prevent Beattie from happening again, an Upper House should be restored as a check and balance of our Westminster system.

It is good for constitutional democracy to have the powerful kept in check by a proportional representation of the people.

QUESTION: Won't this mean that reforms don't get pushed through as quickly if they are obstructed by a recalcitrant Upper House?

ANSWER: Yes, but the payoff is that bad policy gets filtered out, or turned into good policy, by consultation with the other parties. It is not healthy to have one party controlling the political and policy agendas.

QUESTION: Why should we allow the Greens (or any other minor party) representation in the parliament if they don't have enough votes to gain a seat in the Assembly?

ANSWER: Because the way our system works in Australia, as a clone of the old Westminster system, is that the state (or country) is broken up into electorates with a roughly equal number of voters, and then to protect the rights of all citizens there is proportional representation for each State (at federal level), and each group of people who feel a certain way at State level.

QUESTION: Won't this cost us more money?

ANSWER: Everything costs money these days, but realistically speaking, we have not increased the number of State electorates for more than two decades. Surely, when we have the money again, we could easily facilitate a restoration of the Upper House, so that no group of voters can make the claim that the government does not represent them.

However, if money is a concern, and at this time it is, it would be feasible to reduce the number of MPs – even if only for a short time – in order to facilitate the restoration of accountability.

QUESTION: What about the Parliamentary Committee system that has been set up?

ANSWER: The Parliamentary Committee system that was set up merely serves to rubber stamp the government’s decisions. There is also the remuneration aspect of each Parliamentary Committee, and each MP sitting on each Committee. Finally, in regards to committees, it detracts from the representative work that each MP does for their constituents.

The 14 years of Labor government serve as a cautionary tale, to those of us who love liberty.

It is our civic duty as citizens, to ask for accountability from our politicians, instead of waiting every three years to undo any policy that could be put through in the night.

There are people with similar complaints about the incumbent LNP government. We need accountability from our politicians, and accountability that does not come just once every three years.

Michael Smyth is the Queensland Branch Treasurer of the Australian Monarchist League