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Will Beattie face the Queensland curse?

12 August 2013

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Norman Abjorensen is a Visiting Fellow in the Crawford School Policy and Governance Program. He is a former national editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and an award winning journalist and has worked as a political adviser, speechwriter and policy advocate.

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The transition from state to Federal politics has a history of being tricky, writes Norman Abjorensen.

Peter Beattie’s decision to run for a federal seat six years after stepping down as Queensland Labor premier is a brave one, and not just because he is contesting a Coalition-held seat. Transitions from state to national politics in Australia are fraught with difficulty.

In recent years, Bob Carr (Labor) and John Fahey (Liberal) have translated from running the government in NSW to senior portfolios in Canberra but only two former state premiers have made it to the prime ministership: George Reid and Joe Lyons.

The political road south from Brisbane appears historically even more difficult; some might even say cursed.

Take the case, for example, of poor Anderson Dawson, the former miner who headed the world’s first Labor government, albeit for only six days, in 1899. With Federation in 1901, Dawson switched to federal politics, holding the defence portfolio in Chris Watson’s short-lived Labor government of 1904. But life in a poorly heated boarding house in Melbourne was not suited to the convivial Queenslander who slowly drank his health away to fend off the cold and loneliness

Fifteen years later, the ALP was in dire straits, the party having split and lost office over the conscription issue; a saviour was urgently needed. Tom Ryan, a radical lawyer and reforming premier of Queensland, looked the man for the job, and he was effectively drafted into the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, and soon appointed deputy leader.

It was, it seemed, only a matter of time for him to take over the leadership and steer Labor back into government. But it was not to be. Ryan caught a severe chill while campaigning in 1921 and died from pneumonia, aged just 45.

Ryan’s successor, Queensland premier Ted Theodore, was also to take the road south, entering the Federal Parliament in 1927 at his second attempt, and in 1929 with the election of the Scullin Labor government, he became treasurer. It was the worst time to be in government with the US stock market crash and the enveloping Great Depression.

Theodore, a widely read former gold prospector, devised a plan to combat the worsening effects of the economic slump, favouring deficit spending to stimulate the economy. His perceived unorthodoxy was derided by the business community, the opposition and even sections of the ALP, and a politically motivated royal commission set up in Queensland to investigate his business affairs, forced him to strand down. He never returned to public life but is still regarded by some historians as the best prime minister Australia never had.

Fast forward to 1957, and the great Labor split of the 1950s over communist influence in the trade unions, saw the Labor government in Queensland, in office since 1932, tear itself apart, losing under premier Vince Gair to the conservatives. Gair, of course, later made it to Canberra, but not under the ALP banner, running for and subsequently leading the Democratic Labor Party, whose mission was to keep Labor out of office.

Traditionally in Queensland, the second most powerful political player after the premier is Brisbane’s mayor, and in 1972, the Labor leader who was soon to become prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was worried about Labor’s chances in Queensland, where it trailed badly in the polls. Needing a star candidate, he persuaded Clem Jones, Brisbane’s mayor since 1961, to run for the federal seat of Yeronga, which he failed to win, and again in 1975 for Griffith, again unsuccessfully.

In 1987, perhaps the most bizarre of all Canberra dreams emanating from Brisbane, began to take shape as the National Party premier since 1968, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, launched his quixotic tilt at federal politics, with the self-styled “Joh for PM” campaign. Never mind that he did not nominate for a seat nor bother to explain how he would convince urban Australia to support him, he added risibility to an otherwise grim campaign that saw Bob Hawke win his third election with the Coalition in disarray, courtesy of Bjelke-Petersen.

In 1989 - Bjelke-Petersen having already been driven from office in the wake of the Fitzgerald inquiry into police corruption - what remained of his government was swept away at the polls and Labor was returned to government under Wayne Goss.

Goss, who pushed through a wide-ranging suite of reforms, lost the 1995 election, and in 1998 he was endorsed to run for the federal seat of Oxley. His talents would have been welcome in Canberra after Labor’s federal defeat in 1996, but diagnosis of a brain tumour forced his retirement from political life.

And now Peter Beattie eyes the road south from Brisbane, fighting not just his political opponents but the weight of history and what appears to be a persistent Queensland curse.

This piece was first published by the Canberra Times: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/beattie-faces-queensland-curse-i...

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