In the early hours of 1 April 1978, Bundaberg dentist Harry Akers set out on a one-man protest. He was accompanied by his cattle dog, Jaffa, and carrying a placard which read:
The majority is not omnipotent. The majority can be wrong and is capable of tyranny.
Over the years, Akers’ march has become a well-worn anecdote in the history of rebellion against Queensland’s authoritarian tendencies. What is less remarked on are the words he carried with him, words that betray blunt truths about the heart of a working democracy.
Just as green shoots are quick to sprout in the wake of a blaze, the Liberal National Party’s infernal election results this past weekend have provoked much analysis and opinion. While most commentators are laying the blame squarely at the feet of defeated Premier Campbell Newman, they are far too quick to look beyond his leadership style to attribute blame to the ideology he supposedly represents, refracting his government’s policies through the lens of his personality. Though it may be attractive and convenient to project our own narratives – to argue that these results are symptomatic of a growing international backlash against austere, neoliberal economics, for instance – the Liberal National Party’s fate in Queensland was always inextricably joined to this man’s persona.
Such is the extent of the party’s loss in this most recent election that it’s easy to forget the staggering scale of their victory in 2012, when they reduced Labor to just seven seats in opposition. Campbell Newman’s personal brand of ‘Can Do’ enthusiasm, built up over years as Brisbane’s Lord Mayor before he was drafted as leader, was enough to transform the LNP’s prospects of breaking Labor’s long stint in power. The levels of public support for Labor leader Anna Bligh following her leadership during the 2010–11 floods would have otherwise made victory impossible. But if we reflect on the way that Tony Abbott’s toxic popularity infected Newman’s chances in the latest state election, we see that the Prime Minister’s own woes can be partially explained by a similar inability to adapt from pugnacious opposition into a positive, constructive government, a mindset that would become the wellspring of Newman’s extinction.
After his victory in 2012, the new Premier quickly turned to tried-and-tested conservative tactics in attempts to consolidate his power, waging war against brawling bikies and an ‘out-of-touch’ legal fraternity. Politics operates on a principle of expediency, with leaders weighing up the political cost and benefit of decisions and making them on that basis. At the beginning, Newman’s strategies were immensely popular. But what’s fascinating about his demise is that even the most populist of policies – such as the bikie legislation – were pursued so aggressively that they rebounded with violent force, painting himself as a ruthless autocrat.
Imagine a politician presiding over an earth-turning ceremony, shovel in hand. As the cameras flash he bares his teeth just a little too hard in a rictus grin, exposing bloody gums worn raw by desperation. Queensland’s rejection of a once-loved leader arrives as a repudiation of expediency-driven politics, and of a man whose aggression and drive laid bare the primitive mechanisms of power and control.
So how could Newman run both the most and the least successful campaigns in modern Australian political history, all within three years? Because the Campbell Newman that has the strength of character to wait on a tarmac to tell his Mum that Dad had died is the same man that could table an opposition member’s mental health records in parliament; because parties who tie their success and failure to a leader’s personality will live and die by the contradictions of that same persona, and because the strategies that governments use to achieve and maintain power can all too easily become the instruments of their defeat.
I once asked a colleague from Brisbane to explain why Queenslanders had shown such a willingness to embrace politicians who honor prosperity and security at the expense of fundamental freedoms.
‘Queensland is not a processing centre,’ he said. ‘We take shit out of the ground; we mine things, we farm things. And nothing gets in the way.’ In this way, the state is a microcosm of Donald Horne’s sardonic vision of Australia: a fat, emblematic slice of the Lucky Country – a place where our reliance on mineral wealth crystallises into a bedrock-thick national culture of complacency.
Queensland is built for brutality. If anything, Newman’s greatest failing was to embrace its frontier mentality all too enthusiastically. He couldn’t help himself. Eighteen months after he was elected premier, he sat down for an interview with a sports reporter from The Courier Mail. Sick of assumptions about his abrasive style of management, Newman began to offer up several minor revelations. He had three or four whiskeys a night. He loved McDonalds. He was the great-grandson of a Californian goldminer, and as a child had fossicked in the gullies of Gayndah and Monto.
‘It’s in my blood,’ Campbell said, ‘I have to pan for gold.’
In his victory speech in 2012, he told the people of Queensland ‘it will always, always be about you’. We easily become frustrated with our leaders’ decisions that seem irrational, or immoral, but it’s the collective will of those around us that permits those evils. For those of us who hope for a better country and a better Queensland, that means more time and effort spent on engaging the ordinary people around us, and less wasted in worship or disdain of totemic, presidential figures. The majority can be wrong and is capable of tyranny.