December 2011 – January 2012


Can Do? Campbell Newman’s bid for Queensland

By Nick Bryant
Campbell Newman, go-to (and go-go) guy, July 2011. © Chris McCormack / Newspix / News Ltd
Campbell Newman, go-to (and go-go) guy, July 2011. © Chris McCormack / Newspix / News Ltd

On the morning of Sunday, 25 November 2007, Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell  Newman woke with the prerogative, if not perhaps the immediate  inclination, to make what only a few months before would have sounded  like the most improbable of political boasts: that of being the most  senior liberal office-holder in the land. The previous night in Sydney,  before a packed ballroom that would quickly empty out, John Howard  conceded that the era bearing his name had finally come to an end. Not  long after, Kevin Rudd bounded into a function room at Brisbane’s  Suncorp Stadium knowing that the Labor ascendancy was complete, with his  party in charge not only in Canberra but also in every state and  territory. Just a few bus stops away, Brisbane City Hall – an Italianate  building with a campanile-style clock tower that ‘can-do’ Campbell was  determined to restore to its original glory – remained the Liberals’  most imposing bastion.

Crestfallen conservatives would have drawn little consolation from the potentially morale-boosting fact that Brisbane City Council is the biggest local government fiefdom in the country, nor from the 617,000 registered voters who make up Australia’s largest single electorate. No, the citywide power wielded by Campbell Newman was a sore reminder of the Liberals’ nationwide powerlessness. Labor had a monopoly. The Liberals had a municipality. Alert to the comic potential, the Chaser team ambushed Newman at his suburban home on Sunday morning, presenting him with a selection of Liberal totems including a Wallabies tracksuit and a pair of fishnet stockings.

By February 2011 the tracksuit and fishnets more rightly belonged to Colin Barnett in Western Australia and Ted Baillieu in Victoria (soon Barry O’Farrell in New South Wales would also have a claim). Kevin Rudd was being spoken of in the past tense. The Suncorp Stadium had been inundated with muddy water. For a time, the most widespread flooding in Queensland history also looked like it would reshape the state’s political topography. Premier Anna Bligh’s teary invocations of Queenslander exceptionalism turned her from a lame duck into a lion, and her approval ratings leapt from the mid twenties to 60%. A tired and deeply unpopular Labor government, which has been in power for all but two of the past 22 years, was suddenly emboldened.

With Brisbane still in recovery, Campbell Newman, another hero of the rising waters, opted for political boldness. In April he quit as mayor, having announced already that he would contest Bligh for the premiership. His reasoning was characteristically logical: he suspected the premier would call a snap election and that stopping Labor from winning a sixth consecutive term required his personal intervention.

“Anna Bligh is someone who won’t listen, won’t take advice, wouldn’t work cooperatively, always wanted to put the ALP’s interests ahead of the interests of the people of Brisbane,” says Newman, over lunch at an RSL not far from his inner-city Windsor home, accompanied by his wife, Lisa. “She always wanted to play hard political ball.” Newman got on well with her predecessor, the former premier Peter Beattie – “I won’t criticise Peter,” he says – but has called Bligh a “sleaze bucket”. “In ’07, she launched a tirade,” he recalls. “Campbell Newman is a liar, pathologically incapable of telling the truth.” Evidently, he still feels slighted.

During the floods their leadership styles seemed complementary: Premier Bligh supplied the empathy, whereas Mayor Newman was all bustling energy and efficiency, the hallmarks of his leadership. He disagrees. Nor does he even accept that her popularity surged during those water-logged weeks, despite the evidence of the polls. Rather than draw them closer together, then, the floods widened the personal rift, and soon after he indicated to party powerbrokers, who had been wooing him for years, that he was prepared to challenge her by becoming the leader of the recently merged Liberal National Party.

Within weeks, in a putsch that would have impressed even the nabobs of Sussex Street, the Canberra-born politician was installed as party leader, even though he did not have a seat in the state parliament. The move was unprecedented and poisonously unpopular with some sitting LNP members. However, the party president Bruce McIver saw in Newman qualities lacking in successive conservative state leaders: proven vote-winning capabilities, high personal approval ratings, a record of accomplishment, a power-base in Brisbane and, most important of all perhaps, a habit of winning. For conservatives in Queensland, hungry to restore the natural political order in Australia’s most conservative state, can-do Campbell had become the go-to guy.

In an era when even state politicians are marketed like soap flakes, the LNP has been trying to turn Campbell Newman into an instantly recognisable brand. With the election due before 16 June 2012, the party’s newly refurbished website, CanDoQLD, features a list of ‘CanDo Candidates’, a ‘You CanDo’ section designed to encourage political volunteerism, and even offers a downloadable ringtone with the lyrics: ‘Come on, come on, we need a can-do team now / Come on, come on, let’s make a can-do state’. The aim of his image-makers, it appears, is to turn his first name into a household word.

The virtual world of a campaign website does not quite marry with the unique selling point of the brand, for Campbell Newman presents himself as a man of concrete achievement, a man who spent his childhood playing with electrical circuit boards and loves building things. Tunnels and bridges are his speciality, which now stand as landmarks to his mayorship.

“A brand like CanDo only works if there’s an element of reality to it,” says David Hinchliffe, a local ALP politician. “And there is.” Hinchliffe, who served as deputy mayor under Newman when the Liberals controlled the mayoralty and Labor commanded a majority in the city council chamber, describes his one-time rival admiringly as a “formidable leader” with “cut-through determination”.

Newman’s untiring relentlessness is evident in his fitness and work regime. The 48 year old rises at 4.30 am, without the help of an alarm, before setting off on a long run, some of it spent with his BlackBerry pressed firmly to his ear. Aides speak of his forensic eye for detail, a vast appetite for information and an almost mathematical approach to problem-solving – the traits one might expect from a former executive whose last job in the private sector was as a consultant in “‘bulk commodity logistics”.

In his exercise regime, self-discipline and mechanical public-speaking style, Newman bears superficial similarities to Tony Abbott. But he is not as partisan, conservative, adversarial or obstructionist. He prefers ‘can-do’ to ‘can’t-do’. He supports gay marriage and has boasted of his council’s environmental record as being “greener than the Greens”, even though he opposes the carbon tax. His proudest achievements are the 2 million trees planted by his administration, the 500 hectares of city land saved from development, and successfully offsetting all the carbon emissions from the city’s bus and ferry fleets. Under his stewardship, Brisbane City Council became the country’s largest consumer of green energy.

Much of his political success has stemmed from convincing Brisbanites that he is not a conventional party hack, and he presents himself as an outsider. He comes, however, from a stellar political bloodline; both his parents served as federal parliamentarians and ministers. His father, Kevin Newman, burst onto the national scene in 1975 by winning the famed Bass by-election, a contest that foreshadowed the end of the Whitlam government. His mother, Jocelyn, became a senator in 1986 and later served in the Howard ministry.

It was his father’s public service, recalled posthumously, that eventually inspired him to enter politics. Kevin Newman died of lupus in 1999 at the age of just 65, and the funeral in Canberra proved something of a crucible moment. Listening to John Howard deliver the eulogy, Newman ruminated on how he himself would be memorialised. On the flight back to Brisbane, he turned to Lisa and said he was considering a political career.

On Valentine’s Day in 2002, the couple were dining at the exclusive Queensland Club in Brisbane, where they had celebrated their wedding reception, when Lisa’s brother mentioned that the Liberals needed a mayoral candidate. Campbell shot Lisa a look, which immediately indicated he was running. A little over two years later, she was the lady mayoress.

Just as it is inexact to describe him as a political outsider, the term ‘insider’ is misleading as well. It was not until he decided to seek office that he joined the Liberal Party. “He’s not a member of the political class even though he comes from a political family,” says Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who served in the military alongside Newman and was the MC at his wedding. “He’s made things. He’s managed things. He has something lacking in Australian politics right now: a real strength of conviction. He’s not like the grey mass of politicians who just toe the party line.” Despite a longstanding rift between the two men that was only patched up earlier this year, Wilkie happily endorses his friend for premier.

Newman would never have achieved so much had it not been for the backing of the former Labor premier, Peter Beattie, who became an unlikely benefactor. The way ALP insiders describe it, Beattie needed to close a chink in his legacy by completing some major infrastructure projects in the state capital. Newman came along at an opportune moment for Beattie, who had been thwarted on occasion by Newman’s Labor predecessors at City Hall. “Beattie tried to turn an enemy into an ally,” says David Hinchliffe, and ended up creating what Hinchliffe calls a “Frankenstein’s monster”. The biggest loser was Beattie’s anointed heir, Anna Bligh. “Beattie picks up the bill, Campbell gets the glory and Anna was left with the screaming baby on the doorstep.” I put this theory to Newman himself. “Peter didn’t pick up the bill,” he says. “But the relationship did work.”

An oft-heard criticism of Newman’s leadership is that Brisbane is now over-endowed with underused infrastructure. The Clem Jones Tunnel, named after a former Labor mayor, has lower-than-expected traffic figures, while the Go Between Bridge, named after the Brisbane indie band, will incur heavy operating losses for years to come. The ambitious CityCycle bike rental scheme has struggled because of strict helmet rules. Still, locals seem to respect his competence, dynamism and willingness to have a go.

The key to understanding Newman’s no-nonsense leadership style is his background not just as an engineer but as a military engineer. One of his favourite Churchill quotes, addressing the logistical challenges of building artificial harbours in advance of the D-Day invasion, combines the two: “Don’t argue about the difficulties; the difficulties will argue for themselves.” He is a graduate of the Royal Military College at Duntroon, where he was given the nickname ‘Noddy’, and served for 12 years in the army, reaching the rank of major. As with politics, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a lieutenant colonel who served in Malaya and Vietnam. Newman left when the ADF wanted to deploy him to the Golan Heights shortly after the first of his two daughters was born.

Not unexpectedly, military metaphors have been attached to him like, well, medals to a ceremonial tunic. During his first campaign for mayor, when he was initially given scant chance of winning, he was said to have adopted a ‘Just charge!’ strategy. When he announced his bid for premier, the Australian saw Newman positioning himself for “the most audacious blitzkrieg-style takeover in Queensland’s political history”. The Brisbane Times described it as his “most daring mission” yet. I have heard his team described as a “crack commando unit” – his last chief of staff was another military man – and that his management style is based on a clear “chain of command” with orders carried out without question.

Critics, including the local paper, the Courier Mail, also speak of his “Napoleonic tendencies” and the autocratic style of a tin-pot military dictator. This also carries the insinuation that Newman, who is on the short side, is afflicted with ‘little man syndrome’. “Labor’s critique is that he’s a misogynist, that he barks orders, that he cracks the whip and is military through and through,” says former aide Michael Corkill, who grew up in Townsville with a deep suspicion of the local military. “But I never saw him pull any of that kind of bullshit. It’s a real furphy. I never saw any of that army crap.”

Labor, which believes Newman has the most crystalline of glass jaws, will keep pressing the dictatorial line, knowing that it needles him. The aim seems to be to provoke Newman into an angry eruption that transforms ‘CanDo Campbell’ into Krakatoa Campbell. Perhaps we should call it the A Few Good Men strategy, after the movie in which a tightly coiled colonel played by Jack Nicholson explodes under hostile cross-examination.

There is, after all, something of a precedent, and it came without apparent provocation. The setting was a routine council meeting the week of Remembrance Day in 2007 when Newman mounted an excoriating attack on Labor politicians for having the affront to attend ANZAC commemorations. “I just find it nauseating in the extreme to go to various events like Remembrance Day and Anzac Day and see Labor politicians, particularly, mixing freely with veterans.”

“My own father was a Malayan Emergency and Vietnam veteran,” he went on. “I know which party organised the moratorium marches, were responsible for throwing paint on battalion soldiers … [and] who threw eggs at them, called them ‘baby killers’ – it was the Australian Labor Party.”

When I ask about this outburst, Newman is unapologetic. If anything, he broadens his attack by highlighting the hypocrisy of a Labor government that is critical of his own martial tendencies but which regularly turns to military leaders at times of crisis: General Peter Cosgrove after Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Major General Mick Slater during this year’s floods. “This Labor government is always running to get a general when they’re in a jam. Everywhere the premier goes she needs a general attached to her hip to give her authority.” More peevishly, he also complains that Bligh did not invite him to meet the Queen on her recent visit to Brisbane. This, for him, is important: it seems to have violated a personal code combining protocol, fairness and honour – an officer’s code.

Ashgrove is a garden-proud suburb a short, undulating drive from Brisbane’s CBD, with good schools, blooming jacarandas and an unusually well-designed Woolworths. Prosperous and orderly, this looks like fertile Liberal turf, but Labor has held this state parliamentary seat since 1989. The present incumbent is Kate Jones, a photogenic career politician who grew up in Ashgrove, won pre-selection at the age of 26 and went on to become Queensland’s youngest ever female cabinet minister. In July she resigned from the ministry in order to devote herself full-time to winning her bid for re-election. In need of a state parliamentary seat, Campbell Newman has decided to contest Ashgrove, and the polls suggest he has drawn ahead. “Life has thrown me a curve ball,” says Kate Jones with the resigned air of a politician contemplating spending more time with her young family. If Labor fails to stop Newman in Ashgrove, he is likely to become premier.

The parties are not quite in full campaign mode, but close. On the Saturday morning that I visit, an elderly ALP volunteer has taken up position next to the shopping centre, shielded from the sun under a red-and-white Kate Jones umbrella, and offering passers-by ‘KEEP KATE’ bumper stickers and ‘KEEP OUR KATE’ badges. The ALP has been outgunned, however, by the LNP, which has put out a small squadron of volunteers dressed in blue Campbell Newman T-shirts with matching baseball caps. Already, their ‘community corner’ has been ambushed by the Greens, who have set up shop directly across the road, and a group from the Wilderness Society protesting Newman’s plans to abolish Wild Rivers declarations over four Cape York river catchments – a policy backed by Noel Pearson.

Campbell Newman walks purposefully up the road, his sleeves rolled up as usual, brandishing a copy of the leaflet that the Wilderness Society is handing out. “Typical left-wing propaganda,” he harrumphs, his prickliness once more coming to the fore. Then he mixes happily with voters, displaying touchline friendliness. But the presence of the Wilderness Society clearly irks him. Suddenly, without warning, Newman starts to assail them. “You’re aggressive, obnoxious and arrogant,” he says in a raised voice that does not quite rise to the level of ‘campaign rage’. When the lead activist approaches, it looks like the confrontation is about to escalate. “Will you step back a pace?” asks Newman. When the man refuses, Newman volunteers to retreat, taking a step back that immediately defuses the situation. His mood also improves when an armoured Bushmaster from the local army base rumbles past, with a burp of the horn and a vigorous thumbs-up from the driver.

A long way behind in the polls, a key element of Labor’s strategy is to tarnish the CanDo brand, in the hope that it undermines Newman’s reputation in Ashgrove, where voter sensibilities are probably more delicate than most other parts of Queensland. Labor has accused his brother-in-law of trying to benefit financially from the flood reconstruction effort – his dealings are with the state not the council, says Newman – and has challenged Newman for being strangely reticent about his post-mayoral salary arrangement with the LNP. The revelation that the LNP paid a former Labor staffer to compile a ‘dirt file’ on Labor MPs was also unhelpful; Newman claims he had no knowledge of it.

Kate Jones also calls him a carpetbagger, a hard label to make stick because the Newmans lived for many years in Ashgrove. He was stationed at the Enoggera army base, which is where the couple actually met – in the car park of the engineering officers’ mess before heading off to Ekka, the Royal Queensland Show.

At the end of lunch, I ask him if he has seen A Few Good Men and suggest that Labor is trying to provoke a ‘code red’ meltdown. “In seven months, they have only got a rise out of me once,” he laughs, the day he called Bligh a “sleaze bucket”. Then, as we say our goodbyes, I mention that we have a mutual acquaintance. His face lights up. “Good man,” he says. “Military.”

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a broadcaster and writer, who has just returned to Australia after covering the Trump years for the BBC. His latest book is When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.


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