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A long time in the making, but it's clear our new Treasurer means business

Opinion

Cameron Dick has always been up for a challenge. So when in his first act as Queensland Treasurer he launched a bid to buy Virgin Australia, the business community was quick to offer its support, writes Sean Parnell

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When the modern Labor Party first put its stamp on government in Queensland, under the reformer Wayne Goss some three decades ago, a young lawyer was getting his first taste of power at a micro level.

Cameron Dick had been educated at Churchie, graduated with commerce and law degrees from the University of Queensland, and worked briefly for a Labor law firm. His services were then offered to Tuvalu and, not even out of his 20s, Dick became the Pacific island nation’s acting Attorney-General. It was a year that would provide him with a handy political backstory.

As Goss lost power, Dick returned to a more conventional career path working for Crown law and then as an adviser. He was around when Peter Beattie led Labor back, promising a Smart State of new industries, and securing the headquarters for what is now known as Virgin Australia. These were heady days for that side of politics.

Dick became a barrister but Labor politics was in his blood, along with some tough Scottish roots. Dick’s brother Milton was the party’s state secretary (and has since gone from council to federal parliament) and in 2009 Cameron Dick won a seat in state parliament as the Member for Greenslopes.

“In politics, as in life, individual success and accomplishment only comes through the hard work, enthusiasm and determination of others,” Dick told parliament in his maiden speech.

“To represent the Australian Labor Party in this parliament is to stand on the shoulders of giants—not just the great lions of our party like Ryan and Theodore, Forgan Smith and Hanlon, Goss and Beattie but also the unsung heroes of our party, rank and file trade unionists and party members who seek no greater glory, no greater reward than to see Labor candidates elected to public office and to see Labor achieve in government.”

By then, Anna Bligh had succeeded Beattie as premier, and regarded Dick so highly she immediately made him Attorney-General (a significant step up from Tuvalu) with a prophetic “watch this space”. Dick later became education minister and industrial relations minister, before losing his seat when the Liberal National Party seized office under Campbell Newman. Dick returned to parliament via the safer seat of Woodridge in 2015 and formed part of the unexpected Labor landslide under Annastacia Palaszczuk. In his 2009 speech, Dick acknowledged Palaszczuk as a friend but, returned to parliament and government, all under her leadership, came to offer her his loyalty as well. Nonetheless, there remains speculation that Dick covets the top job.

Initially, Dick was health minister – a difficult portfolio sometimes used to test would-be leaders – and then took on the state development portfolio more accustomed to an MP from the Right. It was there he built a reputation as a pro-business government operator, someone who saw the state’s role as facilitator, sometimes funder, of broader economic development. That was especially welcome in a government where then Deputy Premier and Left faction leader Jackie Trad was being labelled, rightly or wrongly, anti-business, in part due to her stance on the Adani mine.

So Dick kept networking, and kept up appearances. Last year, in a business observers program organised by the Labor Party to raise funds, Dick met with 21 lobbyists, energy companies, law firms, and pressure groups in just one day – more than any other minister.

Dick, married with two teenage sons, keeps a low profile on issues where there is little to be gained, and is protective of his image. Yet when the NSW Government last month tried to steal the headquarters of a pandemic-stricken Virgin, the Minister leapt into the fray like the rugby league-loving Queenslander he is.

“NSW might want to bring a peashooter to the fight, that’s fine, we’ll bring a bazooka and we’re not afraid to use it,” Dick declared, saying an equity stake was even on the table.

Now holding more power as Treasurer, after the weekend exit of Jackie Trad, Dick has publicly confirmed the involvement of QIC in considering state-sponsored options for Virgin. Queensland has long subsidised regional air routes, but Dick has raised the stakes significantly and it has not gone unnoticed.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton last night tweeted that it was a “laughable” intervention from a “corrupt and chaotic” government. Dick replied “look mate, just stick to cruise ships,” in reference to the lax border controls that allowed infected passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess in Sydney.

Ironically, Dutton recently campaigned for more train station carparks – a state responsibility – and miraculously secured federal funding for upgrades in his Brisbane electorate. As for Dick, it wasn’t that long ago that he and Palaszczuk were inspecting work on Brisbane’s new cruise ship terminal – surely a questionable state investment now.

Dick’s performance as Treasurer, and part of a four-person leadership team in Cabinet, will be watched very closely. Not only could it decide the fate of Virgin, and the cost of domestic air travel generally, but also the economic climate in Queensland and whether taxpayers will be paying down debt for generations. A strong showing would bolster Labor and Palaszczuk, ahead of the October election, but perhaps also cement his position as leader-in-waiting. A poor showing could be disastrous for all concerned.

As far as Dick sees it, and promised on his social media channels this week, “brighter days are just ahead”.

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