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Long and winding road may be LNP's pathway to power

Opinion

It’s a pre-election pledge that’s been kicked down the road for decades but funding to upgrade the Bruce Highway remains a hot-button issue, writes Dennis Atkins

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Upgrading the Bruce Highway is one of those Queensland election campaign promises with as many turns around the rodeo ring as that other, more geographically focused pledge, to build the railway to Redcliffe (which did finally happen).

During the 1989 election campaign, when Wayne Goss and Labor brought an end to 29 years of National and Country Party rule, former deputy ALP leader Tom Burns travelled the highway, picking up bits of broken bitumen and committing to a rebuild of the road from Brisbane to Cairns.

It would all be funded, said the now late Burns. “It’s paid for by money that’s already in the system,” he boasted and, remarkably, he went unchallenged.

Now we’re a week away from the official start of the 2020 election campaign and the LNP have rolled out the Bruce Highway pledge – this time it’s a $33 billion, 15-year plan with an eye-popping 100,000 jobs attached.

There are the usual caveats that make nailing down the funding (they need to get about $25 billion from federal governments over many, many years) and the details of routes and exact design tricky but may be explainable.

With leaflets to be printed in time for those first votes being cast (due to begin on Monday, October 19), the details can be as vague as the politicians think they can finesse.

As Burns demonstrated with his “money already in the system” magic pudding, the bar can be as low as you can get away with.

In these days of pandemic politics with the consequential rolling recession with no firm end date in sight, billions of dollars are the new spare change. After all, we’ve got current and projected national budget deficits of $437 billion on the forecasting books out until 2022-23.

As we’ve discussed before, the days of debt and deficit as a political cudgel are long gone and might not be back until babies being born this month are graduating university.

Last week, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg continued in his role of an orthodoxy-busting conservative by junking normal fiscal rules, saying debt and deficit won’t matter until the jobless rate is “comfortably” below 6 per cent. That word “comfortably” is a technical term for wriggle room – enough to fill a room at a crèche for toddlers.

The important thing about the LNP’s Bruce Highway pledge is that they are showing signs of getting on message at just the time they need to be there. It is also a sign they are thinking strategically.

There’s a chance many people will roll their eyes at yet another Bruce Highway pledge but, as noted, it’s something to talk about.

With Labor sharpening its own “choice” election message day in, day out, the LNP needs to turn that electoral aircraft carrier around and make it a referendum on the last three years of the Palaszczuk Government.

As the polling showed prior to the arrival of the pandemic and the “rally round the flag” bounce the Labor Premier has received, Labor was a sitting duck on this metric at the beginning of this year.

Despite the fairly pervasive satisfaction with the way the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, Labor is not out of the woods in the run-up to the election.

There is a general vulnerability over a group of related issues: economic management and general state development, competence in public sector management, the broad rubric of “running things” and dangling, untidy probity threads.

It may be the management of the virus will trump these negatives, although Labor has managed to garner some credit for credibility on who’s best to oversee the recovery – doubtless earned on the back of apparent competence in handling the pandemic.

The key Labor is reaching for is to marry keeping Queenslanders safe through the pandemic and protecting jobs while promoting growth as we head towards the other side of the recession.

Annastacia Palaszczuk and her Treasurer Cameron Dick are showing signs they can successfully drive this political and policy message in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, the LNP has finally stopped trying to nitpick on the virus – highlighting inconsistencies of how sports stars and celebrities are treated while other folk can’t get into a Queensland hospital might be attractive as a way to get a run in the media but it is fighting on the government’s turf.

“Every day we spend talking about the virus is a day we miss talking about issues that can change votes,” said one LNP campaign insider who believes there remains a path to victory for his party.

Labor and the LNP have clearly defined but quite different fields of combat.

Labor needs to base its case on the success of handling the pandemic and having a plan for the recovery while the LNP has to tap into discontent with current economic and social conditions (code for jobs and law and order) and convince people there is a better way.

Five weeks until polling day is not very long and once the writs are issued next Tuesday, the contest will hit fifth gear. It’s going to be an unpredictable election, and spending will be unlike anything we’ve seen. But the old saying about public profligacy goes: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

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