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An object lesson in how hard it can be to separate the power from the passion

Politics

It’s great to have your local MP as a Minister – until you realise a Minister is your local MP, Sean Parnell writes.

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As Deputy Premier and Treasurer, Jackie Trad was an imposing force, one of the best performing members of the state Labor Government. As the Left faction leader, Trad pushed through landmark reforms and helped counterbalance the influence of the Right.

As the Member for South Brisbane, Trad was a moderate, progressive figure able to deliver for a largely moderate, progressive electorate. But this arrangement was unsustainable.

The better Trad became at government, the more she was perceived as a threat to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. The more wins she secured for the Left, the more divided the Government appeared.

And the longer she wielded that power, making compromises along the way, the more fraught things became for her in South Brisbane. One constituent might see her work in the electorate as a local leader ‘getting things done’ whereas another might regard it as just plain “meddling” by yet another self-interested politician.

This week’s Crime and Corruption Commission report is not the first to question Trad’s judgment, her faith in due process, or whether her loyalty lay with government, electorate or herself. Admittedly, she was let down by others, and, as smart and savvy as she is, never set out to do wrong (perhaps quite the opposite).

But Trad has become a case study in how politicians everywhere must exercise power with control or be held to account. At all levels, in Queensland and further afield, there continue to be cases of elected representatives who try to push through decisions without the checks and balances needed to protect anyone with an interest – including themselves. You don’t need to be corrupt, or break the law, for this to be a problem.

Remember, Trad failed to declare the purchase of a local investment property, in a key infrastructure zone, inviting speculation that her decisions in Cross River Rail might be biased or motivated by greed. It seemed an innocent mistake, made worse by the politics of envy, but it undermined the government, the project and her own position.

And when the incumbent Member for South Brisbane tries to promote all she has done for her constituents ahead of the election, there will be those who only remember what she has done for herself. Politics can be harsh.

Along with wanting better public transport, constituents also want better schools so their kids don’t have overcrowded classrooms or need to travel, or pay, for better education. That was – is – the intention with the Inner City South State Secondary College.

But somewhere along the line, efforts to find the best person to run the school went off the rails, the CCC exposing some seriously dodgy practices around education policies, practices and decisions, and a bizarre break from the chain of command to serve Trad’s interests as local MP ahead of even the Education Minister or Premier. No other MP would receive the same privileges.

Of course, Trad would want the school to do well, but would she really think, or want to be seen to think, that she is a good judge of principal talent? Admittedly, these issues can be the bane of a local MP’s existence, as every parent with a grievance calls for extraordinary intervention.

But is the potential benefit of getting some kudos for backing the right candidate worth the risk of condemnation for personally installing the wrong one? Sometimes it’s better to remain at arm’s length. Know your limits, as they say; pick your battles. Trad should have been above it, not behind it.

All this might serve to end Trad’s eight-year run as the Member for South Brisbane, an electorate so “moderate and progressive” it is turning Green. But where does it leave the Labor Government?

Trad made the right decision to leave Cabinet in May, but the weeks that have passed since then make it harder for the Government to act, politically at least, on the broader problem revealed by the CCC. Not only is the wound not cauterised, it appears deeper than first thought – and it might just be festering.

While the Palaszczuk Government has responded to integrity issues with additional checks and balances, and overhauled the electoral process, in a pandemic it has also wielded more power than ever before.

And herein lies the lesson from the Trad case study: if voters on October 31 think the Government is out of control then Labor will lose power. It’s that simple.

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