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With borders off the agenda, LNP is struggling to start a new conversation

Politics

Questions remain over the Queensland Opposition’s announcement of a so-called “department of grunt”, considering the LNP is also promising not to take the state further into debt, writes Peter McCutcheon.

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Once again, Queensland’s Opposition has resisted the temptation to join the political point-scoring over border closures.

While New South Wales Liberal and National Party politicians take pot shots at Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk over the way she has gone about locking down Queensland, Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington has effectively laid down her arms.

“I certainly hope the Premier isn’t playing politics in relation to the border,” was about as critical as Frecklington was willing to go at a media conference this week.

Rather than attack Labor for the way it has handled the COVID-19 crisis so far, Ms Frecklington is attempting to make a case for why the Palaszczuk Government can’t be trusted to oversee the post-COVID-19 recovery.

“Business as usual just doesn’t cut it,” was the Opposition Leader’s catchphrase as she released plans to create a new Economic Recovery Agency with the job of kick-starting new projects after the election.

But the LNP’s message is being hampered by lingering questions over costings, a lower debt policy and the Opposition Leader’s own performance.

Labor is vulnerable on economic issues — despite having COVID-19 mostly under control, Queensland last month still recorded the nation’s highest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate.

Regional cities such as Cairns and Townsville, where Labor is defending a string of marginal seats, have been hit particularly hard.

So the LNP’s strategy of avoiding a daily critique of a popular Premier and trying to change the conversation to the longer-term economic recovery seems sound.

“With over 234,000 out of work, our economy in the recession,” Frecklington began this week’s media conference.

“I can announce today that future LNP will have a department of grunt — it will be an economic recovery agency that has one job, to get Queenslanders back into work.”

What’s in a name?

The Opposition Leader outlined her plans for “an economic recovery agency spearheaded by a new coordinator-general”.

When asked (rather predictably) the name of Queensland’s current coordinator-general, Frecklington stumbled.

“It is a male, and his name escapes me at the moment,” she said.

The coordinator-general is, in fact, a woman — Toni Power.

It’s the sort of stumble guaranteed to make the TV news bulletins.

Admittedly, politicians spend so many hours in front of the camera speaking on so many subjects, there are bound to be the occasional missteps.

But, given the coordinator-general was the very subject on which the LNP had called the media conference, this stumble was puzzling.

The Premier isn’t always as agile on her feet as her party would like her to be — as seen with her confusing messages on border openings back in May and her surprise announcement on public sector wage freezes.

But she’s not the one advocating for a change of government in the midst of an unfolding health and economic disaster.

Mistakes happen — the LNP will just be hoping the Opposition Leader gets them out of her system by October.

A more challenging issue for the Opposition is how it will reconcile its promises of big project and stimulus packages with a pledge not to go further into debt.

LNP treasury spokesman Tim Mander has repeatedly said an LNP government would not add to the debt it inherits from Labor after October 31, but it would still embark on a program of big infrastructure projects.

“You will hear all about the LNP’s plan through the costings process,” Frecklington explained.

Citing Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe, the Opposition Leader argued: “The best way to pay down debt is to grow your economy — that is exactly what this super-charged department and agency is going to do.”

Lowe has indeed spoken of the need to grow the economy, but in his address to the House of Representative standing committee on economics last week, he noted government financing costs “have never been lower, with interest rates being the lowest since Federation”.

“This all means that the expected increase in public debt is entirely management and is affordable,” Lowe said.

“It is the right thing to do to borrow today to help people, keep them in jobs and boost public investment at a time when private investment is very weak.”

The LNP has traditionally defined itself as a party committed to lower government debt and before the pandemic, the auditor-general did raise questions about the sustainability of the Palaszczuk Government’s borrowings.

But the LNP has to decide whether it’s an election issue it really wants to highlight in these extraordinary times.

– ABC / state political correspondent Peter McCutcheon

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