Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Queensland: January to June 2006

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Queensland: January to June 2006

Article excerpt

Overview

The first half of 2006 will be remembered as the period in which Labor turned around the disastrous fortunes which had haunted it since mid 2005. While health and water continued to plague the government, a robust economy, a sound budget, a tropical cyclone and a conservative own-goal in the form of an ill-conceived plan to merge the Liberal and National parties eased the pressure from Premier Peter Beattie. In the run-up to the next state election, attention would increasingly turn to the (in)competency of the Opposition.

Health

The legacy of Bundaberg Hospital and the so-called "Dr Death" crisis (see previous Chronicles) of 2005 showed no sign of dissipation. The year began disastrously for public health when it was announced a host of doctors' contracts would expire in mid January. The government--led by Acting Premier Anna Bligh--then pondered such options as offering generous incentives for medicos to remain in the public system, and fast-tracking approval of overseas-trained surgeons. Another option--to train nurses to perform some doctors' tasks--was rebuffed by the Australian Medical Association (Courier-Mail, 20 January 2006). Bligh appeared to struggle to hold the government's line, particularly when an incident occurred so tragically ironical it could not have been scripted. As the government talked up regional health, a car crashed just 250 metres from Caboolture Hospital (just north of Brisbane), killing an elderly woman and injuring others. With the hospital unable to accept patients, the injured were ferried to Redcliffe Hospital, forty-five minutes further south. Only then did Bligh concede Caboolture Hospital was "effectively closed", with staff shortages at another twenty hospitals around the state, including Brisbane (Courier-Mail, 17 January, 21-22 January 2006). In response, 260 doctors immediately received emergency registration. Premier Beattie thereafter launched into populist overdrive. After breaking ranks with economic rationalists and avowing governments across Australia were "wrong" to downsize hospitals in the 1990s, the Premier launched a ten-point health plan that included coaxing women who had left to have families back into the medical professions (Courier-Mail, 23 January 2006). But perhaps Beattie's most cringe-worthy moment arrived when he, too, sported the yellow lapel ribbon Caboolture community leaders had designed in protest at the government's shortcomings in health. As more news emerged of ever-growing hospital waiting lists, and as the Director of Public Prosecutions determined there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Dr Jayant Patel--the surgeon at the eye of the Bundaberg Hospital storm--on four charges of manslaughter, the Premier confessed he could see "the end of the road" in his career and, moreover, promised to quit by year's end should the health problem remain unsolved (Sunday Mail, 5 February 2006). This proved a clever political strategy: it focussed attention back on Beattie's leadership--a key strength for Labor. Yet, within weeks, Beattie appeared to have regained his zest and claimed in early March--most contentiously--that Queensland Health had met three-quarters of its targets and, therefore, had "turned the corner" (Courier-Mail, 3 March 2006). Few were convinced.

Water

If health proved the government's Achilles' policy heel in 2005, water policy began to resemble this role from the very beginning of 2006. Amid the continuing drought, dam levels in much of southeast Queensland fell by April to below 30 per cent capacity (Courier-Mail, 15-16 April 2006). It was against this backdrop that some major policy juggling occurred. In April, Premier Beattie wrested control of water from local government authorities and passed it to a newly-ordained, three-member Water Commission. In early May, talk turned to new dams, with two hotly contested sites mooted: Traveston Crossing near Gympie and Tilley's Bridge near Beaudesert. …

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