Jobs Cut? Tick. Arts Cut? Tick. Gay Rights Cut? Tick ... Tick ... Tick ...
By Sharona CouttsSeptember 6, 2012
Ten things Can-Do Campbell Newman's government already has done, and it's still days before his first Queensland budget, coming September 11.
In March 2012, Queenslanders elected the Liberal National Party with an historic majority. They wanted change, and boy did they get it.
Massive staff cuts, arts programs obliterated, and a controversial stand against disability insurance — those are just some of the decisions that have roiled the state in recent months. Newman cites ballooning debt for most of the cuts, but not all his decisions relate to saving money.
Recent polls suggest Newman might be going too far, too fast, with his support starting to slide. From a high of 54 per cent in May, his party's primary vote has slipped to 48 per cent, a Galaxy Poll showed.
In the lead-up to the Queensland state budget, due on September 11, the premier has promised more cuts, as part of his plan to pare back $4 billion in spending. Queensland currently has a debt-to-revenue ratio of nearly 15 per cent, which Moody’s said was twice the national average. A commission of audit led by former federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, recently found that the state’s debt could balloon to $100 billion by 2018-19, if it continued on the same spending path.
There's a lot of anxiety about where the guillotine will fall next. In anticipation of those announcements, we've put together a list of his ten most controversial moves so far.
Judge them for yourselves, and let us know if you think we've forgotten anything, put them in the wrong order, or just give us your thoughts on the current tally, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Slashing the Public Service
Depending on who you ask, Newman has sacked between 4,000 and 7,000 workers, and he's previously said that the former Labor government had "employed 20,000 more public servants than the people of Queensland can currently afford".
Over the weekend, Newman seems to have backed off that figure, saying the final tally will be closer to 15,000. (He had also previously said, "all hard-working public servants in Queensland should look forward to a bright and rewarding future with the LNP", as you can see in this video from before the election.)
"Cutting back the public service eclipses everything else," says Dr Rae Wear, senior lecturer in political science at the University of Queensland, who specialises in state politics.
Wear says Newman initially focused on behind-the-scenes people, while retaining frontline staff. "But that seems to have changed," she says: Earlier this week, Newman announced that he'd fired 200 health workers, including 45 nurses, but maintained that he was "not cutting frontline services."
Apart from the public servants themselves, how will these cuts affect the people of Queensland?
Time will tell, but Wear says there could be political costs for Newman farther down the track.
"Public servants have a long memory," she says. "There are commentators who claim that Wayne Goss lost power because of the cuts he made to the public service."
2. Not Funding the National Disability Insurance Scheme
In July, Newman announced that his government wouldn't participate in the plan to fund disability insurance for all 420,000 Australians who need it, citing the costs of participating in the scheme.
While it's true that the NDIS is costly — NSW and Victoria have recently promised $35 million and $42 million, respectively, to trial the system — the timing was unfortunate, coming at around the same time as Newman's government pledged $110 million to the state's racing industry.
According to Every Australian Counts, a group that advocates for the NDIS, Queensland's bill would be very high, because the state lags far behind other states and territories when it comes to support for the disabled.
A spokesman from the group told The Global Mail that a succession of Labor governments left Queensland's system chronically under-funded, with virtually no respite beds available. To participate in the NDIS, the state would have to contribute enough funds to bring Queensland in line with best practices. Because they have so far to go, Every Australian Counts says Queensland's costs would be relatively high.
Newman, they said, needs to do something to fix it, and they'd like to see him chip in for a trial of the NDIS.
Recently, the Queensland government announced that it will "go it alone" on trialling a different type of system to provide disability support. Newman says the trial will enable Queensland to transition into the NDIS by 2018, but the state still won't be contributing funds towards the federal scheme.
3. Defunding the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities
Back in May, Queensland's Health Minister, Lawrence Springborg, decided to strip $2.6 million in annual funding from the sole organisation in the state that focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and support for gays and lesbians.
"We were effectively told via the Sunday papers that we have been defunded, and it was only confirmed officially a few days later," says Michael Scott, acting executive director of the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities, the body that ran the program. "Staff were given three months to complete their positions, and that ended in mid-August."
Scott says the funding amounted to 85 per cent of his annual budget.
Now, the organisation that was established 28 years ago to combat the AIDS crisis, is operating with a skeleton staff.
The stated reason for scrapping the funding is that HIV infection rates are rising in Queensland, leading Springborg to say the organisation had lost its way. He also slammed the group for engaging in advocacy, citing lobbying they'd done relating to the age of consent for homosexual intercourse down from 18 to 16, in line with the law governing heterosexual sex in that state.
Scott says his group can't support the community without advocating for their rights.
As an example, he cites the importance of educating doctors about the sensitivities that might surround consultations with men who have sex with men. If a doctor assumes a male patient is heterosexual, the patient might not feel at ease discussing some of the health issues that could be relevant to preventing HIV infection, Scott says. Advocacy allows the organisation to educate doctors on that risk, and help them to better treat patients.
The decision to defund Healthy Communities also sees Queensland scrapping a program that met world's-best practices in how to keep infection rates under control, according to Bill Bowtell, an internationally recognised HIV-policy expert.
"There is only one model that works effectively to keep rates as low as they can be, and that is by utilising the community model and asking the people most at risk of infection to undertake prevention and education services," he says. "If the government can come up with a better model, we'll nominate them for a Nobel Prize. But there isn't a better model."
Bowtell also laments the government's reported decision to revive the famous "Grim Reaper" advertising campaign, which first brought the crisis to the attention of Australia's general public, back in the 1980s.
"I did the old Grim Reaper ads," Bowtell says. "When we put that ad to air, we were talking about an infection that, if people caught it, they were dead within a year. Now HIV infection is treatable and it's a chronic condition. To go back to where we were 20 years ago makes no sense."
While Bowtell commends the Newman government for showing concern about growing infection rates, he warns that new policies must be based on evidence. "If they get this wrong, every additional infection is on their head. And that's a very serious thing."
4. Tenants Services Axed
On July 24, faxes arrived in the 23 offices of the Tenant Advice and Advocacy Service around the state, informing tenants' advocates that their program had been scrapped, and they had three months to wind up their work.
The services, which have been around for more than 20 years, advise tenants on a wide range of issues, according to Penny Carr, co-ordinator of the Tenants' Union of Queensland, one of the TAAS offices. Carr says the TAAS centres received a little more than $6 million a year, which consisted mostly of the interest earned on rental bonds held in escrow accounts.
The TAAS services provided a range of assistance: low-income earners struggling with rent arrears could seek advice on how to rectify that debt. People facing eviction seek information on the best way out, which could also benefit landlords who want to avoid protracted and costly disputes, Carr says.
Last year, 80,000 tenants sought advice from TAAS branches, and Carr says her particular office estimates that one in seven of those were at risk of homelessness.
She says the cuts are a "false economy".
"Our services deliver a way to keep people in the private rental market. Instead, you're going to have people homeless."
5. Winding Back Surrogacy for Same-Sex Couples
In 2010, Queensland legislated to allow same-sex couples to have children using surrogate birth-mothers. Known as "altruistic surrogacy", the arrangement precludes couples from paying surrogate mothers, other than to cover the reasonable costs associated with a pregnancy.
In June, Campbell Newman confirmed plans to scrap that law.
Winding back rights is an unusual step in developed democracies, as others have noted. Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie didn't respond to our questions on that point, but a spokesman did say that scrapping the law would be in keeping with his party's stated views on allowing same-sex couples to conceive through surrogacy.
In the 2010 debates leading up to the passage of the law, the then-opposition MP Ray Hopper criticised Labor's Bligh government over the move, saying: "This government is pushing for surrogacy to be accepted for many reasons, so same-sex couples can feel good, to gain popularity and in doing so reducing children to the status of pets."
There's no bill yet, and there are signs that the government might be softening its stance on this policy as well. They've given private reassurances to concerned same-sex couples that any changes wouldn't undo parental rights for kids already born under the surrogacy arrangements.
"The government recognises the importance of maintaining the legal protections of both child and parents, in these circumstances," Health Minister Springborg wrote in a July letter to a concerned lesbian couple.
How many people might this affect? It's a bit tricky to measure, since the process of surrogacy takes up to 18 months, according to a Brisbane attorney who helps couples draw up the necessary legal documents.
The final step in that process requires an application to the Family Court to change the birth certificate (swapping the name of the birth mother for the name of the intended parent); the lawyer says she is aware of around seven cases that have proceeded under the new surrogacy laws. A spokeswoman from the Family Court told The Global Mail that they do not track those specific cases, and could not provide a verified number.
We asked Bleijie's office when the government expects to introduce a bill, but didn't hear back.
Surrogacy wasn't the only target in the Newman government's sites, when it came to rights for gay and lesbian Queenslanders. Also in June, his government surprised both critics and supporters by stripping same-sex couples of the right to undergo a state-sanctioned wedding ceremony, on the basis that the ceremony "mimicked" a marriage.
Critics were shocked at the move, but Newman's supporters — particularly among Christian groups — were disappointed that the new rules stopped short of banning same-sex unions altogether. The new measures preserve the right for same-sex couples to join an official relationship register, without the extra step of a state-sanctioned ceremony.
7. Calls to Cut Abstudy
The Queensland government doesn't control Abstudy, or other federal subsidy programs, but that didn't stop them calling for Abstudy to be abolished.
The vote came at July's Liberal National Party Queensland convention, and led federal MP Paul Neville to warn that the party risked being branded "a mob of bigots".
Abstudy payments are available to Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders who are studying full-time, and meet other needs-based criteria.
According to numbers from the federal Department of Human Services, one of the departments responsible for Abstudy, about 32,500 Australians collected Abstudy payments last year, and 9,000 of those were in Queensland.
For comparison, there are 685,000 recipients of Youth Allowance nationwide, with 62,000 of those in Queensland.
We contacted the federal office of the Liberal Party to ask whether they'd consider cutting Abstudy if they win government, but we didn't hear back.
8. Cuts to The Arts
In a move that many saw as deeply symbolic, one of Newman's earliest official acts was to defund the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards.
The state government claimed the move would save taxpayers nearly $245,000 at a time of budget shortfalls, but the arts community was alarmed.
At the time, the head of the Brisbane Writers Festival, Jane O’Hara, said the move "should be a concern for us all", while Michael Gerard Bauer, a former winner of the award, said it was a "backwards step".
Newman has since gone further, also slashing funding to school music programs (as TGM's Stephen Crittenden reported recently).
Queensland writers have rallied, announcing the winners of their own, much more modest, awards, earlier this week. The new awards have been supported through campaigning and fundraising.
9. Torpedoing Australia's Largest Solar Energy Project
Queensland was to host one of the world's largest solar-and-gas power stations, which supporters said would have supplied energy for 70,000 homes, and employed 400 people.
Announced in June 2011, construction of the Solar Dawn project was scheduled to begin in 2013. The project was to have been a $1.2 billion public-private partnership, with a pledge of $464 million from the federal government.
But in early July, Newman yanked $75 million in state funding, putting the project's future in doubt. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency will determine whether the project can proceed, but the federal government has said it's disappointed in Queensland's decision to pull out.