Campbell Newman has defended his “passionate” style of governing Queensland as evidence of hard work rather than arrogance, while his Labor challenger appealed to voters to end the premier’s “divide-and-conquer mentality”.
Newman debated with the opposition leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk, at a Queensland Media Club luncheon in Brisbane on Friday, the day before voters across the state cast their judgment on the Liberal National party’s three years in office.
The event was dominated by the clear policy divide between the two parties over privatisation, with Newman arguing his plan to raise $37bn through long-term leases on assets such as ports and electricity businesses was the only credible way to fund the infrastructure needs of a growing state.
Palaszczuk repeated her central message that the election – which is predicted to produce a large swing back to Labor – was the last chance to stop the sale of assets.
This prompted Newman to refer to the temporary British rule of Hong Kong, and the continued inclusion of Alaska in the US, as an example of the difference between a lease and a sale.
But the debate returned several times to the issue of leadership style, amid polls showing it was a significant issue of concern to voters in Newman’s electorate of Ashgrove – where the premier faces a struggle to retain his seat in parliament.
Palaszczuk said the past three years had been marked by “chaos, dysfunction and confusion” and “relentless fights” with ambulance officers, firefighters, doctors, teachers, lawyers and the judiciary.
She said the government had also sacked members of the parliamentary committee that oversaw the corruption watchdog, had wound back Fitzgerald inquiry integrity reforms, and had increased secrecy over political donations by increasing the threshold for disclosure.
“I give this commitment to Queensland: I will stand by you,” said Palaszczuk, a former transport minister in the Bligh government.
“I will listen to you. I will govern with a consensus form of government where I listen to people and take people with us. It will not be a divide-and-conquer mentality because Queensland deserves so much better.”
Newman said he had “done the best” he could to fulfil his 2012 election night pledge to govern with dignity, grace and humility, but in the process he had become “passionate” and “fired up because I love this state and I’m working my guts out for it”.
“When you undertake reform, it is often contentious,” he said.
Newman said the government “did have some ups and downs and some troubled times that were controversial”, but the health system was better performing now than it was in 2012 and the tough anti-bikie laws were “to protect the community against criminal gangs”.
“The controversies have been there and at times I’ve been passionate, but why, ladies and gentlemen? Because of you,” he told the 400-strong audience at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.
“[It is] because of your families, because of my desire to make this a better state, to create jobs and opportunity, to make this the safest place to raise your family, to give you the best free public hospitals in the nation and to make sure your kids are educated to have a great job.”
The leaders emphasised the same key themes they have pursued over the past four weeks of the election campaign but also had an opportunity to ask each other several direct questions.
Newman targeted Palaszczuk for releasing “meagre” policy details and wanted to know how many jobs Labor could promise to create over the next six years.
Palaszczuk replied that Labor had released policies such as Working Queensland – which includes extra funding for Tafes, science and innovation initiatives, and jobseeker training programs.
Newman could not be trusted on the issue of jobs, she said, because he had “ruthlessly sacked” public servants after telling them before the 2012 election they had nothing to fear.
Palaszczuk asked Newman about uncertainty in the estimated proceeds from his “risky plan to sell assets”, asking how he could be sure he could fund his promises “that rely on these sales to foreign companies in such an uncertain market”.
The premier responded by chiding Palaszczuk for characterising long-term leases as sales, saying “as a lawyer” she should understand the difference. Newman said the $37bn figure was a “very conservative” estimate based on the assets’ book value.
Several times during the debate, Newman said the Victorian Labor government was planning to fund infrastructure needs with the proceeds from a long-term lease of the Port of Melbourne, yet Queensland Labor had failed to explain how it would “fund the future”.
The Queensland government is proposing 50-year leases on assets, with the option of a 49-year extension. A journalist asked Newman whether he expected voters to believe that the assets would return to state hands after 99 years of the companies spending money on improvements.
The premier said the assets would “come back”.
“Going back over 100 years ago, Russia sold a portion of territory to the United States. It’s called Alaska. It’s a state of the United States of America. It’s always part of America,” Newman said.
“In contrast, around the same era, the then imperial Chinese government leased a portion of real estate on which people then built built billions, trillions of dollars worth of real estate and in the late 1990s it was handed back. It was leased to the British government and it went back. There is a difference.”
Palaszczuk said Queenslanders were smart and would see through Newman’s assurances, and warned that privatisation would cost the budget about $2bn each year in lost dividends.
“Campbell Newman and his government want to sell your assets,” she said. “Your great grandchildren will not see these assets and we know once they are gone, they are gone forever.”
Palaszczuk held out the promise of job security in her closing address when she said: “Do you want your children and your friends to be guaranteed a job into the future? Because that’s what Labor stands for.”
In the premier’s closing address, Newman said re-elected LNP government had a funded plan for infrastructure and would ensure stability and certainty.