Campbell Newman. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Campbell Newman. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Campbell Newman: ‘Why I’m not going to shut up’     

He's the bogeyman - the malevolent leprechaun giggling like a troll under Queensland's political bridges every time we march toward an election. And the Queensland Labor Party adores him, knowing full well how we all love a pantomime villain.

The ALP walks ahead of us on the political pathways with growing confidence, occasionally turning back in a theatrical display of horror to warn a fearful electorate, in a voice filled with foreboding:

"Don't risk a return to Campbell Newman!''

And the voters cheer wildly, returning Labor governments with increasing vigour.

Yet here today, in his magnificent multi-storied home in the inner-northern Brisbane suburb of Windsor, with his apricot polo shirt stained with sweat from Saturday morning yard duties and that celebrated Energizer bunny vigour popping out of every pore, Campbell Newman is taking no offence at accusations he's some sinister wood sprite, or at least a scaled down Shrek.

In point of fact, his grin broadens with every nickname thrown his way, and his blue eyes dance with such enthusiasm it's no surprise when he signals a warning with a raised, wagging forefinger that he's about to best you in this little game.

"Voldemort!'' he declares cheerily, referring to the arch-enemy of the fictional Harry Potter.

"I like to refer to myself as Voldemort when I am talking with Steve Austin.

"I like the name Voldemort.''

Voldemort murdered Harry Potter's mum and dad and leads a group of evil wizards and witches known as Death Eaters.

To be fair to Voldemort, he easily trounces Newman in the evil stakes, given Newman's only misdemeanour (in the relative sense) was to sack thousands of Queensland public servants.

Yet the Voldemort reference does have some resonance, given Voldemort is sometimes also referred to as He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named.

Because that's pretty much how the LNP Opposition feels about Campbell Newman, whether the party is in electioneering mode or not.

How has it come to this? How on earth does the state's alternative government take this one time political pin up boy - Can-do Campbell Newman - and not merely disown him but attempt to ghost him out of existence.

Newman is a living, breathing manifestation of what the conservative side of politics would like to think it represents - a self-reliant self-starter, resourceful, distrustful of big government and bureaucracy, untainted by corruption, tough minded and hugely successful in both his financial and personal life.

 

 

Campbell Newman Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Campbell Newman Picture: Mark Cranitch.

This is the former soldier boy who became Mayor of Brisbane in 2004, then went tunnelling under it with all the fervour of a Viet Cong guerrilla before parlaying his extraordinary municipal success into an historic, 2012 landslide Queensland state election win, taking the LNP back into power 14 years after Rob Borbidge lost to Peter Beattie.

Yes, we all now know Newman made some poor political decisions. In hindsight he appears to have been engineering his own demise from the early days of office when he commissioned an audit from former Liberal federal treasurer Peter Costello on Queensland's financial situation. That report, found, among other things, that: "Given the state's weakened financial position, the current cost of service provision is unaffordable. Queensland cannot continue to be a high cost provider.''

"Can do'' rolled up his sleeves and, like the Army engineer he once was, set about solving the problem in a logical, methodical and highly transparent manner.

He sacked 14,000 public servants.

Given the six degrees of separation laws, Newman simultaneously ensured that almost everyone in Queensland knew someone who had lost their job, or knew someone who knew someone who had lost their job.

With his political capital burned down to the wick in just three years, Newman was turfed out of office in 2015 and ever since has been portrayed as a political pariah.

Perception will always hit reality for a six when it comes to politics, but Newman's reputation as a political loser of epic proportions is deeply unfair, given we insist on looking at the devastating 2015 loss only through the prism of his epic 2012 win.

When you look at the numbers (which he'll happily refer you to) the LNP suffered a not-so-crushing defeat in 2015, with 41.3 per cent of the primary vote.

Newman's replacement, Tim Nicholls, received just under 34 per cent in the subsequent 2017 election and the affable Nicholls, in rude health and living happily in his seat of Clayfield, is hardly a He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named.

Former LNP leader Lawrence Springborg who lost in 2009 with 41.6 per cent of the primary is an LNP legend.

Yet the Newman name lingers in the air, not so much as a bad smell as like that radioactive fallout that stays in the atmosphere after a nuclear bomb detonates. Its presence six years after he left office is so potent that it would have been almost certainly one of the first issues that newly minted leader David Crisafulli and his advisers workshopped when Crisafulli was made LNP leader earlier this month.

 

A press conference at the Executive Building with Premier Campbell Newman and Local Government minister David Crisafulli in 2012. Picture: Sarah Marshall
A press conference at the Executive Building with Premier Campbell Newman and Local Government minister David Crisafulli in 2012. Picture: Sarah Marshall

 

Crisafulli, who arrived in state politics with Newman in 2012 and briefly exited it with him in 2015 when he lost the Townsville seat of Mundingburra, is the third LNP leader in six years who may not wish to see the Newman name up in lights. But the Queensland Labor Government and media will go on putting it up there over the next four years, and it won't be of the little string of fairy lights variety - more in pulsating neon.

Newman had 41 mentions in state parliament by the end of Friday Question Time in the first week of sittings after the November election, while former Labor Premier Anna Bligh scored a more modest 25.

Newman's legacy was also one of the first questions put to Crisafulli in his first press conference after being anointed leader earlier this month. Crisafulli batted it away, insisting he would not be referring to Bligh who led her party to defeat in 2012 after saying Labor would not sell off state assets, then did.

Bligh, in her 2012 defeat, presided over the over the largest swing in Australian political history (15 per cent against the ALP) received less than 30 per cent of the primary vote, then relocated to Sydney in a piece of political theatre you might think the LNP would be happy to remind the Queensland electorate of, possibly daily.

But all Crisafulli could muster was a refusal to look backward: "If they (Labor) want to look in the rear vision mirror, good luck to them."

 

Newman, ever generous with advice via his regular spot on Sky News, has thoughtfully mapped out a plan for the LNP that doesn't involve burying Voldemort deeper, but resurrecting him from his still relatively shallow grave.

Newman insists the attacks upon him and his legacy don't really bother him. He appears to regard them much as an actor might view a rival actor's performance, with a critical yet occasionally approving eye.

He can trace the hatchet job performed on his political persona well beyond 2015, all the way back to former deputy premier Jackie Trad and public relations whiz Dee Madigan who moulded the evil incarnate image in 2011 in the lead-up to the 2012 state election.

Then he was supposed to be the sinister mayor from city hall who was involved in property deals with his in-laws.

That didn't stick. He won the election and during his three-year term he was easily cast as the villain because of public service redundancies.

Then, when Labor won back power in 2015, the Voldemort legend gained tremendous traction as he morphed into an historic figure of fear and loathing whose power to conjure up nightmares in ordinary Queensland voters seemed to escalate as each year passed.

"But it's the Labor Party doing it!" declares Newman with an enthusiasm bordering on admiration.

"They are my political rivals; I expect them to do that.

"Politics is often reduced to simple narratives - the government is secretive, the government is arrogant, the government is out of touch sort of thing, so I expect Labor to do that.

"The thing that annoys me is the LNP's position on the matter."

Newman believed the LNP never had the courage to own its own story, and is happy to remind many serving LNP members they were very much part of it.

If fully told, he insists, it's a magnificent tale, ranging from the initiatives to establish the Queens Wharf precinct in the City to commissioning former Governor-general Quentin Bryce's comprehensive review of domestic and family violence in Queensland which sparked the reforms the Palaszczuk Government continues implementing.

 

 

New Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman celebrates with his family, Rebecca, 11, wife Lisa and Sarah, 8, in 2004. Picture: Jamie/Hanson
New Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman celebrates with his family, Rebecca, 11, wife Lisa and Sarah, 8, in 2004. Picture: Jamie/Hanson

There was the overhaul of the public health system which resulted in the best emergency performance and surgery waiting times in the nation, the cuts to government expenditure that allowed (for the first time since World War 11) a government to spend less in one financial year than it did in the previous, a crackdown on outlaw motorcycle gangs that led to a 15 to 20 per cent reduction in crime, and workers' compensation law reforms that saw an average 15 per cent reduction to business workcover premiums.

Dr Paul Williams, a long-time observer of Queensland politics and political lecturer at Griffith University, outlined in a 2018 paper examining the 2015 election published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, a long list of negatives to accompany those positives.

They include (beyond the public service redundancies) a harsh fiscal austerity, perceptions of ministerial incompetence and "conflicts with insider groups" - a polite reference to the appointment of Tim Carmody as Chief Justice, which sparked a rebellion against the government by some of the state's most influential legal figures. But Williams says Newman's loss in 2015 was nowhere near as epic as the mythology around it now suggests.

He's convinced that, had Newman held fire on the public service redundancies, the LNP Government would have survived comfortably into a second term in 2015.

"Queenslanders do like a politician who gets things done," he says.

Williams counters that observation with another. Queenslanders have a deeply entrenched, intergenerational belief in the idea governments provide secure, reasonably well paid jobs - a belief which has at least some of its deep roots in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Yet Newman remains an unapologetic and deeply committed believer in the supremacy of free markets operating within a framework of small governments which maintain a light regulatory touch.

It's a political philosophy outlined over the centuries, never so elegantly as by 18th century philosopher Thomas Paine, never so nimbly as by 20th century US President Ronald Reagan: "Government is not the solution to our problem - government is the problem!"

In Newman's view, the LNP has to start promoting that political outlook that hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders are more than ready to get behind.

He believes there are three things needed to get the state moving again, and the first is to cut energy prices:

"I mean cut the price of energy, don't shave it, cut it," he says.

Asked if that means coal fired power stations, he throws out a withering glance and powers on, undaunted.

"That means whatever it takes - strip away the rules and regulations and subsidies, stop the bullshit and give people certainty you won't reverse the rules, that they will get cheaper electricity and it will stay cheap.

"The second is to reform industrial relations and bring in labour market flexibility and that means making it easier to both employ people, and to un-employ them.

"The third is get rid of red tape and improve the approvals process for business."

Newman says energy is being sapped out of the private sector every day by an overly officious government and bureaucracy not merely in Queensland but across the nation, even with a conservative coalition in charge in Canberra.

"It is really hard to start a business in this country," he says.

"Queensland should be the lead state economically, we should be the powerhouse state, we should be the place where people want to go to get a job and start a business, we should be the state the rest of Australia looks on at in envy."

To Newman, the ruling Coalition in Canberra committed a major betrayal of the Conservative cause when it rejected a 2014 Newman government ruling which allowed a Cape York landholder to clear 2100ha of woodland to plant grain crops. In late November, the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley backed conservationists who opposed the plan, saying the land clearing posed a risk to threatened species.

That infuriated Newman, who exploded in frustration: "After being in office for seven and a half years this Coalition government has not done a thing for northern agriculture or built a dam," he told News Ltd journalist Peter Gleeson.

"They never will. They are a government of spin. No substance and they do nothing. They are a disgrace," Newman said.

"You can quote me on that," he added generously, before delivering a final uppercut to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

"He really is Scotty from marketing."

 

 

 

Premier Campbell Newman with wife Lisa on the campaign trail in 2015. Picture: Jack Tran
Premier Campbell Newman with wife Lisa on the campaign trail in 2015. Picture: Jack Tran

 

Newman is full of admiration for the private sector and its power to shape a successful society, and unabashed about his hatred of big government and its associated bureaucracy.

"I hate bureaucracy with a passion!" he declares with real venom in his voice.

"When I left office and I wondered what I was going to do with the rest of my life the thought of working for a large organisation just left me cold.

"I just couldn't have done it.

"The only role that I could have considered would have been CEO or chairman of the board but even then, I just couldn't have dealt with the politics, the slowness of it all."

It's a view held, perhaps from a slightly different perspective, by hundreds of thousands of Queensland voters.

They might not all be in a position to contemplate a position as CEO of an ASX top 100 company, but they include everyone from small primary producers to the T-shirted 20-somethings creating a new app to the wage slave suburbanites who save enough capital to buy a van and kick off a mum and dad mobile plumbing business, all the way to the Wagner family of Toowoomba who built an international airport in a cow paddock.

Newman identifies strongly with them, and has an almost evangelical faith in the resourcefulness, energy and enterprise of the ordinary Queenslander.

"When you just get out of their way and let people get on with it, things sort themselves out."

As for himself, he's not merely talking the private enterprise talk, but walking the walk.

To say that "he keeps himself busy" is not quite adequate phrasing to convey the life of the man colleagues dubbed the Energizer bunny during his time in office. The retired Howard Hobbs, former member for Warrego who was Father of the House when Newman walked into it after the March 2012 election, recalled being stunned by Newman's energy levels.

Hobbs, a grazier, who has some experience with hard physical labour, once took a beautifully illustrative, agrarian slant to convey Newman's more corporate form of energy:

"You know what it's like on those days when you get up real early and start work, and you just work like a bastard all day and you keep going and you don't stop and it is getting close to sundown and you look around the place and you think, 'I reckon I have achieved a hell of a lot today?'

"Well, that was Campbell, every day."

That Newman work ethic clearly didn't limit itself to politics.

Since leaving office in 2015, he has immersed himself in private enterprise including the fledgling world of robotics, centred on a farm operation near the Central Highlands town of Emerald, which is at the cutting edge of autonomous agricultural robots.

He left that outfit three years ago but still maintains a keen interest in its progress while also devoting his time to another project, Art Market Space, which sells art online and boomed during the COVID shutdowns.

His chief preoccupation (apart from more than 20 directorships of various companies) is his position as chair of commercial property syndicator and funds manager Arcana Capital, which has around $125m worth of properties under its whip ranging from petrol stations, shopping complexes, and industrial sites from Tasmania to the Queensland southeast and dotting the state's coast line through Mackay and up to Townsville.

To make it in the investment world, Newman and his partners who kicked off the business five years ago had to first obtain an Australian Financial Services Licence, which is no small feat.

 

Campbell Newman Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Campbell Newman Picture: Mark Cranitch.

That licence, one which the regulation-averse Newman recognises as perfectly reasonable and even desirable to maintain the integrity of the nation's financial industry, effectively allows the business to operate in the manner of a bank.

Newman, who completed his MBA in his middle age with a focus on property, says Arcana will provide you with a return of more than eight per cent per annum, but don't bother applying to put your money in unless you are a high-end investor.

He confides that, at one level, he's happy for Labor to go on publicly attacking his penny pinching as premier because it helps him attract investors to his fund.

"I thank Labor for reminding people that I was always so careful about managing other peoples' money."

On a more personal front, the still youthful looking former premier is having to face the harsher realities of ageing as he puts his 57th birthday behind him.

He weathered a personal tragedy in August this year when his close friend Dominic Condon who was a co-founder of the Arcana group died of brain cancer aged just 43.

The two men had a long friendship which included a stint by Condon as Newman's campaign manager in his political days. "I sort of cried at both my parents' funerals, but I just wept so openly at Dom's funeral," he recalls.

"I couldn't help it - it was just such a big blow both to me and my wife - he was just a great bloke and a great friend."

But from the broader Newman perspective - "life is great!"

He will go on managing money and selling art, keeping up with his two grown-up daughters Rebecca and Sarah and rearing an energetic rescue puppy, Sassy, who wife Lisa agreed to the purchase of on the proviso that Campbell was the primary caregiver.

One daughter, Rebecca, lives in London and communicates with Newman and Lisa via Skype while Sarah works as environmental engineer in Brisbane and maintains a strong relationship with her parents in what was always a close family.

He won't go back into politics but will keep a keen eye on the LNP.

He wishes Crisafulli every success, even if the new Opposition Leader doesn't take his advice and claim the dreaded Voldemort as a worthy predecessor rather than trying to pretend he's dead and buried.

"I have this great business and a great lifestyle but it worries me the LNP can't seem to improve its fortunes," Newman says.

"By the time the next election arrives, they will have been out of office for 10 years.

"I may occasionally offer advice, I may occasionally be critical, but I only do so because I want them to succeed."

Originally published as Campbell Newman: 'Why I'm not going to shut up'     



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