Most people won’t recognise the name “Leo Hielscher” unless they regularly cross the eponymous* bridge (better known by its original name, the Gateway). But he is a figure of great consequence in Queensland, responsible for the downfall of two governments. Hielscher ran the state’s finances for decades, and was the architect of the Bjelke-Petersen strategy of an extractive economy based low taxes, low services and low skill. His proudest boast was the state’s AAA credit rating
The low point of his career was probably the leadup to the 2009 election when Anna Bligh announced that, rather than cut infrastructure spending or sell assets in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, she would allow the state’s credit rating to be reduced to AA+. Bligh was re-elected, and promptly announced a massive program of asset sales. This was one of the rare instances where I was directly involved in the policy process, providing advice to the Queensland Council of Unions, and in this capacity I got to observe Hielscher in action. He was very effective in pushing the (economically spurious) case for asset sales and the need to regain the AAA rating.
Bligh, and her Treasurer, Andrew Fraser pushed through the asset sales and pushed the Labor government off a cliff, being reduced to seven members at the 2012 election. Of course, Bligh landed on her feet, ending up as CEO of the Australian Bankers Association. I didn’t get such a ringside view of the process that led Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls to adopt their catastrophic “Strong Choices” asset sales campaign, but I have no doubt that Hielscher played a significant role in the background. Both Campbell and Nicholls have duly been consigned to well-deserved political oblivion.
Now the rightwing Australian Institute of Progress has staged a reunion.
After denouncing the public debt levels sustained by the Palaszczuk Labor government, Hielscher
received a standing ovation from the high-powered audience that included former LNP premier Campbell Newman, former state Liberal leader and treasurer Joan Sheldon as well as former Labor treasurers Keith de Lacy and Andrew Fraser.
Anna Bligh was obviously too busy defending the massive corruption of the banking sector to make it to Brisbane, and Tim Nicholls is still keeping a low profile. Apart from that, though, the whole team was there. De Lacy left politics before the events I’ve described, but he’s the archetypal careerist who dumped Labor the moment it had served his purposes. Until now, I was unaware that Andrew Fraser had explicitly followed the same course but his participation in this rightwing exercise in nostalgia is as good as a public announcement.
A truly striking feature of Hielscher’s speech is that, despite spouting the usual case for asset sales, he wants the government to invest in a new coal-fired power station, which would certainly lose public money hand over fist. This is the collapse of neoliberalism in real time. Even when pushing the ideology of privatisation, and with nothing to gain personally, Hielscher can’t avoid the rightwing political correctness of the culture wars. And, unsurprisingly, this earned a standing ovation from the assembled defenders of the free market.
Meanwhile, I have heard suggestions that the current Queensland government is still cowed by the ghost of Hielscherism, and will seek a PPP arrangement for public investment in renewable energy. It’s hard to believe, after the disasters of the last two governments, that they could fall for this. But, even as a zombie, neoliberalism is still eating brains.