We should adopt a new calendar in Queensland: this year should be designated 27 AG. The year 1964, for instance, should be 16 BG. That’d be After Goss and Before Goss.
Wayne Keith Goss, Premier of Queensland from December 1989 to February 1996, transformed the place, dragging it out of a morass of corruption and maladministration to lay the robust platform for better government, hitherto missing-in-action accountability and transparency, and a set of values in keeping with the modern world. The details are for policy wonks, but Wayne Goss undoubtedly enabled the good burghers of Brisbane to hold their heads up and take pride in their city.
His life story is short in the telling and unremarkable until he became a political leader. He was born in 1951 in Mundubbera, about 400 kilometres northwest of Brisbane. He grew up the eldest of six siblings in the hard-slog Brisbane suburb of Inala. His parents, he later reminisced, ‘believed in hard work, believed in the family. And they built a barbershop from nothing to a very successful business that looked after our family very well’. And ‘like most barbers, Dad’ who was also president of the local branch of the Labor Party ‘could talk about any subject at great length and with great expertise’. He attended the local state school and must have applied himself diligently because he won a place at the University of Queensland, not something a lot of kids from Inala then did. On graduating with an LL.B, he commenced working as a solicitor.
In the early 1970s he was deeply angered at the heavy-handed treatment by the Queensland police, egged on by the Bjelke-Petersen Government, of anti-apartheid protestors demonstrating against the touring South African rugby team. He got involved in setting up the Caxton Street Legal Service, which provided free legal services to those who couldn’t afford lawyer fees. They took on cases for people who were arrested in the hundreds by the police. Later he also became involved with the Labor Lawyers Association.
He joined the Labor Party in 1975 following the abrupt and dubious sacking of Gough Whitlam’s Federal Government by the old soak who was the Governor General. He needed a convincing catalyst because he later said that in those days he thought the Labor Party was ‘too conservative: … they were just a dreadful bunch in Queensland’. It ‘was appalling. They didn’t want you in the branch if you used a verb in a sentence. And I wouldn’t join for that reason’. However he decided, eventually, he wanted to make a contribution to the welfare of Queensland, so relented and signed up.
He stood for parliament on the Labor ticket in 1983 after an approach from a small group seeking to modernise the party. He won his seat narrowly with a swing towards him. He was elected Leader of the Opposition in 1988 as party power brokers believed, rightly as it turned out, that the party needed a new, smarter image that mirrored the reforming Federal Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Canberra: one that oozed competence and a vision for the country. Goss was a snappy dresser and a confident speaker with a lawyer’s appreciation of the precision of words. This was a shock to the body politic that had become accustomed to the often incoherent blathering of previous long-serving premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The public must have liked it because Goss led his party into government in December 1989 with a thumping majority, despite fighting the headwinds of a conservative gerrymander. Brisbane electorates were especially attracted to his cleanskin image and coherence.
In some respects Goss had it easy at that point. The state was in a mess, much of what needed to be fixed was obvious, and in any event the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption had laid out a wide-ranging framework for reform in its recommendations released five months before the election. These days Premiers seem to lack any sort of coherent plan at all but Goss knew much of what had to be done. But while the framework was clear, it would require deft footwork to keep the government running while completely overhauling it with all the inherent tensions.
Yet he headed a young and untested government, necessarily short on relevant experience. Goss himself was just 39 years old. His talented triumvirate of key advisors and fixers were young too. Kevin Rudd, later to become Prime Minister, was just 33. Peter Coaldrake was 39 and Wayne Swan, later to become Federal Treasurer, 37. Goss with this group drove the government. Rudd, playing everything close to his chest, developed policy. Coaldrake, who went on to a successful academic career at QUT, forensically reorganised the bureaucracy, while Swan ran shotgun on the Party. Women were noticeable by their absence in the corridors of power. Anne Warner was the only woman minister and she was way down the pecking order. Yet Goss did have an accomplished wife, Roisin, also a lawyer and eventually a Ph.D, who was a key source of advice and support.
Rudd later remembered that Goss’s energy ‘was phenomenal. Very few of us could keep up with him’. This was no doubt aided by his phenomenal fitness. He was often seen running a quick ten kilometres along the Brisbane River towards Toowong in the early evenings.
But it was also a product of his secure confidence in his own intellect, though not in a shallow ego-driven way of so many politicians. He could and did have robust discussions, especially behind closed doors with advisors. He could wait until he’d heard all the arguments before stating a position: he felt no need to intimidate others with his view at the start of a meeting. Perhaps also unusually for a politician, he did not suffer fools gladly. He had little time for bureaucratic empire builders. Some thought him arrogant, yet shrinking violets can’t run a government. But if he was sometimes inclined to arrogance, the edge was often shaved off with his keen sense of humour.
He said many years after his Premiership that he saw it as very important to have advisers ‘who’ll take you on. And they’re very rare, and when you lose them, it makes it hard to do the job. The credit to Swan and Rudd they would take me on. I mean, they were wrong most of the time, but…’
One of my favourite anecdotes has him telling those responsible for a restructure of his ministry to make sure there was some small and insignificant ministries because he had some small and insignificant ministers. He sure did. He had some too whose hearts may well have been in the right place but who couldn’t run a chook raffle. He increasingly chose to hide his humour from the media lest it be wilfully misinterpreted as flippancy. Flippant he was not.
And he was a relatively cautious Premier, not given to impetuous judgments or seat-of-the-pants policy announcements. He said later that he had no wish ‘to be a working class hero for three years and a mug for the rest of my life’.
The fortune of all politicians in the Westminster system, good and bad, who do not leave office at a time of their own choosing, from Winston Churchill to Bob Hawke, is rejection. Goss was defeated on the floor of Parliament after a knife-edge election. He contemplated a move to Federal politics but was stopped in his tracks by the discovery of a brain tumour, which was successfully removed in surgery.
When he left parliament in 1998 he didn’t look back, gave his successor as Labor leader Peter Beattie plenty of clean air. He had spent his two years on parliament’s backbench earning an MBA at his old university. After parliament he sought out real jobs in business, including leading the Queensland Art Gallery to set up the Gallery of Modern Art at Southbank.
He had a hinterland that sustained him. I wonder whether that was a key factor in his success. He didn’t come to politics through the traditional Labor path of unions or special advisor to a politician. Neither for that matter did two key advisors Rudd, a diplomat, and Coaldrake, an academic. He was not an insider. Coming up through the ranks seems to imbue in politicians that the primary purpose of their jobs is to win power, and that expediency is often the best policy. They are, after all, pursuing a career. Goss wanted to make a difference, and once he had, he moved onto to new ventures.
Sadly whatever cruel trick of fate led to his developing the brain tumour returned several times, and eventually took his life. He died on 10 December 24AG at the age of just 63. At his funeral amid a flurry of tributes, one of his successors as Premier, Anna Bligh, described him as ‘the father of modern Queensland’.
Full disclosure: I worked as a senior civil servant in Goss’s department between 1991 and 1995.