Interview with Tim Nicholls
State Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls sees Townsville as an important powerhouse of the Queensland economy and wants the Greenies to back off and let the region flourish.
Max Tomlinson: Looking to the next election, with the rise of Trumpism and people looking for alternatives to mainstream politicians, and with Campbell Newman recently saying that the LNP may form coalition government with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, is that likely or possible?
Tim Nicholls: What we’re really about is making sure we understand why – and this is why I’m spending such a lot of time travelling – there are people who are disenchanted with major political parties and feel that there is a solution by voting for an alternative party whether that’s One Nation or Katter or anything else. That’s part and parcel why I’m spending five days in Cairns, four days up here in Townsville; I was in Hervey Bay is just listening to what it is and there’s no doubt, I suppose, there is a degree of wanting to give two fingers to the establishment if I can put it that way. When I say “establishment”, I mean the established political parties. Our job is to go out there and find out why that’s happening and then come up with solutions that say to people. “look you may feel that way and it might make you feel good to stick your two fingers up the nose of the establishment but you also need some real solutions” and what our policies are about are real solutions – how we can make sure that the regions are feeling confident again, that they do have the confidence to invest, to buy a house, that they have a job and that their kids have a job, that the Government is not solely focused on what happens around George Street and is looking beyond just a small area of the south-east. So that’s really what we have to do and then go out and sell those policies and say, “look, we understand that you’re concerned about the future and that we understand what it’s like to live in the regions. Why do I like living in North Queensland with its lifestyle, the climate; I’m away from the big cities and the congestion, I want a good regional city where I can get everything, where services are available, if I’m crook I can get into a hospital, where my kids can get a decent education and a reasonable prospect of a job or another job if one job goes missing and so we’ve got to come up with the policies about that. They’re about strengthening the hand of small business, they’re about cutting the bureaucratic red tape. I took my kids camping for three or four days up to Fraser Island but you can’t have a fire on Fraser Island any more. Now one of the great things about going camping is being able to have a fire. So you get all this sort of dead hand of regulation in every aspect of life which I think gets under people’s skin. So you scratch your head and think, why are these people writing more regulations. Is it really about keeping their job or is it about making me feel safer? I think most of the time it’s more about creating a job (for a bureaucrat).
Max: For the average punter, how do you identify that you are different to the other mainstream politicians whom they might regard as the political class that is wanting to control their lives?
Tim: Again, that’s us getting out and being seen and letting people know that we are just like them; we pay the same bills, we’ve got kids, we’ve got the same issues. I’ve got a 17-year-old, a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old so what jobs are they going to have? If they go to uni or if they get a trade, is there going to be a job for them when they finish those things?
“It’s run by Greens activists. It’s all part of this inner-urban circle of people who don’t understand what it means…”
Max: But don’t things like not being allowed to light a fire in a national park come back to realpolitik, that is, having to do deals with the Greens to secure their political support?
Tim: We see the Greens predominantly as job-destroying economic vandals. They are very happy to always tell other people what they should do and how they should behave but don’t come up with any sensible, real-world solutions. We live in a real world. I’m worried about my power bill next month, not in 30 years’ time. I remember a decade ago, everyone was talking about “peak oil”. Remember, we were going to no have petrol for our cars, the price of petrol was going to be 10 bucks a litre and all of a sudden technology, hard work and inventiveness came along and today, although we wish petrol was cheaper, no one is saying there’s a shortage of it. The Gulf States are producing more, we’re producing more, America now enjoys energy security, so I think we have to deal with the here and now. What do we need? We need jobs. What are we good at? We’re good at resources so we should be making the most of the time that we’ve got it here. We shouldn’t be dithering around and delaying projects. We shouldn’t be having Greens continually stopping and slowing projects down with green court cases, with spurious claims. It’s almost a form of reverse racism – we can have all the benefits of a nice, stable, secure power supply but people in other countries still have to hunker down over wood fires and burning cow pats basically to live their miserably short lives, lives that are probably shorter than they otherwise would be.
Max: The Adani project is very important to this part of the world, not just Townsville but Bowen, Charters Towers and other smaller centres. We’ve got another appeal in the courts at the moment from an Aboriginal group. What would you do as Premier to stop what some would say was frivolous legal action against developments such as Adani?
Tim: This project is important to Queensland, not just the regional centres you mentioned. What you can do – and I accept that people need to have their legal rights – but you can have clear grounds on which you can appeal. You just can’t be a grab-bag of every wish list that is dreamt up. Secondly, have very strict time limits so it can’t be dragged on and on using the court processes to delay things. Thirdly, once the decision is made, that decision is final.
Max: How would you describe this latest legal action?
Tim: I’ve seen most of the claims that have been made and they have been spurious and have been chucked out of court for exactly that reason. One of the problems, of course, is that there can be no costs orders so there’s no down side for these groups. The 11 most recent claims have been prosecuted by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) which is funded by the State Government. The State Government says it supports Adani but then it’s putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the EDO which is slowing it down and is part of the problem. That’s because the Palaszczuk Government is trying to appease the inner-city Green vote.
Max: Who runs the EDO?
Tim: It’s run by Greens activists. It’s all part of this inner-urban circle of people who don’t understand what it means. If you’re a 45-year-old diesel fitter in Moranbah, you’re not going to be writing computer code for the latest computer game or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. You’ve done your trade, you’re good at your trade, you want to work and you want to make sure that you’ve got a steady income, pay the mortgage, pay the bills, send the kids to school and that’s the reality of it.
Max: Trump touched a nerve in the recent US election by talking about jobs rather than innovation and growth. What’s the lesson for politicians here?
Tim: You’ve got to make it real for people. You’re still going to need someone who can pull a gearbox apart or fit an intercooler.
Max: Baseload power is one of Townsville’s highest priorities if we are to realise the North’s full potential. We currently get our power from Gladstone via a flimsy connector that sometimes gets knocked out in cyclonic weather. What is your party’s policy on this crucial issue?
Tim: I think the State’s role in providing baseload power is to make sure that it can be done in the quickest and most effective way available. I don’t think it’s the role of the State to build another baseload power station. Most of the recent power stations throughout Queensland have been built by the private sector. Certainly, I think that a coal-fired power station is something that comes with considerable financial risks particularly if we get a Federal Labor Government that insists on a 50% renewable energy target. That will put the kybosh on basically any new coal-fired power generation in Australia. So, what we really need to encourage investment in power generation is a stable policy platform that will encourage someone to invest. You’d be unlikely to invest if the policy is going to change in three years and make your hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of investment worthless because you would have to close it down as we’ve seen at Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria.
I think that’s the first thing before you could consider baseload power is what’s the national policy setting is in relation to these greenhouse targets and so on. I’ve spoken to people about investing in power in Australia and the reason you’re not seeing new investment in baseload power and haven’t seen any investment in baseload power for the best part of a decade is simply because there’s no stable policy regime. You have to ask yourself, would you as a shareholder invest in a company that was going to do that? And as a taxpayer – that is, a shareholder in the State of Queensland – would it be a wise investment to do that? If not, what are the alternatives that we need to look at.
Max: Clive Palmer once talked about building a baseload power station at his Queensland Nickel refinery.
Tim: Yes, but like all things that Clive Palmer talks about, it’s gone the way of The Titanic. I don’t think anyone would put any money behind anything that Clive Palmer does. He has let so many people down so badly after promising so much and that’s the real danger of Palmer-type political parties – they promise so much but when it comes to the reality, there’s so little behind them; they’re a mile wide and an inch thick.
Max: Looking at the next State election, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is widely tipped to win 10-12 seats. While major parties concentrating on winning the intellectual political arguments, populist parties like One Nation continue to do well with their grass-roots appeal. What message does this send to the LNP?
Tim: The message for us is that we have to explain our policies better. When you talk about the intellectual argument, that’s part of it but it’s a practical argument. If you sit around the kitchen table and say, “Well, gee whiz, you know, we’d love to be able to take the kids and go on a holiday for four weeks this year but the reality is we can only afford two weeks, you only do two weeks and you have to understand that. If Bob Katter turns up and says, “I’d like to electrify the North but the funds aren’t there to do it but this is what we are going to do, that’s where you need to be. You need to be in that circumstance where you say, “sorry, but I’m not going to be like grandma and grandpa who can just hand out the Christmas presents and then give the kids back at the end of the day, we have to actually make those decisions and we have to fund the money and we have to ensure that we can continue to do it because if you don’t have the money, you have to borrow more and then you have to pay more. That means, in the long run, it’s not Tim from Hendra or Curtis Pitt from Mulgrave, it’s all of us who pay whether that’s in car registrations, whether it’s higher power bills, whether that’s less investment in jobs and infrastructure or for small businesses, particularly higher fees.
Max: What about people gaming the system? I lived in Bowen for a few years and the crops would stay in the paddocks without the backpackers. Meanwhile, the pubs are full of able-bodied people who appear to be quite capable of doing that work. I know it’s a federal issue, but some people would say to their political representatives, just do it.
Tim: I understand that. Nothing would be easier than to simply say, “We’re going to do it.” But the reality for a party that has to run a government is to say, what area is it that we do want to cut and every area has a case to be made as to why they should continue to be funded. You know, we did make some significant changes. We stopped funding the Environment Defenders Office and we had outrage from the greenies about that. We reduced funding to special interest groups that weren’t operating in line with our policy and areas that weren’t contributing to economic growth. Those areas of course rebelled because their chop of the cake wasn’t being funded.
“We backed the stadium at the State level.
We pledged $150 million towards it and we understand that it is important. I think it’s got to be more than just a football stadium. It has to be part of a revitalisation of that whole part of the area, the old rail yards etc.”
Max: Do you think that political parties, by trying to be all things to all people, lose sight of the interests of what is sometimes called “the silent majority”?
Tim: I couldn’t agree more. There are a stack of people out there who pay their taxes, do the right thing, bring up their families, abide by the law and I think they get sick and bloody tired of being told of being told how to think, what they should do and even how you’re meant to speak to people these days. What’s the appropriate language to use? This is not what we’re about. Every time we go somewhere and I shake hands with someone, do I have to be careful about what I say? There’s all this political correctspeak that comes through. It’s intensely and insanely frustrating for people and I understand that.
I see hundreds and hundreds of people on a weekly basis and they’re just scratching their heads and saying, “why can’t I tell a joke that’s a bit blue or has a crack at the Irish, the Poles or whomever it might be?” We need to protect Australian values and what it means to be a Queenslander and an Australian.
Max: How do we achieve this?
Tim: We’ve got to carry the argument. We’ve got to say that universities should be places for inquisition, for questioning and for learning, no doubt about that. Where there are immutable facts such the laws of physics, they need to be taught, but it’s those social sciences where I think there’s been this progressiveness that’s been allowed to develop and I think it’s up to those of us in the public and political sphere to push back against where we think that’s gone too far. Look, it disturbs me when we see history being taught increasingly in a way that is moving away from the Judeo-Christian history that is the fundamental tenet of the things that allow us to think freely and to behave in a free society where we don’t have to walk around with identity cards every time you get on a train, that’s given us democracy, a judicial system, property rights and that has done more to lift people out of poverty and ignorance than anything else and yet we don’t even teach people about the history of that. These great tenets of our society are almost being brushed over. There is a place to understand Aboriginal history but it should be about the history – and some of that is the story-telling that goes on – but it shouldn’t be about Australia Day being an invasion. That’s applying 21st Century morals or ideas to something that happened over 200 years in an entirely different world.
Max: You supported selling some State assets such as the Port of Townsville when you were Treasurer in the Campbell Newman Government. Is that back on the table if you win Government?
Tim: No. We took that to the election and the people have spoken. We accept that’s the case and we now have the responsibility to hold the Government who said they weren’t going to sell State assets to account for what they said they were going to do. They said they could build infrastructure, they said they could fund services and deliver jobs without selling or leasing these assets. Well, unemployment sits on 6%, youth unemployment has increased in the regions, infrastructure spending has been cut by $180 million in the budget this year compared to our budget and they cut $220 million from last year’s budget. So, you’re nearly $400 million down on what we had planned to spend in the Townsville region.
Max: What do you think of the media today?
Tim: I think the media have got a tough job because of today’s 24-hour news cycle. When I started as a Brisbane City Councillor 16 years ago, there was one news cycle a day. Now there are probably three, if not four, and then there’s the constant Twitter feed and the constant Facebook feed. The media have to find something to fill that space all the time; that’s what they’re paid to do. You have radio journalists who are also writing on-line pieces. There’s a lot more personal opinion flowing into hard news stories and so, to some extent, we start seeing a brief snapshot of what was said and then a commentary at the end of it. I think the editorialising and the opinion part of it is almost dominating the reporting of the facts of the story. The facts get squeezed into a smaller and smaller part of the story and the opinion gets pushed out longer and longer. I think news is becoming entertainment rather than information.
Max: Townsville is experiencing an epidemic of youth crime at present. What is your solution?
Tim: We’re very aware of youth crime and we were very aware of it when we were in Government. That’s why we introduced things such as the boot camp, no bail for repeat offenders, we abolished the “jail as a last resort” sentencing provision and that had been operational for about nine months when the current Government wound it back. Now, the statistics show that it was working but you need more than nine months. What we’ve seen since it was wound back is – and these figures were published in The Bulletin today – 96 robberies (two a week) since January, 50 break and enters a week, 20 car thefts a week and 25 assaults a week and we had the terrible situation of Rosemary Russo last week. The fellow who has been accused had two warrants out for his arrest and was on bail at the time. Now we need to have safe places for kids and there needs to be some opportunity for rehabilitation but the safest place for these kids in community terms is in jail, not wandering the streets. In some respects, detention is a rite of passage.
Max: Jail is not a deterrent for some of these young criminals – all their mates are in there.
Tim: If they’re getting three square meals a day, a bed, lights and that sort of thing, we need to find something that breaks them away and doesn’t become a badge of office. We’ve got some ideas on how that can happen and we’ll be talking about that in the New Year. The other thing is that if there’s a job or the prospect of a job, the crime rate also goes down, particularly with young people. Here in Townsville, the youth unemployment rate is above 17% – it’s gone up over the last two years.
Max: You were criticised for being tardy in supporting the Townsville stadium project. Was that fair criticism?
Tim: We backed the stadium at the State level. We pledged $150 million towards it and we understand that it is important. I think it’s got to be more than just a football stadium. It has to be part of a revitalisation of that whole part of the area, the old rail yards etc. The football stadium will be good but you want it all activated all the time.
Max: There’s talk of Campbell Newman making a comeback. What does that mean for you as LNP leader in the near future?
Tim: I can only go on what he said on the night of the election when he said, “this is the end of Campbell Newman in politics”. One of the remarkable aspects since both Deb Frecklington (Deputy LNP Leader) and I took on leadership roles, is the unity in the party and the determination to get back into Government.
Max: You must be sniffing victory, given the unpopularity of the Palaszczuk Government.
Tim: I never take the voters for granted, believe you me. This is why I’m up here in Townsville, this is why I’ve been up in Cairns, Hervey Bay, Glasshouse Mountains, Rocky and all places in between because you can’t take voters for granted and the message from recent elections is that taking people for granted is a recipe for disaster. We think we should be supported because we have the right policies, the right attitude. We’ve got people who can represent all of Queensland from Currumbin to Cape York and from Brisbane to Bedourie. We’re not beholden to unions; we’re not beholden to special sectional interest groups like inner-city Greens and we have put in place sensible policies that can actually deliver our case.
Max: Do you expect to receive a Christmas card from Senator George Brandis (who was recently overheard describing the LNP as “mediocre”) this year?
Tim: I strongly disagree with George’s comments. We’ve got a great team of people and they’re working hard. We look forward to the challenge of representing Queenslanders and doing the best we can for them in the Parliament and, if we’re fortunate enough, in Government. We’ve learned lessons from the last time we were in Government. My style is very different from Campbell Newman’s style. We’re firm and are prepared to make the tough decisions but we are also conscious of needing to explain those decisions to the electorate.
Max: Have you had any discussions with One Nation about preference deals? Do you foresee a day when the LNP may be in Government with One Nation?
Tim: I think it’s way too early to have any discussions about that. That’s a matter for the party to make those decisions. What I’ve said is what we ought to be doing is making sure we’re listening to our local members, our local candidates and our local branches. They should have input into any decision making. It’s not going to be a command and control edict like it is down in Labor and Trades Hall. Our aim is to make sure we’ve got a good Government for Queensland that’s getting on with building jobs. So, our job is to get the No.1 votes and that’s what we’re aiming for.
Max: We haven’t had a decent wet season here for some years now; water levels are at critically low levels. How can the LNP reassure Townsville in relation to water security?
Tim: We got some rain here on the day I arrived so that’s a positive sign. We need to get on with the job of determining which project gives us the best long-term, sustainable solution – whether it’s the Hell’s Gate project of raising the Burdekin Dam wall. It’s time for real action.