Is Labor’s ‘wunderkind’ Mike Kaiser playing the long game?

If you're under the age of 40 the name Mike Kaiser probably means nothing, but in the dying decades of the 20th Century he was a political pin up boy - the Queensland Labor Party's "Wunderkind.''

The German word for a youthful prodigy is particularly relevant for the son of German immigrants who fled the destruction of World War 11 for Australia, then went on to produce one of the most dazzling political strategists Queensland has ever seen.

In recent weeks Kaiser, now 57, has been back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

His work with consultancy group KPMG advising the Queensland Government on COVID raises questions of political patronage, and whether that old world of jobs for the boys is making a comeback.

Mike Kaiser in 2001. Picture: David Sproule.
Mike Kaiser in 2001. Picture: David Sproule.

The connection between Labor and Kaiser is hardly in question - if the ALP had an aristocratic lineage, Kaiser would be a blue blood.

He was a contemporary of a group of youthful Labor activists at the University of Queensland in the early 80s when he was studying economics and electrical engineering.

That group included a future premier, Anna Bligh, as well as future Labor cabinet minister Paul Lucas and Rod Welford. Within a decade, just as he hit 30 in 1993, Kaiser's star was shining bright as the Labor Party State Secretary.

By 2000 he was not merely the new Labor MP for Woodridge, but a youthful "Labor-Premier-In-Waiting,'' blissfully unaware the vote rorting storm of 2001 was looming on the horizon, soon to roar in and smash his ambitions.

During the 1990s that still boyish face ranked up there with the visage of premier Wayne Goss as a symbol of Queensland's fresh new age of accountability and sophistication as the hillbilly years of the Moonlight State receded into the rear view mirror.

Peter Beattie and Mike Kaiser at the announcement for planning approval of the Tugan Bypass in 2005. Picture: Adam Head
Peter Beattie and Mike Kaiser at the announcement for planning approval of the Tugan Bypass in 2005. Picture: Adam Head

Kaiser's prodigious talents, as former premier Peter Beattie readily recognised this week, manifested most powerfully as a political tactician.

"He was talented, there is no doubt about that. If he had not got involved in that nonsense when he was younger he would have gone on to play a senior role in a Labor Government or even been a Labor Premier,'' Beattie says.

Former National Party premier Rob Borbidge has good reason to remember the Kaiser name with some bitterness.

"If he had not got involved in that nonsense when he was younger he would have gone on to play a senior role in a Labor Government or even been a Labor Premier,'' former premier Peter Beattie says.

It was Kaiser's skills as state secretary in the 1995 election which helped Labor under Goss hold onto power with one seat after strong results in Brisbane, countering a resurgent Liberal/National Coalition under Borbidge who had overseen a major comeback in his rural heartland.

While a disputed result in the seat of Mundingburra handed power back to Borbidge in early 1996, the former premier who now chairs RACQ LifeFlight has only admiration for Kaiser's political skills which gave him so much grief all those years ago.

"Mike Kaiser was a formidable political strategist, there is absolutely no doubt about that,'' Borbidge recalls.

"And, you know, I still bump into him occasionally at functions - he's always very pleasant.''

For Queensland premiers Peter Beattie and Rob Borbidge. Picture: Adam Armstrong
For Queensland premiers Peter Beattie and Rob Borbidge. Picture: Adam Armstrong

Kaiser, in his role with KPMG, has been employed as a consultant to Annastacia Palaszczuk's government, tasked with advising on its COVID-19 response and conducting stakeholder ­research on the state's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet despite proclamations of his genius, the public perception is that of an old party veteran reaping the benefits of past connections.

Premier Palaszczuk only fuelled the fires when, either failing to hear the questioner properly or possibly being a little facetious, she declared she did not know who Kaiser was - a claim disproved by her own diary which lists a series of meetings with Kaiser over the past few months.

Kaiser himself is saying nothing.

Peter Beattie and Mike Kaiser in 2000.
Peter Beattie and Mike Kaiser in 2000.

 

Through an intermediary he politely declined to contribute to this article while his employer issued a brief statement: "KPMG is providing assistance to the COVID-19 Taskforce, including engaging with industry groups to inform planning for the economic recovery strategy.''

Kaiser is not believed to have personally done any polling work for the Queensland Government on the pandemic.

"Mike Kaiser was a formidable political strategist, there is absolutely no doubt about that,'' former premier Rob Borbidge recalls.

The polling has been done by a contracted company, Ipsos, and is separate from the economic work that Kaiser is involved in.

What Kaiser does as a partner in KPMG is largely reputation management for corporates, such as Westpac, in the lead up to and during the Banking Royal Commission.

It's believed he has carved out a lucrative niche in his new calling, which has led him to put a career in representative politics firmly in the past, even if the Kaiser DNA might yet produce another chapter.

 

Joey Kaiser with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Federal MP Milton Dick in 2017.
Joey Kaiser with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Federal MP Milton Dick in 2017.

Son Joseph 'Joey' Kaiser has campaigned for Labor candidates and was president of the Labor Club in 2017, when he was studying law at Griffith University.

Premier Palaszczuk and Federal MP Milton Dick even astoundingly turned up to a uni event in 2017 to endorse Joey's tilt at the position.

He is now employed as an advisor in the Premier's office.

Beattie says his old colleague has done nothing legally wrong, even if Kaiser's engagement with the Labor Government might struggle to pass the pub test.

Beattie clearly still has some regard for Kaiser, who he recalls readily confessed to the vote rorting sins which lead to the young prodigy's political undoing.

"I think that it was to his credit that he was honest and came in and fessed up to me about what he had done,'' Beattie recalled.

"But I had to sack him. What he had done was part of a culture back then and we had to get rid of that culture.''

That "culture'' was a vote rorting scandal which rocked the state.

It kicked off on August 11, 2000 in a Townsville District Court where former Townsville City councillor Karen Lynn Ehrmann pleaded guilty to charges including forging a document, namely, an electoral enrolment claim form.

Former Queensland Labor candidate Karen Ehrmann leaves Townsville Correctional Centre in 2001 after serving nine months of a three-year sentence for electoral fraud.
Former Queensland Labor candidate Karen Ehrmann leaves Townsville Correctional Centre in 2001 after serving nine months of a three-year sentence for electoral fraud.

Ehrmann was dispatched to jail for three years and paroled after nine months, making history as one of the first Australian politicians ever to be actually jailed for enrolment fraud.

The day before sentencing Ms Ehrmann had said in a sworn affidavit: "I'm pleading guilty to charges but I am in no way the instigator of a grand scheme. I was a bit player in a well-known scheme being carried out by the AWU (Australian Workers Union) long before I was involved. I was not a person with any power or great position …"

An inquiry overseen by the Honourable Tom Farquhar Shepherdson, QC, examined the allegations of electoral fraud and Kaiser admitted that, as a young member of the ALP, he signed an electoral enrolment form dated January 7, 1986 enrolling him at 11 Seventh Ave, Coorparoo, even though he never lived there.

His one year term as the member for Woodridge ended, as did the promised glittering political career that lay ahead as a much admired "conviction politician.''

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson confrounts ALP state organiser Mike Kaiser in 1998.
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson confrounts ALP state organiser Mike Kaiser in 1998.

Way back in 1998 Kaiser took the fight up to an ascendant One Nation Party in his role as Labor strategist because of what he believed was One Nation's dangerous racism.

"I don't believe One Nation has the capacity to do the kind of damage to this country Hitler and Nazism did to Germany, but it can do it on a small scale, and any scale is too much,'' he said in an interview with this newspaper.

The perception of a conviction politician with high ideals doesn't fit easily with electoral fraud, and the Shepherdson Inquiry became Kaiser's political Waterloo.

Beattie says Kaiser paid a high price for a youthful mistake.

"But I think he has rehabilitated himself,'' Beattie says.

"He has a family, he needs to work and get on with life.''

And so the Kaiser legacy continues

Originally published as Is Labor's 'wunderkind' Mike Kaiser playing the long game?



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