Is That A Pig In The Sky Over Queensland?


This article was published before Saturday’s state election in Queensland, which was won by Labor with a provisional preferential vote of 51.3 per cent.

If the result of this Saturday’s election in Queensland matches the remarkably consistent opinion poll findings, it will see the Labor Government’s large majority cut back to almost nothing — and a real possibility they could be thrown out of office all together.

While it’s tempting to point out trends across election results from different states, and identify messages for the federal political arena from an electoral outcome at state level, each election has its own individual dynamics which don’t really translate to other arenas.

Queensland’s optional preferential system of voting makes it riskier to translate raw opinion poll data into a two-party preferred vote, especially when combined with the state’s diverse geography which means very different issues resonate in different electorates. A popular incumbent member can draw a much larger personal vote than usually applies at federal level, while strong local independent candidates can sometimes fly beneath the media radar.

Even when strong local candidates don’t win, the optional preferential system means they can significantly alter the normal distribution of votes between the two major parties, sometimes leading to counter-intuitive results.

Given the closeness of the polls to date, there is a real possibility that these independents could end up holding the balance of power in the new parliament, determining which major party will end up forming government.

While such a result is often portrayed as inherently unstable, Queensland was in this situation twice in the 1990s and the sky certainly didn’t fall in. Gladstone-based independent Liz Cunningham tipped Labor out of office after the Mundingburra by-election in 1996. The ensuing National Party-led government in turn lost office after the 1998 election when Peter Wellington, an independent from the Sunshine Coast hinterland, gave his backing to Labor to form government — which they have held on to ever since.

Both these independents are still in Parliament, as are two other conservative-leaning independents, along with a sole One Nation member and former Labor now Greens MP Ronan Lee. Some of these are more likely to get re-elected than others, but there is a high probability there will be at least three or four MPs on the cross-benches after polling day, which would make them king- (or queen-) makers if Labor and the LNP end up marooned with somewhere between 41 and 44 seats each in the 89-seat parliament.

It has been a curiously flat campaign in Queensland. The key messages of both major parties have been negative. The Labor Government has pushed the theme that the state can’t risk an untested and non-credible Liberal National Party (LNP) in office in difficult economic times. The LNP have run with the theme that Labor is a tired government that has run out of ideas. Both messages have a degree of truth about them, which means the more these themes are pushed, the more underwhelmed the voter ends up feeling about both choices.

Despite this plague-on-both-your-houses mindset, the Greens have struggled to attract media attention, apart from the usual stories about preference decisions. Trying to break through the lack of media interest is a perpetual struggle for every minor party, and it has not been any easier this time even though the Greens are contesting every one of the 89 seats. This is the first time the Greens have run a full suite of candidates in Queensland — a feat that I doubt has been managed by any minor party in the state since at least the 1950s, if ever.

The party that ends up winning government usually has a good head-start on bragging rights as to who has run the best campaign. But in advance of polling day, the LNP appears to have run a much more effective campaign. This is a bit surprising given the amount of time Labor had to prepare for the campaign, as well as the LNP’s undeniable weak spots, both in terms of the economic credibility of their campaign pledges, and the very significant policy tensions between the former Liberal and National Parties that still sit barely concealed beneath the surface of the newly merged entity.

Labor seems to have had greater trouble getting traction on their core message. While criticisms about alleged flaws in their campaign started to appear even before polling day, they have also suffered from the difficulty that occurs once people decide to just stop listening.

As the campaign progressed, Labor tried again and again to put the spotlight on the LNP’s very contestable claims to have found $1 billion a year in savings while promising new projects and no cuts to public sector jobs. Research has detected a public perception that the Bligh Government was mostly driven by short-term spin, so by the time they did have a legitimate concern to communicate, people had stopped believing them.

Events such as the oil spill off the south-east Queensland coast, and even the latest round in the Pauline Hanson circus — complete with an extraordinary and truly contemptible decision by the editor of the Sunday Telegraph to publish nude photos of a woman who looked like her — also conspired to suck oxygen away from the Government’s messages.

Meanwhile, the LNP stuck to its core message about Labor’s wasteful spending very well and were helped along by what seems to have been a very large advertising spend, reinforcing reports that the party’s billionaire backer, Clive Palmer had provided a sizeable war-chest for the campaign.

If Labor loses, Anna Bligh’s decision to call an early election will no doubt be roundly pilloried by the commentariat as a stupid and cynical move which treated the electorate with contempt and got the result it deserved. This would be somewhat ironic, as a significant part of that same commentariat have virtually been demanding since last year that Anna Bligh call an early election.

In August last year, the Courier-Mail‘s Craig Johnstone wrote a blog entry called "Another reason Anna Bligh could do with an early election". In December, he wrote that "the idea that governments should always run their full term has been blown out of the water. An early poll is the right decision".

An end of year editorial from the paper on 28 December suggested "Queensland will be well served if, when Ms Bligh returns from leave next month, she calls an election for either February or March."

Instead, the commentators will claim that early elections without very good reason are a recipe for disaster. There may well be attempts to apply this to the federal arena as a warning to Kevin Rudd against going early. However, as I have argued, every electoral contest has unique factors. Rudd is leader of a first-term government and as long he provides a halfway credible reason for going early, he could probably do so without too much damage.

It is usually futile trying to read political implications at the federal level out of election results at state level, but the Queensland election might prove to be a bit different in at least one respect.

The apparent success of the merging of the Liberal and National Parties into the LNP is likely to have wider political implications. There was a huge amount of scepticism, including from me, about the likelihood of the two parties even pulling off a merger, let alone whether they could succeed in getting this merged entity accepted as a credible, united party. Even if Labor holds on this Saturday, the sceptics seem to have been proven very wrong.

This won’t necessarily lead immediately to major pressures for similar mergers in NSW and Victoria, but it will certainly impact on the way the Coalition (or coalesced) parties approach the next federal election, especially in Queensland. It could also affect the dynamics in the Senate where the numbers are finely balanced.

Queenslander Barnaby Joyce is leader of the Nationals in the Senate and even turned down a frontbench position so he could retain the freedom to differ from his colleagues. Currently the merged party’s Queensland Senate ticket for the next federal election has Liberal George Brandis at 1, Barnaby Joyce at 2, Liberal Brett Mason in the winnable but far from certain number 3 spot and fellow Liberal incumbent Russell Trood in the totally
unwinnable number 4 position.

If Joyce follows through on his public musings to run for a Lower House seat — and I think there are good arguments for him to do so — Mason and Trood will both move up a spot, and the Nationals would undoubtedly lose a Senate spot. As they are now a merged party in Queensland, in theory this shouldn’t matter, but the Nationals only reach the five seat threshold that provides official party status in the Senate by the barest of margins. If they lost one, they would lose official party status, unless one of the Queensland "Liberal Nationals" could be persuaded to sit as a National.

I’m sure George Brandis would look good in an Akubra.


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