Right now there’s plenty of differing opinion out there on how good, bad or middling the newly merged Liberal National Party’s performance was in last weekend’s Queensland state election. If I felt obliged to act like a pundit in the mainstream media, I would probably have to declare it either a dreadful disaster or a fabulous achievement.
Unfortunately I happen to think that, all things considered, it sits in the relatively unexciting "not too bad" category.
And however good or bad you reckon their result was, I think it’s pretty clear they would have fared worse as two separate parties in coalition. Despite my deep initial scepticism that they would ever be able to pull off a credible merger, so far they’ve achieved it.
Contrary to the feelings Glenn Milne has reported among anti-merger Liberals — of "white hot anger" and post-election pique — I find it hard to see any evidence from past state campaigns that suggests that having a heavier Liberal involvement in election planning and implementation would have produced anything better by way of cohesive electoral strategy and message. Meanwhile, any genuine problems they may have had about the appeal of Lawrence Springborg for the urban voter would have been present anyway.
To me, the big mistake the LNP made was to surrender the underdog tag. In fact, my impression was they seemed almost keen to discard it and assume the mantle of favourites. As others have pointed out, even their best polling result only showed the LNP leading Labor 51 per cent to 49 per cent, when experience shows the LNP needed at least 52 per cent to be in with more than an outside chance.
Given the size of Labor’s pre-poll majority, the well-established fact that incumbency in a particular seat provides a clear advantage, and the fact the LNP needed 52 per cent of the vote to have a realistic shot at winning, it was a serious error for the LNP to allow Queenslanders to wake up on election day thinking this would be a knife-edge election. They allowed the gradual crescendo of excited media commentary building up the LNP’s chances to carry on unchecked.
Not only could this well have driven back into Labor’s arms a lot of voters toying with the idea of lodging a protest vote against the Government, it also created such a sense of expectation that what might otherwise have been seen as a creditable election result has instead been interpreted by many as a major failure.
Despite this perception, the LNP is fairly well positioned for next time. Depending on the results in late counting, Labor may end up with 52 seats out of 89 — or 8 seats away from losing their majority. In addition, many Labor seats which previously had double-digit margins are now down into the single figures, meaning that Labor will have to defend on many more fronts next time around
Of course, a lot depends now on how well the LNP manages its transition to a new and untested leader in a situation where there is clearly still plenty of antagonism left over from the merger process and from previous factional divisions. The less-than-happy dynamics in the federal Coalition and the somewhat confusing situation of MPs from a merged entity still sitting as separate parties in the federal Parliament also have to be managed. But despite these difficulties, it’s hard to see how reversing the merger could do anything except make things worse.
As for Labor, Anna Bligh is currently in a very strong position and will hopefully capitalise on her current authority to make whatever changes she believes are necessary. But she would be wise to do it sooner rather than later. As NSW Labor showed with Morris Iemma’s 2007 defeat of an opposition that the electorate didn’t yet have the stomach for, even a stronger than expected election win can still turn sour very quickly.
The minor parties and candidates are usually neglected in post-election media coverage — which I suppose balances nicely with the lack of attention they get in the election lead-up (unless their name is Pauline Hanson). There may be a few around now though who are feeling just a bit relieved about their low profiles, given the extraordinary action by one media outlet to run nude photos of a woman who looked like Hanson. It’s impossible to know whether the saga surrounding the photos harmed or helped her campaign.
The four incumbent independents — all from outside major metropolitan centres — were all returned comfortably. Despite the failure of all the other independent candidates, the fact that the five who came closest to winning were also in regional or rural areas suggests that succeeding as an independent is tougher in the bigger cities.
The Greens will be disappointed that they’ve apparently failed to get Ronan Lee re-elected. But it was always going to be an uphill battle for the former Labor MP turned Green. Of more concern for them should be the fact that their overall vote was basically stagnant, despite clear signs that many voters were left seriously underwhelmed by both major parties.
One factor in this may be that even voters who understand how preferential voting works — which is not as many as there should be — can still succumb to the feeling that they should vote directly for their preferred major party "just to be safe", rather than vote for a smaller party and give their second preference to the major party of their choice.
The suggestions that an LNP win was a real possibility could well have persuaded some potential Greens or other voters to go with a major party this time — however that’s something smaller parties are always going to have to contend with. They’ll have some serious thinking to do about how to increase their vote significantly next time.
But while the Greens have cause for reflection, Family First have reason to be feeling seriously despondent. Not only was their statewide vote cut by half, the ability they showed in the 2006 election to achieve some creditable results in individual seats has virtually vanished. Wherever that army of conservative voters who used to support One Nation might have ended up, they’re not lining up behind Family First.
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