Things Are Different Up In Queensland

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As the pundits are so fond of saying, politics in Queensland is a little different. The northern state has a fascinating political history as the incubator of the Australian Labor Party and the home of Australia’s best known National Party premier.

The state’s geography and demography are also quite different to other states. Like Western Australia, Queensland is a vast state that covers millions of square kilometres. Unlike WA, however, Queensland also has a far more decentralised population, with significant regional cities dotted all the way up to the coast to Cairns.

The state’s mining and resources sector is of course very strong currently, with huge coal and gas developments underway in central Queensland. These wide open spaces have played an important role in the influence of agrarian interests in Queensland politics, and there are important local constituencies like the strongly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander seat of Cook in the far north, and the irrigation and pastoral seat of Warrego that stretches all the way west to the South Australian border.

Having said that, the bulk of Queensland’s voters live in south-east Queensland and that is where state elections are generally decided. Again, though, south-east Queensland itself is quite polyglot, with the capital Brisbane counter-balanced by significant urban centres on the Sunshine and Gold Coasts and in Ipswich. Across the south-east, strong migration from southern states has changed the electoral make-up of many seats, particularly on the Gold Coast, which only a generation ago was a National Party stronghold; in recent times Labor has done surprisingly well there.

Similarly, Ipswich was traditionally a Labor bastion, but in the 1990s came to be known nationally as the birthplace of One Nation. Inner-city Brisbane, by contrast, is gentrifying rapidly and has seen substantial increases in the Green vote in recent times.

The recent history of Queensland politics has been dominated by the Labor Party. After taking office from the discredited Bjelke-Peterson regime in 1989, Labor has only been out of government in Queensland for two short years in the mid-1990s. After inheriting the leadership from Peter Beattie, Anna Bligh went on to win another term in her own right, cementing her position as a respected and determined Labor premier.

But holding power for two decades has inevitably created a lot of baggage for Labor. A string of high-profile scandals have dogged Labor since Beattie’s time, including the problems relating to rogue surgeon Jayant Patel, the jailing of former health minister Gordon Nuttall on corruption charges, the problems in the payroll section of Queensland Health (many doctors and nurses were not paid for months) and, more recently, the controversy over the actions of dam engineers at Wivenhoe during the 2011 floods.

Underlying these difficulties have been Queensland’s growing pains. Brisbane and the south-east have long struggled with the scale and pace of rapid urban growth, and the government has had a notoriously difficult time keeping up with service delivery.

The pressing need for massive infrastructure investment has pushed the state’s finances deep into the red. Treasurer Andrew Fraser had already borrowed heavily to build things such as the second Gateway Bridge, new hospitals and schools, and energy infrastructure.

Then the 2011 floods hit, plus Cyclone Yasi, costing the state an estimated $6.8 billion. The 2011-12 budget was $4 billion in deficit, and the state is not expected to get back into the black before 2015-16.

All of this helps to explain the background to Labor’s languishing electoral fortunes. Coming into the election campaign, Anna Bligh and her government were 16 points adrift in one Newspoll and heading for a potentially disastrous defeat. The government is holding up reasonably well in inner-city Brisbane, but in the outer suburbs and regional cities, Labor is on the nose. As a source in the Queensland Labor Party told me this morning, "no-one expects us to win".

The task for Anna Bligh and her government is to try and hold on to as much of the furniture as possible, particularly the key marginal seats around Brisbane like Everton and Ashgrove whose members represent potential future leaders for the state party. But even if Labor holds into most of its seats in Brisbane, it might still lose office if the LNP sweeps Cairns, Townsville and the Gold Coast. If seats in Brisbane start to fall, it will be a landslide.

Bligh has so far burnished her credentials as a strong campaigner, pulling back some of the LNP’s lead in the polls and continuing to perform impressively in front of the cameras. The talk of her moving to federal politics will only intensify if Labor loses, but loses narrowly, in what is seen as a very difficult election. She hasn’t been helped by some uncomfortable revelations emerging form the floods inquiry, or by the horrible blowback from the federal leadership ballot between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd; Rudd remains popular in his home state and city and voters in Queensland are far from impressed by the Gillard Government, if the polls are anything to go by.

On the other hand, Labor’s ruthless focus on Campbell Newman’s family business dealings has clearly hurt the LNP, and is helping Labor claw back support in key seats in Brisbane.

For entirely peculiar reasons, the seat of Ashgrove has become the fulcrum of the election. This middle-ring suburban seat is the one chosen to contest by the Liberal National Party’s leader, Newman. This is because Newman is not actually in state Parliament currently. The former Brisbane Lord-Mayor is in effect running for Premier from outside the established political system, and should he fail to win the seat, Queenslanders could be confronted with an as-yet unnamed new Premier the morning after election day.

Newman, a scion of two Liberal Senators and a capable campaigner with a high public profile, had been expected to win Ashgrove reasonably comfortably. But the incumbent, Kate Jones, is young, energetic and reportedly a dedicated local campaigner. The previous Environment Minister and a rising star in the Queensland political scene, she stepped down to devote herself to the Ashgrove contest full-time. The latest poll results have her neck-and-neck with Newman in the intriguing local race.

Should the LNP win, but Newman fail, we can expect considerable internal tension from the notoriously disunified Queensland conservative party. The LNP is itself the result of a merger between the Queensland branches of the Liberal and National parties, and is something of an uncomfortable chimera of both. While the Liberal dominate in Brisbane’s green and leafy suburbs, the Nationals still control much of the party apparatus. Infighting cost the party dearly in winnable contests in both 2006 and 2009, and even now tensions are only barely being held in check by the exciting prospect of regaining power after 14 years.

There are plenty of other complicating factors. The new Bob Katter-led Australia Party looks like it could win a couple of seats, potentially giving it the ability to play kingmaker in a election dead-heat. Katter has a strong local support base in far north Queensland and will likely appeal to many of the voters who awarded One Nation 11 seats in 1998. The party has recently aired an openly homophobic television advertisement that has outraged many, but which will nonetheless play well to a certain constituency.

The most likely result is still a win for the LNP, perhaps with Liberal Tim Nicholls as Premier. If the LNP does win, it will leave South Australia as the only mainland state with a Labor government.

After more than a decade of dominating state parliaments, conservative forces are resurgent across the nation. Queensland is also an important state federally, with a growing population that can swing national elections. Tony Abbott and his advisors will therefore be watching the results on 24 March with great interest.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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