The Swing Is On In Queensland


Thursday: It’s a typically sticky and overcast Brisbane morning when I find Kate Jones at the Enoggera train station in the seat of Ashgrove in Brisbane’s west. It’s two days before the Queensland state election. She’s canvassing commuters in a last gasp attempt to retain her seat.

Two of her supporters are also out to assist with the handbills and the sandwich board, a pleasantly homemade affair with a hand-painted "KEEP KATE" motif. One is a middle-aged man, a local member of the party. Another is a blow-in from a neighbouring electorate. She is particularly disdainful of Jones’ opponent, Liberal-National Party leader Campbell Newman. "I think it’s terrible the way he wants to manipulate the system to get in," she told me, a reference to Newman’s unconventional status as an Opposition Leader campaigning for the premiership from outside Parliament.

Newman needs to beat Jones to win a seat and become Premier. Consequently, both major parties have poured vast resources in to the Ashgrove campaign. Local voters are sick of it. So great has the political deluge been that many have switched off, or voted already. "I’ve been bombarded with letters," the ALP volunteer admits. "I’ve already voted," says another commuter, brushing past. "Good luck."

There’s not a lot of voters to win over this morning. Outside of a quick rush for early trains, the foot traffic is pretty sparse. Enoggera is a fairly typical Brisbane middle-ring suburb, composed of a fair sprinkling of working families, retirees and middle-income earners. Traffic snarls at congested intersections, money for local schools and the status of the Prince Charles hospital in nearby Chermside are the closest thing to pressing local issues.

But local issues don’t seem to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. Unfortunately for Jones, and for Labor in general, Queenslanders want a change in government. While Jones is nearly universally agreed to be a hard-working local member, her high local profile and obvious personal appeal aren’t going to save her. The swing is on.

Jones has been here, and at other train stations in her electorate, nearly every day for months. "It’s a tough fight, but we can get there," she tells a voter. "You’ve got my family’s vote," the woman replies. Another woman approaches and mentions the rowdy recent candidates’ debate between Jones, Newman and minor party candidates. At the end of the debate, Newman rather churlishly refused to shake Jones’ hand. "What a dickhead for not shaking your hand," she confides. It’s a general feeling in the Jones camp that Newman is a bad sport with a glass jaw. "It doesn’t feel like a campaign where we’re getting slaughtered," she says to me.

Unfortunately, the polls say otherwise.

This very morning, the latest ReachTel opinion poll has just been released, and it’s not good news. Newman is polling 49 per cent on primary voting intentions; Jones trails him by a wide margin. With two days until the election, it’s an almost unbeatable lead. Nor can Jones rely on Greens and minor party preferences to get her over the line: Queensland’s optional-preferential system means most preferences exhaust. "It looks like Saturday could be a very good day for the LNP", the ReachTel poll analyst told ABC radio as I got out of my hire car.

As goes Ashgrove, so goes Queensland, it appears.

Queensland Labor has been unpopular for a long time. Before last year’s devastating floods, the ALP trailed the LNP by a considerable margin in most published polls. It tightened up for a while in the wake of the floods, in large part due to Bligh’s decisive and empathetic leadership during the disaster. But it didn’t last. The ascension of Campbell Newman to the opposition leadership injected a plausible candidate for Premier into the equation; Labor’s longevity and voter fatigue did the rest. By the start of the election campaign, the LNP’s lead was back out to 60-40 in two-party preferred terms, where, despite a mid-campaign blip, it has largely remained.

Thus, the Liberal-National Party, or LNP, appears destined to sweep to victory in a landslide on Saturday. After 14 years in power under Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh — including Wayne Goss’s government, Labor has been out of office for only two years since 1989 — the long reign of the ALP in the Sunshine State is coming to an end.

For Jones, a popular local member with sharp political talents, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. She has often been spoken about as a potential future leader of the state party. A local girl who went to Rainworth Primary and The Gap State High, Jones replaced long-serving Labor member Jim Fouras in 2006 and rose quickly to become the youngest woman ever appointed to the cabinet in Queensland, becoming Environment Minister under Anna Bligh after 2009. She’s worked hard to build her personal vote in a classic mortage belt electorate, only to have a promising future jeopardised by a quirk of fate. What will you do on Monday morning, I ask her. "Hopefully, count votes," she shoots back.

At 12.30 the faithful — or at least a smattering of them, padded out by a fair contingent of staffers, party operatives, journalists and photographers — gather at the Gaythorne RSL to see Jones appear at a lunch function with Labor legend Bob Hawke.

The mood is sombre. Pink-shirted volunteers ("KEEP KATE!", the shirts say) wander about with plates of party pies, while staffers patrol the back of the room for recalcitrant journalists and other rogue elements. The party faithful are mostly older; some are dressed in work gear, others in muted trousers and shirts. In contrast, the journalists are recognisable by their various dress codes. The male TV reporters wear shirt, tie and jacket over cheap jeans, the women pencil skirts and crisp business shirts, while the print journalists pair dishevelled outfits with iPads and notebooks.

Jones, Hawke and Bligh arrive together to a modest play of camera flashes. Hawke is older and smaller than I remember. His tan, however, is immaculate, and the twinkle in his eye still very much in evidence. Jones introduces him briefly with evident pleasure, praising his famous negotiating skills and observing that "he wasn’t a friend of special or vested interests".

Hawke speaks off the cuff, sometimes slowly, and with a tendency to ramble."The polls don’t look good, we know that," he begins, praising the local party workers for "fighting to the last minute." He urges members and supporters to talk to 10 people each in a last-ditch effort to swing the Ashgrove result.

"If you make a commitment now in the next 24 hours to talk to 10 people who you know, and talk to them and persuade them, if you can do that you can determine the result of this election," he says. But, looking around the room, I can see that no one believes him. He moves on, telling an anecdote about dealing with Joh Bjelke-Peterson in the 1980s, and then wraps up by reminding the room of Jones’ worth as a local member, particularly her work championing local schools.

"The issue of education, there is no more important issue in our community," he says, summoning a little of the old magic. "Which is the party which historically has the record of commitment to education — you only have to ask the question to know it." You only have to look around the tired faces of the campaign workers to know something else, too: Labor is losing, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

It was comfortably in the bottom 10 per cent of stump speeches Bob Hawke had ever given in his life, and the main interest in the appearance seems to be for the photographers getting snaps of Bligh, Hawke and Jones. Bligh looks tired, but surprisingly relaxed. She’s in the middle of a 50-seat swing through half the electorates in the state, in a vain attempt to snatch a late swing back from the LNP. Bligh is much less popular in her home state than in southern states, but she remains a determined and classy campaigner.

The thinking at this stage is all damage control. If Labor can hold some of the middle-income belt around Brisbane, there’s a chance to rebuild in six years. But the current polls have Labor reduced to vestigial status. A Labor opposition of 12 or 13 members — a rugby league team — would decimate the party’s future leadership, and badly affect the party’s organising ability in the 2013 federal election — an election in which Julia Gillard’s Government badly needs to hold onto its few remaining federal Labor members. On current indications, marginal federal members like Graham Perrett, Yvette D’Ath and even Wayne Swan may well have a struggle on their hands.

While the function winds up at the Gaythorne RSL, LNP Shadow Treasurer Tim Nicholls is across town, releasing his party’s election costings. According to the Courier-Mail’s Koren Helbig, the LNP hasn’t thought to provide any chairs and tables for the announcement, so journalists end up sitting on the floor. The oversight sums up much of the campaign: while Labor desperately tries to keep up appearances, the LNP struggles to restrain its triumphalism. Underlying everything is the unvarnished truth: Queenslanders want a change of government.

Nicholls’ costings are a mess. The LNP has made $2.8 billion of new promises, but claims to have found $4 billion in spending cuts to pay for them. But the spending cuts are not itemised, and it is not clear how they will add up to the stated figure. Nicholls claims to have ruled out forced redundancies to the public sector, and even promises to continue modest pay rises for public servants. If that is true, then the Coalition’s fiscal policies are almost identical to Labor’s, in that both promise a return to state budget surplus by 2014-15.

Few believe Nicholls. Recent experience of incoming conservative governments in New South Wales and Victoria suggests that significant job shedding and industrial unrest with public sector unions are almost inevitable. A number of senior public sector workers, who understandably didn’t want to be named, told me that the mood is sombre, bordering on alarmed.

Late in the day, Campbell Newman visits a shopping centre in Brisbane’s south. He is mobbed by supporters and well-wishers. The tide is running strongly in his direction. Only a miracle can save Labor now. Bligh, Jones and the other Labor faithful will keep fighting, but an LNP victory seems assured.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.